In April of 1852, a twenty-one year old husband and new father named Ezra Meeker, set out with his wife and infant son on a trip to the West. The journey began in Eddyville, Iowa and ended more than 2000 miles away in what would become Washington State.
The Meekers certainly weren’t the only ones to make the journey over what had come to be known as the Oregon Trail. In fact, an estimated 400,000 folks loaded up their ox-drawn wagons and made the trip over at least part of the same well-worn trail west during about a thirty year span in the middle of the 19th century.
By all accounts it was a difficult journey, leaving an estimated 80,000 emigrants dead from starvation, exposure, disease, or accident. But the Meekers made it alive and well, establishing a brewing business that made them a fortune they eventually lost.
And like I imagine most of the survivors of the Oregon Trail would claim, Ezra Meeker remembered the dangerous move westward as a transformative experience, perhaps even THE transformative experience of his life. So when it came to his attention that much of the old Oregon Trail had been plowed over and forgotten, he set out on another journey to preserve it.
In 1906, at the age of 76, Meeker put together a team of oxen and an authentic wagon to make the journey once again, in reverse, this time for the purpose of establishing monuments along the original trail. Again the trip wasn’t easy, but he made it all the way to Washington DC to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt. Then he wisely took a train back home.
Before the age of 93, Meeker managed to make the journey several more times, once by Pathfinder automobile and once by airplane, making him the only person known to have traveled the Oregon Trail by wagon, train, car, and plane.
Ezra Meeker spent more than twenty-five years of his life advocating for the preservation of the Oregon Trail, afraid that this epic journey undertaken by so many brave pioneers would fall away from the collective memory of the American people.
But what Meeker didn’t realize was that, thanks to the genius of Minnesota educator Don Rawitsch, such a thing could never happen. A student teacher in an 8th grade history class in 1971, Rawitsch was looking for a way to help his students grasp the dangers inherent in the 19th century American westward migration. What he came up with was a simple computer game in which the player leads a wagon party from Independence, Missouri to Oregon’s Willamette (which rhymes with d@#n it!) Valley.
And most likely dies along the way.
If you were an American elementary school kid in the eighties, nineties, or early 2000s, you most likely played a version of the educational game Oregon Trail. And you most likely got dysentery and died. Or maybe you drowned while attempting to cross a river, or your wagon broke down and you died from exposure, or you caught cholera or typhoid or you ran out of ammunition and you starved to death. Or maybe, like Ezra Meeker, you actually made it to the end of the trail.
If you never played the game, you now have another chance. There are some recent electronic versions available, but none, I’m sure, that are as fun as a card game based on Rawlitsch’s original idea. My sister-in-law brought a copy of it to family Thanksgiving, and let me just tell you, it provided hours of hilarious entertainment, as well as a lot of death.
The card game is filled with nods to its electronic predecessor, complete with bad computer graphics, instructions to “press the space bar,” and frequently doled out calamities, including immediate death by snakebite. Players work together as a team of as many as six pioneers, and if even one person reaches the Willamette Valley alive, everyone wins.
But that probably won’t happen.
Even Ezra Meeker finally met his match. In 1928, on the verge of yet another Trail journey, this time in a Model A Ford, specially designed with a top that resembled a covered wagon, the 97-year-old fell ill with dysentery (or possibly pneumonia) and died.