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access_time July 31, 2013 at 3:00 AM in Culture by Charlie Grammer

The origins of Oregon Trail revealed

How Oregon Trail was created.

How Oregon Trail was created.

In 1971, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger entered their apartment only to find their roommate, Don Rawitsch, on the floor drawing a map of western America.

These three men, who, at the time, were all seniors at Carlton College, were student teachers that spent their days in junior high classrooms teaching math and history. At night they shared tips and debated teaching techniques, but despite all of these tips, Mr. Rawitsch was stumped on how to get his eighth-graders interested in his new lesson, “The western expansion of mid-19th century”.

Rawitsch had tried everything to spark interest, from introducing strange and compelling facts to showing up to class in full Meriwether Lewis regalia, but nothing worked. When his roommates asked what he was doing, he answered, “I’m making a board game about the Oregon Trail!”

He imagined that, in this board game, students would take on the role of pioneer families that had to travel the treacherous 2,000 mile route from Independence, Mo. to Willamette Valley, Oregon. In his mind, they would set out in ox-drawn wagons and would have to purchase food, clothing, and ammo. Along the trail, the students would encounter a series of calamities that, while tragic, are historically accurate.

He had initially planned to utilize dice or instructional cards for the game, but his two roommates (who had taken programming classes) thought they had a better idea. Heinemann asked, “What if we put this thing on a computer?” His idea was that, instead of pure luck via dice, the simulation would take the weight of your load and what you paid for oxen into account. Survival would hinge on your skill at shooting buffalo.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but was unsure that it was viable. He needed the game completed in two weeks, after all.

Heinemann and Dillenberger shared a look and came to the same conclusion, which Heinemann stated. “We can do that,” Heinemann assured his roommate.

This would become the popular game Oregon Trail and sell more than 65 million copies. It would also influence hundreds of millions of students. There was an issue though… the trio had no computer.

They were, obviously, able to locate one, and though they created the game, they also died the very first time they played it. You can read the full story at Mental Floss.



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