Oregon Trail and Manifest Destiny

Curator's Note

Used by history teachers across the United States, The Oregon Trail became a cultural icon for elementary school children between the 1980s and mid-2000s. The first version of the game was created by history teachers in 1971, then became mass-produced in 1974 by MECC. Simple graphics and binary choices evolved over the decades into an immersive experience with sound effects, landscapes, mini-games, and interactions with other travelers and the Native Americans that inhabited the land.

The depictions were stereotypical at best, pushing indigenous peoples into sidebars without any acknowledgment of the role that colonization played in the displacement of tribal nations during this time period. The student plays in the position of a colonizer, almost explicitly affirming the idea of Manifest Destiny. As later versions of the game are played through, we see the limited contact that the wagon trains are allowed to have with indigenous peoples expand slightly. They include the ability to “Hire an Indian” when you reach a particularly challenging river, trading, and looking around as you cross the plains. The actual representations include Caucasian individuals dressed in stereotypical Native American clothing.

Notably, these interactions of the later video games were not present in the original game and did not make an appearance in the card game released in 2016. The original video game made no mention of indigenous tribes whatsoever. This presents its own set of problems surrounding the representation of tribes whose lands were being traversed and stolen by white colonizers as they “settled” the West.

Admittedly, I enjoyed and played Oregon Trail as a child. Learning the perils of dysentery, broken wagon wheels, and fording rivers was fun, and the lessons therein were valuable. Learning to recognize the shortcomings of media, particularly influential media for generations of young learners, forces us to do better. Inaccurate representation, and accurate history. Members of the Oregon Trail were not pioneers, they were colonizers. That fact does not make learning the history of our land any less important, but it does add an important layer of context that is severely lacking, especially for a game so recently produced.

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