An Interview with Tricia Martineau Wagner: It Happened on the Oregon Trail

Michael F. Shaughnessy  
Senior Columnist  
Eastern New Mexico University

1) First of all, what got you interested in writing historical books?

Actually, it was a plane ride that sparked my interest. My husband and two small children and I were moving from Chicago to San Francisco and we barely made the plane. As I sat there exhausted from rushing to the airport I looked out the window of our plane and contemplated our cross-country move. It struck me that we were flying over the country and that long ago pioneers had to cross the country in their covered wagons at 2 miles per hour to reach the West. When I looked down over the rivers, valleys, and mountains I marveled at this feat. The rest as they say is history. I became intrigued with westward migration, got lost in the research, and started writing. 

2) For what age range or grade would you say "It Happened on the Oregon Trail " would be appropriate for? Could social studies teachers in middle school use this book?

All three of my books are written for a cross-over audience, adults and middle school readers. Yes, the books can and are used by social studies teachers. The subject matter correlates perfectly with Standard Course of Study & Competency Goals/ Standards and Benchmarks established by the state.

In fact, I hear from teachers of many grade levels across the country, who have designed a curriculum around the book(s):

It Happened on the Oregon Trail  
It Happened on the Underground Railroad 
African American Women of the Old West

These three books are all historical non-fiction written in a short story format, which keeps the readers' attention and offers closure, which teachers seem to appreciate. I used primary source documents, one-hundred-fifty-year-old diaries and journals, and reminiscences to build fascinating and true stories about the individuals in my books. What teachers may particularly like is that the introduction provides an overview of that period of history giving the students a clear idea of what life was like "back then." Also, the trivia at the end of the "It Happened on…" books gives factual information pertinent to that time period.

3) You also wrote "It Happened on The Underground Railroad." How much work was involved in researching this topic?

All three of my books were very research intensive. The longest to write was my first book, It Happened on the Oregon Trail, most probably because there was a big learning curve. It took two years. The other two books each took a year to write with half of that time being spent on research. You can get lost in the research – it is so fascinating to uncover long-forgotten facts. Bringing people back to life by writing about them is not only exciting, but it validates their importance and acknowledges their contributions to society.

4) What advice would you give to young aspiring writers?

That's easy: 1) write continuously, 2) constantly revisit and edit what they write, and 3) never give up. Visit my website at: Click on "FAQ's." Then scroll down to "Finding Time to Write." Here anyone can learn how to begin writing, how to get published, and how to not fear rejection. For instance, I list many individuals who initially got rejected in life, but persevered such as Walt Disney, who got fired from a newspaper for "lack of imagination and creativity!" Continue scrolling down to "Six Steps to Begin the Writing Process" for specific guidelines to get started writing. Everyone has a story in them just waiting to come out.

5) What advice would you give to teachers to encourage both reading of historical novels and writing about historical themes?

Every teacher knows the importance of a good hook to reel the students in. For instance, take an interesting fact from "A Potpourri of Oregon Trail Facts" from the back of the It Happened on the Oregon Trail book such as: "The first emigrant to die from a firearms accident on the Oregon Trail was ironically named John Shotwell. He made the fatal mistake of getting his gun out of his wagon muzzle-first." Boom! There you go; you've got their interest. Then read the chapter "Clouded Vision" from the book to whet their appetite and they will want to read more.

A great idea for creative writing is to read one of the short stories, but leave off the ending. Let the students write their own ending and share their writing with the class before reading the author's ending. It's a good way to get both creative students and reluctant writers writing. What's great about historical non-fiction is that the individuals' experiences take you back in time. My goal is to make the readers feel as if they were there too!

6) Are you familiar with the C.D. regarding the Oregon Trail and have you ever used it with your children?

Yes, I am familiar with the program and it is wonderful; it allows students to make their own decisions affecting their survival. I am also a presenter and I visit schools and organizations around the country offering "hands-on" interactive presentations. I come dressed in period costume with over seventy artifacts / share my "history trunk."

More information is available on my website: under "Teachers.” On the website you can also find book reviews, discussion questions for writing prompts, and topical research links. Additionally, there are links to writing grants to afford inviting a guest author to your school under "FAQ's."

7) What question have I neglected to ask?

a) What fact did you learn while writing It Happened on the Oregon Trail that stands out more than anything else?

That no two journeys over the Oregon Trail were the same. For some, the overland trip was a carefree and scenic experience of a lifetime. Unencumbered by accident, disease, or misfortune, theirs was an adventure-filled, if not romantic affair. For others, the cross-country trek was nothing short of grueling, with unexpected hardships and unbearable heartaches. They experienced intolerable extremes of weather; lacked the basic necessities of food, water, and shelter, and witnessed inconceivable human behavior.

b) What response from your readers is most surprising to you after having read It Happened on the Oregon Trail?

Either people would have picked up stakes and traveled over the Oregon Trail during the wagon train era of the 1840s -1880's or they wouldn't have gone at all. I'm always surprised to learn that people have changed their mind either way about such an overland trip had they lived back then after reading the book. I guess I painted a pretty realistic picture!

c) What meaningful experience did you come across during your writing of

It Happened on the Oregon Trail?

The last chapter in the book entitled "Right of Way" is about a Mormon pioneer woman named Rebecca Winters who died en route to Utah over the Oregon-Mormon Trail in 1852. Rebecca was buried along the trail, homesteaders back in Nebraska tended her grave, and years later her body had to be disinterred to make way for the railroad. Rebecca Winters' descendants were located in Utah to get permission to move her body. I had the great privilege to interview many of Rebecca Winters' descendants in the writing of this chapter, one of whom I am now long-distance pen-pals. To this day each generation of the Winters family names a daughter Rebecca in memory of their ancestor. I was thrilled to bring this fascinating story of this remarkable Mormon woman to national attention. 

Posted December 10, 2007

interview by Dr. Michael Shaughnessy (12/9/07) with, the #1 Source for Education, News, and Information