Never Ford the River: Lessons About Money and Life from the Oregon Trail

There is no more recognizable phrase that defines a single generation:

Sally has died of dysentery.

If you were in elementary school in the 80’s and 90’s and had access to a “computer” (using the term loosely here), you had the fortune of spending hours of your pre-teen life journeying across the virtual midwest from Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon in one of the greatest videogames of all time: The Oregon Trail.

As you might remember, I’m a big gaming nerd – I even get to design games that teach kids kids about money. So I’m a sucker for a good, fun game where you actually learn something. So while games like Super Mario taught me a few things about coins and risk-taking, nothing could rival the intense, realism in Oregon Trail.

As wagon leader, you were in charge of getting your family of five across the country in the middle of summer. You have limited finances, a limited amount you can carry in the wagon, and limited choices of where and how to get from the midwest to Oregon.

Oh yeah, and it’s 1848 so there’s lovely things like small pox floating around the country.

Good luck.

Survival 101: Lessons from The Oregon Trail

I learned so much about hunting in the Rocky Mountains, and warding off relatively extinct diseases while playing this game. But more importantly, Oregon Trail taught me about real-life opportunity costs – how our choices now (especially in the 19th century) had an enormous impact on our future.

My favorite three lessons from Oregon Trail can apply both to cross-country wagon journeys and your everyday financial life in the 21st century

1. Always have a spare axle in your wagon.

You’re travelling with a large family and a wagon full of gunpowder. You’re getting around by oxen. You’re travelling through both blazing summer heat and Rocky Mountain snow. Oh, and it’s 1848.

Something is bound to go terribly wrong, so you might as well be prepare for the worst.

Here’s a typical scenario on the trail: You and the rest of your wagon crew have barely made it out of Missouri, the next outpost is days away, and your axle snaps in half. You thought about loading up before setting off on your journey, but you ended up blowing your extra money on an extra box of ammunition and a set of fancy new clothes. Bad choice.

The Oregon Trail is all about preparing for the unexpected (though if you’ve played it enough times, you know that someone in your party is guaranteed to drown or die of cholera). Load up on extra supplies, save some cash in reserve, even if you don’t think you need it. You’ll be grateful that you had some extra supplies on hand when you inevitably lose half your load trying to cross the river. And for God’s sake, axles only cost $!0 in the 1840’s. Suck it up and buy some extra parts.

2. Your career choice matters. In fact, your life depends on it.

The game got a little fancier in 1996 with the release of Oregon Trail II. And with the updated version, you were given more choices at the beginning that impacted your journey later on. One of the most important choices you make is your occupation. Want to be a doctor? That’ll cost you $50 upfront to get those skills before you set off on your journey. It’s the most expensive career you can choose, but it’s arguably the most useful. As a doctor can repair a broken arm or heal someone suffering from dysentery.

But hey, I’m frugal; so I totally understand if you want to save some money upfront. Go ahead: choose an occupation like seamstress or musician. You can salvage your torn shirt or boost morale with a couple of tunes.

You know who doesn’t need clothes or music?


So like life in 2012, choose your career wisely and invest in some useful skills before you set off on the road. You’ll be glad you didn’t get a degree in poetry when someone gets bit by a snake.

3.    Whatever you do, don’t ford the river.

It’s one of the most dreaded screens in the game:

“You’ve reached the Green River crossing. What would you like to do?”

1. Attempt to ford the river.
2. Pay for a ferry to take you across.

Huh, it’s 3 feet deep? That’s totally manageable. My oxen and wagon must be at least 4 feet tall. We totally got this! Plus we save money and time instead of taking the ferry. Let’s go… see? Just a little wet. Just a little…. uh oh.

It’s tempting to save a few bucks and just ford the river. You’ve crossed hundreds of rivers in your virtual Oregon Trail life, but you think this time will be different. So you take a chance. And then, the water starts rushing in. You lose valuable supplies. You even lose an oxen. And oops, there goes Mary Beth.

Don’t be a cheap-ass and risk drowning. Take the ferry. Just because you can try do it yourself, it doesn’t mean you should.

Play the Oregon Trail for Free!

All of the pictures I used in this post came from the original game. Yes, as I was writing this I was playing the Apply II version on my MacBook Air. Technology is fantastic, isn’t it?

So if you’re in the mood to journey out West in , check out Virtual Apple’s great collection of games here.

I’m curious: What were your favorite games growing up? Did you ever play Oregon Trail? More importantly, did you ever make it to Oregon without anyone dying?

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14 thoughts on “Never Ford the River: Lessons About Money and Life from the Oregon Trail

  1. Money Beagle

    I used to love games like this but this is one I’ve never played. I’ll have to see if I can find a copy to play on my Android phone or on Windows. Sounds like fun and it’s always good to apply real life lessons learned!

  2. Abigail

    Ah, I still remember (not so) fondly having to wipe my feet on the mat before touching the computer. They were convinced that one bad spark could kill it.

    I loved this game. (There’s a homage t-shirt or two on Busted Tees.) But we only ever got to play for about a half hour. So I never got very far. And not just because of the dysentery!

  3. Eric

    Oh man. This brings me memories. I always laughed when my friends drowned or died of dysentery. That is just life on the trail.

    Great job paralelling the game to real life. And wasting the next 3 days of my life playing.

  4. Mandy @MoneyMasterMom

    Wow, you really mastered opportunity costs at a young age. Most adults look me sideways in confusion when I mention them now. I wasn’t a huge gamer. I liked PacMan, and then there was a matching game that uncovered a word puzzle underneath. That one got a whole less exciting once you had seem all the puzzles underneath.

    1. Stephanie Halligan Post author

      I probably couldn’t have told you what an opportunity cost was back then, even though I was referencing them!

  5. Kasey

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Stephanie.

    I also remember playing Odell Lake, which I believe was made by the same company as Oregon Trail. You picked a species of fish and then had to try not to get eaten or caught.

    Other educational computer games of my youth, Number Munchers and of course the Carmen Sandiego games.

    1. Stephanie Halligan Post author

      Number Munchers! Wow, that was a great one. And Carmen Sandiego is the only reason I know the capital of Malaysia.


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