Science  /  Oral History

The Forgotten History of 'The Oregon Trail,' As Told By Its Creators

You must always caulk the wagon. Never ford the river.


Don: We went to school at Carleton College, which is a rural area of Minnesota [40 miles outside of Minneapolis]. In the fall of our senior year in 1971, we had to do our student teaching, where we were assigned to schools to work under supervising teachers and teach their classes. The three of us rented an apartment together in Minneapolis so that we would be close to the schools where we were teaching.

My supervising teacher told me that I would be teaching his eighth grade U.S. History classes about the westward movement, and I thought of ways to make it more interesting than the usual approach. I started experimenting with what a board game might look like, with a massive map of the western United States. It had not occurred to me to put this on a computer, since I had no computer programming experience.

Bill: The computer was a fairly new thing in 1971, and most people were not well acquainted with it. There was only one five-week course in programming at Carleton. I had taken the class when I was a junior, and the next trimester, I was recruited to be a lab assistant to help other students who were taking the course. I was fascinated by the power of the computer to not only calculate, but also to interact with written language. I had been thinking about writing a program to interact with a human through language, but the content of such a program remained a mystery to me.

Paul: I remember coming home from teaching one November afternoon with Bill, and Don had created these various game cards of what could happen to Oregon Trail settlers, along with a map of the Oregon Trail itself.

Bill: "What's this?" I asked Don. He showed me how the game was played. After looking at it, the ideas that I had for an interactive program suddenly became clear.

Paul: Bill turned to me and asked, "Can we put this on the computer?" Since we were both programmers, it seemed like a reasonable thing.

Bill: "This would be a perfect application for a computer," I said. "Instead of shaking dice to determine how far you went, the program could take into consideration how much you spent on your oxen and your wagon and how much of a load you were carrying."

"Well," Don replied, with a tone of resignation, "That sounds great, but I need it next Friday."