Oregon Trail, Covered Wagons
A 2,000-mile trek across a continent-with no idea what awaits you on the other side. Tell your students to put on their traveling shoes and prepare for the journey of their lives! In this lesson, students compare imagined travel experiences of their own with the actual experiences of 19th-century pioneers. After writing stories about contemporary cross-country journeys, students learn about the experiences of the emigrants who traveled on the Oregon Trail. They then create works of historical fiction in the form of picture books or letters, drawing upon the information they have learned.
After this lesson, students will have
Before the lesson, explore what students already know about pioneers. Who were they? With what period in history are they associated? Where did they come from? Where did they go, and why?
Explain to students that they are now going to imagine themselves as modern-day pioneers. On a map of the United States, show students a state far away from their homestate. A large selection of maps is available in the Atlas section of the EDSITEment-reviewed National Geographic Society Xpeditions website. Click for a current map of the United States.
Tell students to imagine that they are going to move to this distant state one month from now. Have students brainstorm a list of questions about the trip (e.g., How will I get there? With whom will I travel? How long will it take to get there? What can I take with me? How will I feel about going on this trip?). Compile all of their questions in a master list; save the list so that students may refer to it later.
Have each student create a story about his or her imagined cross-country trip. If students get stuck for ideas, they may refer to the master list of questions for inspiration. After their stories are complete, put students in pairs so that they may read their stories aloud to each other.
Explain to students that they are now going to learn about the experiences of people who really did move across the country-the pioneers who traveled west on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. Show them a map of the route the emigrants traveled, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Oregon Trail. Click to view the entire route; then click on each state for a close-up view.
In order to give students a feeling for the period of history they are about to enter, you may also wish to show them some photographic images. If you have limited computer access in your classroom, you may want to print out some photographs to distribute to students. To make a copy, click on the desired photograph and hold your cursor down until a list of options appears. After selecting "Copy this image," you may post the image into a word processing document and print it out as you would any other document.
As students view each image, ask them what they notice about details such as people, clothing, transportation and setting. What does each photograph reveal about the experiences of the pioneers who traveled west on the Oregon Trail?
Using the students' questions (see Preparation Instructions for "Go West: Imagining the Oregon Trail") as a starting point, describe the experiences of the 19th-century emigrants who traveled on the Oregon Trail. You can research this information ahead of time using the Oregon Trail website. Click to access useful and entertaining information about the following topics:
All About the Oregon Trail" also offers detailed information on the following topics:
Finally, "Fantastic Facts about the Oregon Trail" contains a wealth of odd tidbits that are bound to appeal to young imaginations. Each of these sections also includes photographs that can be shared with the class.
For first-hand accounts of the experiences of some of the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail, visit the Trail Archive section of the Oregon Trail website to access a selection of diaries, letters, and memoirs. Segments from Harriet Scott Palmer's memoir and Catherine Sager Pringle's diary are likely to be particularly fascinating to young children. As you read the excerpts together, you may ask students to note the similarities and differences in these first-hand accounts.
After students have learned about pioneers' real-life experiences of traveling on the Oregon Trail, have them compare these experiences to those they imagined in the travel story they wrote (see Step 1). In what ways were their experiences similar? In what ways were they different? Would students have wanted to travel as pioneers on the Oregon Trail? Why or why not?
Have students create picture books or write letters based on the experiences of a 19th-century family traveling on the Oregon Trail, drawing on the historical information they have learned. Younger students (grade 3) may wish to write a letter addressed to a young emigrant, describing what to expect on the journey, while older students (grades 4 and 5) may wish to write a series of letters from the perspective of a young pioneer.
Based on pictures and descriptions available through The Oregon Trail website, have students work in groups to create dioramas depicting events that could have happened along the Oregon Trail. Students may wish to use their own Oregon Trail stories for inspiration.
For a discussion of the multi-ethnic dimension of westward migration, visit the EDSITEment-reviewed New Perspectives on the West website. Episode 7, "The Geography of Hope," details the migration experiences of African Americans and Asian immigrants, and also discusses the displacement of American Indians and Hispanic Americans that resulted from the massive settlement of the west. You may access this section of the website by selecting "Tour of the West" from the frame on the left-hand side of the website's opening screen and then choosing "Episode 7."
Students may also wish to visit the EDSITEment-reviewed Women of the West website for accounts of the lives of women in the West in the 1800s. "There are no Renters Here: Women's Lives on the Sod House Frontier" offers a virtual tour of life in a Nebraska sod house, while "The Lodo Mural Project" at tells the stories of eleven Colorado women who helped to shape the American West.
4 class periods