Would Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, and Bill Nye survive the Oregon Trail? The realities of our favorite MS-DOS game

John Hopton & Christopher Pilny for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

When the news broke last week that more than 2,000 MS-DOS computer games had been added to the Internet Archive, we freaked out. The games that we grew up playing–Castle Wolfenstein, Prince of Persia, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?–were once again at our disposal, and FOR FREE.

For a few minutes, we attempted to do work that day, until we also noticed that The Oregon Trail was in the group. Then everything went out the door. We began fantasizing about hunting bears, dying of snake bites, losing your uncle while fording a river! We loved it all growing up.

So, noticing the newswire was slow anyways, we harnessed up our oxen, gathered the only group we’d consider making the journey with–Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, and Bill Nye–and began our 2000-mile trek to bring science to Oregon.

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Ok, we went last names instead of first.

Along the way, though, we began wondering just how realistic the game was–even though that was MECC’s entire reasoning behind creating it. And what we found was pretty interesting.

What did they actually buy at Matt’s General Store?

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Matt now creates handmade cocktails in Manhattan.

Our first stop: Matt’s general store. We also forgot that the game requires you to choose a career. It felt like a scene in Wedding Crashers: Were we either bankers from Boston, carpenters from Ohio, or farmers from Illinois. Being a banker gave us a ton of money, but we couldn’t shake the importance of carpentry skills on the trail–with broken wagon parts to fix and the need for quality shelving in Oregon. Thus, we went carpenter from Ohio. Above, you can see what we bought; but how does this compare to what emigrants actually bought for the trail–especially food?

An early guidebook suggested that for their four to five month journey, emigrants should set out with 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar and 10 pounds of salt. Dried fruit and pickled vegetables were also common. Because flour was such an integral and vital part of the food supply, a huge amount of attention was paid to which flours had what different qualities, and pioneers talked about the nuances of various flours like connoisseurs talk about wine.

For breakfast, trailers usually ate bacon, bread, and coffee, while for dinner it would be more coffee, cold beans and bacon or buffalo meat with boiled rice.

Some ambitious emigrants took cheeses, but the choice between comfort food and long past-its-best cheese became a tough one, with a female pioneer saying of one cheese that, “One mere taste took the skin off the end of my tongue.”

The least popular food was hardtack, sometimes called “sea biscuit” or “pilot bread.” It was a mixture of flour and water, baked for a long time in a slow oven.

Finally, of course, there were supplies for “medicinal purposes,” with whiskey and rum being drunk in enough quantities that the temperance movement had its origins on the trail. Molasses (black treacle) was sometimes added to make the wonderfully-awful sounding “skullvarnish.”

“Most emigrants took five to ten gallons of whiskey to a wagon under the notion that by mixing it with the bad water it becomes in some mysterious way, healthy and purified,” according to one pioneer named Addison Crane.

We shove off: May 1, 1848

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Screen right: Daniel "Thunder Thighs" Boone

Surrounded by some of science’s most elite minds, we asked ourselves: What kinds of people actually crossed the country in a wagon?

The trail often carried entire families rather than rugged explorers. Most were seeking a better life or fleeing religious persecution. The trail was pioneered by fur trappers and traders from about 1811 to 1840, and as the numbers using it grew it saw many ranchers, farmers, miners, and businessmen looking to make a new start in the west with their families. The quality of the route improved year on year, with better roads and supply services, and eventually some more “luxury” emigrants made their way across America.

We reach our first river and decide to caulk and float. We watch with bated breath.

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We reach our second river–Big Blue River (May 13, 1848) and caulk it again. Newton pops champagne for the cruise.

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Newton's 4th Law: Never order mimosas while floating a f***ing river.

Which got us thinking: Were river crossings really as dangerous as they appeared in the game?

River crossings were a major obstacle for the pioneers and a common cause of death or disaster. In terms of threats that people faced from the landscape, rather than from disease or accidents, river crossings were the most dangerous force of nature that they encountered. Swollen rivers could cause people and animals to fall and drown, or make the animals panic and take wagons over with them. Perhaps the game gave disproportionate attention to river crossings over disease – a hazardous river crossing does make for more exciting game play than a death in bed from measles – but river crossings were a major issue.

Ok, so what was the leading cause of death, then?

There were plenty of threats to people on the trail, but by far the most common cause of death was from disease. Diseases and serious illnesses caused the deaths of nine out of ten pioneers. Most of the main health risks, such cholera, small pox, flu, measles, mumps and tuberculosis, could spread through an entire wagon camp very quickly, killing in a variety of timescales but potentially, in the case of cholera, very rapidly. Healthy people could get sick in the morning and be dead by noon. Other causes of injury or death included attacks from within the communities, extreme weather, fires (including grassfires), gunpowder and weapons accidents, being trampled under stampeding animals or wagon wheels, snakebite and suicide. Attacks by Indians were rarely the cause of demise, being responsible for a few hundred among the 20,000 plus deaths on the trail.

Speaking of snakebites

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Don’t worry, he survived

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He experienced a swift recovery, though

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It was at then that we came upon this glimmer of hope.

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Aside from not being sure where to begin with this message, we wondered: Did people actually leave grave stones on the trail?

Many versions of the game encouraged players to leave grave stones and conduct funerals so as to maintain morale. In reality, bodies would be very quickly buried somewhere in the middle of the line, so that wagons could run over the graves and pack them down so as to avoid leaving a scent for wild animals. Sometimes, bodies would simply have to be left by the wayside, but if possible they would be buried with a simple marker, rather than a stone. The hurried process of saying goodbye to the dead was very unnerving for many travelers, a decent send-off was encouraged wherever possible, and the game was right to assert that having to deal quickly with the dead and move on would be distressing to the group. Some of the deceased may have been lucky enough to get a stony tombstone as made famous by the game, but big lumps of rock were not a good use of space for most pioneers.

We continued on unscathed, hunting game to maintain our food rations.

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We actually forgot how difficult hunting was in this game. Especially this version. We also forgot that you could only carry back 100 pounds of meat to the wagon.

But how realistic was this?

The game involves a lot of hunting, and while the choice of game was correct for the geography, the reality for most pioneers when it came to meat was opening yet another packet of bacon.

We continued on unscathed, reaching the 3/4 mark

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Then all hell broke loose

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Well, great. At least he can ride in the wagon.


The wagons were often completely full with supplies, so most people walked beside them. Even if there was room inside, most wagons were extremely uncomfortable to ride in because they lacked any kind of springs. Most were farm wagons made of hardwood and covered with canvas, but later in the trail’s history, richer people would have fancier wagons, some even including two stories and facilities such as stoves.

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Surely this is it.

The final leg: Floating the Columbia River

We had the choice of taking the toll road or floating the river, but seeing as Einstein had one good leg and Hawking was armless, exhausted, and measly-ridden, we figured floating peacefully down a river was better.

It turned out to be pretty easy–dodging rocks that could ruin us–and we started feeling confident. We were reaching for a sip of coffee when we slipped and smashed into a rock.

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In true Stephen Hawking fashion, throw everything in the world at him (4 broken arms, a snakebite, measles, exhaustion, progressive neurodegenerative disease), and the man survives. He is, as best as we can put it, the Beyonce of the science world.

We’re also quite pleased Einstein survived. Who wouldn’t want this in the West?

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RIP Sir Isaac Newton and Bill Nye.

Special thanks to Food on the Oregon Trail by Jacqueline Williams, Illinois State University and the National Oregon Trail Center.