From Ox-Drawn Wagon to Airplane: Sharing Dysentery for Thanksgiving

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.

76-year-old Ezra Meeker in Omaha, on a mission to preserve history. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The trail is fraught with peril.

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.

I braved the Black Friday crowds to buy my own copy of the game, because my sister-in-law won’t be here for family Christmas, and dysentery is something to be shared.

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.

17 thoughts on “From Ox-Drawn Wagon to Airplane: Sharing Dysentery for Thanksgiving


    What a fantastic story Sarah about the pioneers to the Wild West! I didn’t know that somany of them died! Verry interesting and wortwhile to ceep in memory.

    1. It was definitely a treacherous journey. Historians’ estimates of the number of deaths actually vary quite a bit because graves along the trail tended to be intentionally hidden to avoid discovery by animals or hostile natives. I chose 80,000 because it’s about average of the guesses I came across. Though if one believes the game is more or less accurate, then the odds were awfully stacked against survival.

  2. Donna Volkenannt

    Ezra was definitely a survivor! The Oregon Trail card game sounds like a fun way to entertain the family over the holidays.

    1. Available exclusively at Target! And now I sound like a commercial. But it really is fun. And the best part is that you all work together to beat the game so if you have any overly competitive spirits, it shouldn’t ruin your family time.

  3. John

    What a great game. Did you know that the earliest versions of the game were text-only? Or that they have an iOS version now for our poor disadvantaged children who never knew an Apple IIe or a world without touchscreens??

    Earlier this year I read The Oregon Trail, by Rinker Buck. He and his brother traveled the Oregon Trail by mule-drawn wagon in 2011. It was a fascinating story; a bit tedious at times, but very well told.

    1. I’ll have to check out the book. I know the game has come a long way since I played it in the eighties. Fond memories for sure. Though I do wonder how a game that is so hard to win became so wildly popular.

  4. Thanks, Sarah! I’ll have to get the game; our kids are coming for Christmas. It should be a blast [of course, I’m trusting that your enthusiasm is on Target (yes, pun intended)].
    You may know that there are a number of interpretive centers along the Oregon Trail (several in Oregon that I know of). In my former life as an architect, I had the opportunity to serve as construction manager for the federal funding agency to construct the only interpretive center that tells the story of the Oregon Trail from a Native American perspective, Tamastslikt Cultural Institute.
    Tamastslikt, located near Mission, 7 mi. E of Pendleton, OR, was an $18 mil project, and features the heritage of several tribes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t receive the press it deserves. Check out the website.

  5. I never heard of this game in any of its incarnations. Now I must try it. and give one to each of my western trail type cohorts. Maybe we could get our mutual frontier fiction/nonfiction writers together for a game?

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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