Forgotten Stories of the Oregon Trail: Writing History

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Women Report from the Trail


Have you ever experienced something unusual or memorable and felt like you had to write it down? While migrating west along the Oregon Trail, many pioneers wrote about their experiences and observations. Some of these writings were eventually published.

Elizabeth Wood kept a record of her journey from Peoria, Illinois, to Oregon. Wood’s diary entries were published by her hometown newspaper, the Peoria Weekly Republican, in 1852. Here are parts of what she wrote in August 1851, after she and her traveling companions entered Oregon:

August 3: “Here it is quite cold and ‘winter is coming.’ The weeds are as dry and brown as they are in Illinois quite late in the fall. . . . Here the roads were so bad, as we went over the steep hills and clambered over the rocks, I could hardly hold myself in the wagon. Sometimes the dust is so great that the drivers cannot see their teams [of horses] at all though the sun is shining brightly, and it is a great relief to the way-worn traveler to meet with some mountain stream.”

August 9: “After experiencing so many hardships, you doubtless will think I regret taking this long and tiresome trip, and would rather go back than proceed to the end of my journey. But, no, I have a great desire to see Oregon, and besides, there are many things we meet with—the beautiful scenery of plain and mountain, and their inhabitants, the wild animals and the Indians, and natural curiosities in abundance—to compensate us for the hardships and mishaps we encounter. People who do come must. . . put up with storm and cloud as well as calm and sunshine; wade through rivers, climb steep hills, often go hungry, keep cool and good natured always, and possess courage and ingenuity equal to any emergency, and they will be able to endure unto the end. A lazy person should never think of going to Oregon.”

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The sun sets over South Pass, a route that many pioneers took as they traveled west on the Oregon Trail.

Esther Bell Hanna was a new bride in March 1852 when she began a six-month journey from Pennsylvania to Oregon City with her husband, the Reverend Joseph Anderson Hanna. Here are parts of what she wrote on August 25:

“Came out in an open prairie. The scenery is very fine, had a fine view of the [Cascade Mountains] to the west. Mount Hood, the loftiest of these, was very visible and being covered with snow with the sun shining upon it, it looked like a golden cloud in the distance, being one hundred and fifty miles distant. To the North of Mount Hood is seen Mount Saint Helen, which looked very imposing. We came in sight of the Umatilla River and Valley about noon. It looked lovely stretched out covered with grass, the valley and prairie for miles looked like grain fields ready for the sickle, as the grass was dry and yellow. I never enjoyed so rich a sight before . . . . We got some delicious haws, or [hawthorn] apples, along [a] stream. They are about the size of a cherry, purple on the outside and a rich yellow inside. . . . We ascended the bluffs to the prairie, travelled a few miles, and camped for the night. The Indians here have hundreds of horses. The whole prairie is dotted with them.”

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Mount Hood is the tallest mountain in Oregon.
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A Native American tipi stands alongside the Umatilla River, in Oregon.

By writing in their diaries regularly, Elizabeth Wood, Esther Bell Hanna, and many others captured what it was like to make the long and difficult journey west, during a time long before the existence of personal computers, smartphones, and digital recorders. Their diaries preserved the history of the Oregon Trail and the pioneers who traveled along it, enabling future generations to learn and understand what life was like in that region nearly 200 years ago.

Keeping a Diary

Teachers for Grades 3–12: Share these diary entries with your students and have them take on the role of Elizabeth Wood or Esther Bell Hanna—or another pioneer that they can research on their own—and write a journal entry as that pioneer.

Begin by discussing the importance of primary sources to the study of history, and how diaries are a key primary source, providing personal observations, insights, and opinions during a particular moment in time. Have students contrast keeping a diary in the 19th century with creating pictures, videos, and social media posts today. Help students understand the importance of preserving history and the experiences of people in extraordinary circumstances, such as the westward migration in the United States, a period when the country was still growing and developing.

With this activity, students will understand how to write a diary entry as a means to preserve history and bring the past to life. This requires detailed, vivid descriptions of people, places, things, and events.

Download the teacher and student versions of the activity below.

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Explore HMH Social Studies for Grades 6–12, which presents the rich, endlessly inventive story of our world, challenging students to dig deep into the past.

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