‘Time travel’ field trip takes students along Oregon Trail

On the trail for websitePint-sized “time-travelers” from Alexandra Pike’s MDES second grade class got a taste of what the early settlers experienced on the treacherous 2000-mile Oregon Trail. The students set out early in costumes for the two-mile trek through Clayton complete with loaded wagons and Indian ambush.

Trekking through dangerous lands, 31 students from Alexandra Pike’s second-grade class at Mt. Diablo Elementary School braved a treacherous 2000-mile journey in covered wagons and on foot, fighting off the hostile elements on their travels along the Oregon Trail.

No, Clayton parents and educators haven’t lost their minds. In fact, they let their children participate in one of the most educational — and fun — assignments of their elementary school careers.

This “time travel” field trip took place throughout downtown Clayton, with their classroom at MDES acting at Independence, MO — the starting point for the travelers who really took this epic 19th-century journey.

“One of my earliest mentors in teaching and closest friends, Anna Gee, started doing this field trip 12 years ago,” says Pike, a first-year teacher a MDES. “I had the great fortune of seeing her in action and participated in similar events three times prior to her retirement. I saw how this experience really made learning come alive for the students, and loved seeing the engagement of the parents as well. It’s this spark that motivates me most as a teacher.”

Heading out

The “travelers,” anxious to get going, lined up their wagons loaded with supplies for the arduous journey and headed west. “Oregon or Bust” signs flanked the wagons as they rolled by. Imaginations fed on the thoughts of prairie schooners, so named for the white canvases that seemed to sail over the golden prairies.  Joyful children pulled wagons by turn, dressed in their western best with cowboy hats and leather vests for the boys and bonnets, calico dresses and aprons for the girls.

The first stop was “Jailhouse Rock” (behind the old firehouse). A picture of the 400-foot monument was held up high, and tales were shared about landscapes to be seen along the long march. Just a day’s hike away was Chimney Rock where they would soon see the end of the prairies. How far would they go between each landmark? What was encountered? Who was left behind? How did they survive? These were all lessons the children learned.

On a typical day, teams were up at 4 a.m. with a gunshot to herald the arrival of the sun. Mothers started cooking and fathers started herding cattle and breaking camp. Children gathered buffalo chips for the fires. Breakfast often consisted of pancakes and baked beans with bacon fat mixed in.  Later in the day, lunch was leftovers.

“For children who have never known a world without the Internet, cellular phones, or air travel, winding back the clock broadens their horizons and gives them a greater appreciation for history,” Pike says. “The children must think critically about the challenges of days-gone-by in an environment largely foreign to their day-to-day experience. My primary goal is that they leave with a greater appreciation of how transportation, cities and societies change over time.”

Trials along the way

Lives were short back then. While stopped at Scotts Bluff (the Police Station), children also learned about early courtships where boys would get clean shaven (with a lollipop stick) and girls would learn of curling their hair with an old-fashioned curling iron. Stories were told of lives and deaths on the Oregon Trail.  Cholera was rampant, spread through contaminated food or water. Graves were often dug and hidden so as not to be disturbed.

Fort Laramie trading post was a welcome site (at the Keller House behind the library), where sugar and flour were traded for dream catchers, obsidian and arrowheads. Their ongoing journey would take them 15 miles a day on foot encountering storms, rough terrain, and natives. Just that day, the group heard the Indian drums. Suddenly the group was surrounded by natives squirting water high in the air to hit their targets. A few keen children hid behind the wagons and escaped the dousing.  It was noted as a favorite part of the day.

Nearing the end of their journey (in downtown Clayton), a Decision at The Dalles had to be made: Find a way to pull the wagons over and through the mountains, or build rafts and float the wagons down the Columbia River. The children held up their hands to vote for taking the water route, only to be told that many of those travelers died as rafts fell apart, wagons tipped over and cold rushing waters took hold.

The survivors, finally, arrived at Endeavor Hall, the end of their journey. Kids were greeted with pioneer chores (washboards, clothes ringers, and clothes pins) along with some fun, like gold panning, Indian stick games, and button dolls. The day was topped off with lunch and root beer floats in cowboy boots.

“Just as the pioneers didn’t make the trip alone, what always makes this event successful is a tremendous outpouring of support,” Pike says. “My husband [Clayton Police Officer Allan Pike] and sister-in-law help by building the wagons and operating various stations. Parents freely give of their time to accompany students, facilitate crafts, and even capture the memories on film. My friend, Anna, graciously provides costumes for the children and shares tales along the journey.  I’m grateful for all their support and am glad we’re able to work together to put on a memorable experience for the students, year after year.”

On that Tuesday, the history of the Oregon Trail came to life in Clayton for children and parents alike.
Clayton staff writer Peggy Spear contributed to this story.