Yep, I’m of that age – my first “video games” were “Lemonade Stand” and “The Oregon Trail.” I’ve always wondered, though, if others spent as long as I did wondering why there never seemed to be any water in The West.
I read stories of the fur trappers, the pioneers, the women who came West looking for a different opportunity than marriage, of the Native Americans forced from their homes and land, the wars, the landscape and discoveries, and the possibilities for the future.
The Oregon Trail is a roughly 2,000-mile route from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon, which was used by hundreds of thousands of pioneers in the mid-1800s to emigrate West. The trail snaked through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and finally into Oregon, California, and Washington.
Parts of the Trail are known to almost every American: Independence Rock, Parting of the Ways, and the Willamette Valley. I found myself living in Wyoming, this beautiful, rugged state, with the chance to go and actually see the Oregon Trail with my very eyes. And then I had the opportunity to do what I had dreamed of since I was a little girl playing that game in school: to study the trail scientifically. I’m still pinching myself.
For my own research, I specialize in using geophysical equipment to investigate archaeological sites. Called Near Surface Geophysics, it’s the technique of using different methods (seismic refraction and reflection, gravity, magnetic, electric, and electromagnetic) to investigate the Earth. Many of these methods were developed for oil and mineral exploration but are now used for a great variety of applications, including archaeology. It’s fun that the methods the Wyoming mines use are the same as the ones I use to study Wyoming!
I’ve been working for several years to use techniques such as ground-penetrating radar (GPR), magnetometry (MAG), and electric resistivity (EM) to “digitize” the Trail that’s left in Wyoming. Because it’s fading. Just normal transformation of the landscape, but the physical Trail is part of our heritage as a country, in a way that a simple map can’t quite convey. And I’m incredibly lucky to be living in Wyoming, which has the most in-tact Trail left of any state.
I’m hoping to develop a “digital signature” of road created by wagon wheels, effectively what the Oregon “looks like” in cross-section (see the picture of some of my GPR data, and the equipment itself). I’ve had some good preliminary results, in that it seems that there really is a difference in how a hard-packed road created by wagon wheels looks like compared to an un-graded, un-paved, modern road.
This difference has future possibilities for research. There’s hundreds of miles of Trail in Wyoming, and as most of you know, there are several different “Trails.” There wasn’t just one road to follow, there wasn’t just one destination the pioneers could reach, and there certainly wasn’t just one way to get to a destination. If a digital signature of the Trail can be created, then parts of the Trail previously misidentified or lost to history can be uncovered. Wouldn’t that be exciting?
Dr. Dana L. Pertermann teaches anthropology and geology at Western Wyoming Community College. She conducts archaeological research along the Oregon Trail, and has written a book on archaeological field methods called “The Archaeology of Engagement.” She is also very active on social media, with a scholarly blog at www.CulturalInfluence.blog, and a TikTok account at www.tiktok.com/@letscience. She can be reached for questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.