Teaching Manifest Destiny with the Oregon Trail Game

November 04, 2023

This mini lecture, game, and writing assignment uses the Oregon Trail to teach students about Manifest Destiny and western expansion. 
Westward Expansion slide noting Marcus & Narcissi Whitman, Oregon Trail, and Skipped Great American Desert
We start by talking about Marcus and Narcissa Whitman whose group was the first to include Anglo women and wagons heading west thru the steep south pass of the Rockies, and how other groups followed suit. 
Slide titled "Not Empty Space" with a map courtesy of the Smithsonian showing Plains Indians
We discuss the fact that this was "not empty space," these settlers went to. This was land owned and lived on by Native peoples who settlers intended to displace. We also discuss the 1847 measles epidemic in the Whitman's town, how native people responded with violence to try to save their community, and the infamous quote from their leader when he was put to death: "Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people."
Then we watch the above video to give students a sense of the immense landscape and what this journey might actually have been like. We always joke about 19th century graffiti on these natural landmarks.
Slide titled "Go West Young Man" listing "Causes: Transportation & Market Revolutions" and "Safety Valve Theory."
We talk about the causes of western expansion and link it back to the economic and social changes we've already discussed coming out of the 1830s, the Market Revolution, and the 2nd Great Awakening. 
Manifest Destiny slide showing John Gast's 1872 painting American Progress
We define Manifest Destiny as the belief that U.S. expansion was both justified and inevitable. We talk about how it was understood as the desire of the Protestant Christian God for Americans and point back to the Whitmans who initially went west as missionaries. We discuss arguments about the practicality of having oceans as the nation's borders.  And we discuss the racism of the belief. To get at that, I have students analyze the Gast painting, first just asking them what they see. This is a great image to use for this exercise. There is so much symbolism that the students connect to previous lectures (like connecting railroads and ships with the transportation revolution and the telegraph lines with the communication revolution).
I ask students what the artist is indicating with his use of light and the depiction of Native American people.
And after we understand this image, I show a counter image, Reversing American Progress.
Reversing American Progress by native artist Charles Hilliard for the Indian Land Tenure Foundation
Students analyze this image including Hilliard's use of light. They are usually pretty shocked when this slide first comes up and want to know more about it. 
Then we turn to playing the Oregon Trail as a class. (I'll link to one of several free online versions at the bottom of this page). I warn students that we're all likely to die in this game. I put my name as the group leader, and then ask who wants their name to be in the team as well. You would think students wouldn't volunteer to die in a video game in class, but you would be wrong. 
As each decision occurs in the game, I call on a new student to make it. One student decides our occupation, the next how many oxen and yokes we'll buy. This continues until we, as a class, have bought our supplies and head out on the trail. 
I move the game along pretty quickly having a new student make each decision about river crossings and trails along the way. I don't stop to hunt. We usually last about 10 minutes before we get to the last group member's headstones. 
Overhead screen says "Dr. G had died" with Dr. G in a red plaid mask and microphone standing in front of it. You can't hear it but the students are howling with laughter at this point.
I explain that this game experience will be the student's writing assignment. We are going to watch a video (about 20 minutes long) on the Donner Party, a group that made all the WRONG decisions on the trail. And as they watch, they should use this information to come up with a better game strategy. After class, they'll go play the game at home with their new strategy and see how it goes. 
Slide with Oregon Trail opening screen shown as well as writing prompts
Above are the prompts students use for two paragraph response writing questions over this lesson. The first asks them to consider the mini-lecture and Ask a Mortician video and reflect on their experience in the game. What did the expect to see that was missing? What surprised them? 

The second paragraph response asks them about the strategy they developed watching the Ask a Mortician clip. Did it work any better than what we did in class? Did they make it to Oregon or at least make it farther than we did? 
I also give bonus points for writing an epitaph on the final headstone that makes me laugh. Students get super creative with this. 
I set up the assignment using the New Quiz tool in Canvas, the LMS my institution uses. The students have to upload a screenshot of how far they made it or of their last headstone screen including the URL. Then they have two paragraph response questions corresponding to the prompts above. I always tell students that I want their writing to sound like them—not like a textbook or AI. This is supposed to be a fun alternative to a traditional writing assignment, so have some fun with it. Come up with a backstory for your team members. Get incredulous when a thief inevitably steals all but one of your oxen. One student named all of her team members after the founding fathers we'd covered in class, and then said she couldn't blame Jefferson for having so many broken bones on the trail as she suspected Hamilton had something to do with it. 
There are several free online versions of the Oregon Trail. One is linked below for your convenience. 


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