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How They Beat the Oregon Trail IRL

How did more than 300,000 people avoid bloodshed and chaos when they crossed the American plains between 1840 and 1860? Trappers used to say there was no law west of Leavenworth, Kansas.

No one established a government to rule the wagon trains — it’s true. But they governed themselves instead. They signed contracts that worked like voluntary constitutions. The contracts anticipated disputes among the various groups of travelers and laid out how to resolve them.

Imagine the red tape if the government had gone with the settlers. Marvel at the ability of people to innovate rules and order in a most unlikely setting. That’s what Hill advises. Tune in to hear more.

Old West Violence Mostly Myth (article): Professor Hill explains that the true story is one of social cooperation.


The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier (book review): Lee J. Alston discusses Hill and Terry Anderson’s treatment of the role of property rights in the American West.


Don’t Circle the Wagons (book review): P.J. Hill reviews a recent book’s argument that Native Americans and wagon trains saw tremendous gains from trade.


The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality (article): Thomas DiLorenzo finds that the West was not so violent, except for where the U.S. government was involved.


How They Beat the Oregon Trail IRL

PJ Hill: Do you remember the video game Oregon Trail? It was popular in 1980s and 1990s. And you had to overcome a whole series of obstacles in order to succeed. The history it represents is also interesting. And it shows us fascinating ways in which people can overcome obstacles like those in the game.

I’m P.J. Hill, an economic historian who taught for twenty-five years at Wheaton College in Illinois. And I’m also a Montana cattle rancher.

Between 1840 and 1860, 300,000 people made their way across the Plains. It wasn’t easy. There were lots of obstacles. You had to decide how to ford rivers, how fast you should go, what trail you should take. They tended to organize in groups of ten to twenty wagons with about fifty people. How did they succeed in this world? It would seem like that would be a recipe for conflict, or massive theft, or chaos.

They did it by writing contracts. Everyone going on a particular wagon train would sign that contract. It would be very similar to a unanimously approved constitution. Contracts were different for different groups. If it was quite homogeneous, then they didn’t worry a lot about dispute resolution. If they came from different places where they didn’t even know each other, then they wrote down some very specific rules about how you were going to deal with people who didn’t get along.

It is very difficult for government to be as flexible. There’s a very simple message here. When people are faced with difficult tasks that require substantial cooperation, they can come up with innovative solutions on their own. What do you think would have happened if there would have been a government agency that would have been in charge of wagon trains? There probably would have been rules about the optimal size for wagon trains, about safety precautions, about fast they could go. We don’t have to have formal government to try to solve those sorts of problems.

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