The West

By Jennifer Steward

Usually, when we think of the West, we conjure up scenes from classic Western movies depicting the Wild West: cowboys, boomtowns, gunslingers, and the like. But the story of the West and how it all began encompasses much more than just cowboys on horseback!

Our adventure starts with the Native American Indians—people who roamed freely according to their needs. After the colonies became independent from England, the country began to spread toward the west. Then, in 1803, while our country was in its infancy, President Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory, which nearly doubled the size of the nation. Mr. Jefferson sent a team (called the Corps of Discovery) led by two men—Meriwether Lewis and William Clark—on a voyage of discovery. Detailed maps and journals provided by the expedition paved the way for mountain men and traders to trap successfully in the mountain streams and make their living selling beaver furs to markets in the East. The next people to go west were missionaries who desired to minister Christianity to the native peoples. Despite the vast distances to be crossed, the idea of going west soon caught on, and people loaded their farm wagons and headed west over the prairie.

Have you ever wondered why people would sacrifice so much for a chance to enjoy greater opportunities? There was an important reason for settling the West, so promoters and developers posted advertisements touting a waiting “Utopia” and promising riches to arriving families, saying: “. . . Vegetables, grain, and cattle will require comparatively little labor. A family of settlers arrive fit and smiling, and gaze from their trim wagon upon a happy scene.”1 You see, England and the United States were in a competition to settle the Oregon Territory, and whichever country could establish itself and populate the area first could claim it as their own.

Up until around the 1830s, when people spoke of the West they were referring to the area expanding to the Mississippi River, but the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory made it possible for people to move farther west! The main meeting points for setting off on a wagon train were Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri. Here you could stock your wagon with provisions to last for the three-month trip and then “Westward Ho” you’d go!

A thorough study of “the West” involves so much more, though. Just take a look at the following broad list of areas to study. There is so much you could study and there are so many activities you could do, that we are barely going to skim the surface!

Areas to Study

• Trails

• The Buffalo

• Geography (landmarks, rivers, mountains)

• Indians

• Pioneers (daily life on the trail)

• Inventions (1800s)

• Mountain Men (trappers, traders, forts)

• People of the West

• Riverboats and Waterways

• The Pony Express

• The Transcontinental Telegraph

• Life on the Trail

• The Transcontinental Railroad

• Cowboys and Cattle Drives

• Wild West (boomtowns/California Gold Rush)

To start, decide how many topics on our list you wish to cover, and then you’ll know how much time you need to spend on this study. The number of books you read, the activities you do, and how in depth you go will determine the length of your study. Next, gather from your shelves and from the library books about the areas you’ve chosen to cover. One suggestion would be to read one nonfiction book on each topic and do some of the activities listed here. In this way you may be able to get through this unit study in two to three months and still keep your students interested!


• As pioneers moved west and also settled on the plains, many things gave them reasons to be concerned. Here are just a few: cholera, quicksand, and prairie fires. Research some of these topics from a “science perspective” and document your findings.

• With the development of the steam engine, railroads provided a faster, more convenient mode of transportation and travel. Learn about the invention of the steam locomotive, which, by the way, brought about the end of wagons west.


• Making maps is a good hands-on, visual activity, and since geography is a natural subject that fits into any unit study, it’s never dull and boring! Start with geography to find out where you are and where you’re going! Your students could make maps that identified rivers, trails, Indian tribes, forts, the geography of the land, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Louisiana Purchase, etc. (Use a blackline map.)

• Make a large copy of a U.S. map and mark items and routes such as these: transcontinental railroad, telegraph, wagon trails, Lewis and Clark expedition, etc.

• Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), who was born in Hannibal, Missouri, had many adventures along the Mississippi River. As you read about him, you will find that he went out to New York, Philadelphia, and Nevada (to mine for silver, but ended up writing for a newspaper, where he first took the name Mark Twain) and ended up in Calaveras County in California (where he wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”). Map a route of Mark Twain’s travels.


• Keep a journal as if you were a pioneer child on the trail.

• Cut out a rectangular shape (roughly 8½ x 11) from a brown paper bag and wrinkle it. Fold it in half and tie several pieces of paper inside. This will be your Lewis & Clark Journal. Go on nature walks and have your child draw pictures of interesting items he finds. Create names for the items and write descriptions.

• European explorers brought cattle and horses with them when they came to the Americas in the 1600s. Left to roam, these animals multiplied into the millions. The growing population in the East created a demand for beef, but the only problem was . . . how to get the meat to the market? Texas ranchers hired cowboys to round up the cattle and “drive” them to the closest railheads in Kansas. The era of the cowboy lasted only about thirty to forty years, but cowboys had an important place in history. Write a report that describes “The American Cowboy.” Include information about his gear, his clothes, his chores, life on the ranch, life on the trail, the chuck wagon, and some specific cowboy songs.

• The Indians used every part of the buffalo. Place a picture of a buffalo on a sheet of paper and around the picture list the uses of each part of the animal. (See See here.)


• Make a timeline of the events listed and study them chronologically. Start with the American Revolution. Display the timeline on a wall in your home or schoolroom. (See www.legendsofamerica.com/WE-TimeLine.html.)

• Quilts—Pioneers saved every piece of fabric and used it to make quilts for family members. Read suggested books about quilts, learn about the different types of quilt squares, and try to make your own. (The Josefina Story Quilt by Eleanor Coerr and Bruce Degen and Quilt Block History of Pioneer Days by Mary Cobb are excellent resources.)

• The first attempts at photography produced daguerreotype photographs, which could be compared to images on glass. Before the invention of photography, people would make silhouettes. Glue a sheet of white paper to a sheet of black paper. Tape the black side to a wall, and then shine a flashlight on your child’s profile, thus creating a shadow on the white sheet of paper. Trace around the shadow with a pencil. Cut out, turn over—and you have a silhouette! (You can learn more about silhouettes in a book titled Pioneer Days: Discover the Past with Fun Projects, Games, Activities, and Recipes by David C. King.)

• Pioneer girls would make samplers to demonstrate their sewing skills to prospective suitors. Learn how to embroider different stitches.

• Try cooking some Johnnycakes (a cross between pancakes and corn bread). Place a marble in a jar, add whipping cream and shake, shake, shake. Add a little salt and spread on your Johnnycakes. (This recipe and many additional activities can be found in these books: Pioneer Days: Discover the Past with Fun Projects, Games, Activities, and Recipes by David C. King and A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840 by Barbara Greenwood.

• Make a “possible bag” out of brown felt. A possible bag was a pouch that a frontiersman would carry with him to equip him with anything he could possibly need! Visit www.corpsrediscovery.com—one of my favorite companies for historical kits and goodies!

• Morse code was used to send messages over telegraph wires. Learn how to tap and write out your name or a message in Morse code. (See www.learnmorsecode.com.)

Gold Rush

• Read By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman.

• Why not try some gold panning? (See www.goldgold.com/panninginstructions.htm.)


• Try to lure people to come out West by designing your own promotional poster.

• Make a “Wanted” poster. Place your picture in the center, along with the words “Wanted for . . .” You could also make a Pony Express poster.

• Frederic Remington is a well-known artist whose works depict the American West. Research and view some of his work.


• Rope was a very useful item made from the hemp plant. Pioneers actually planted hemp along the trail for those who would be coming along the trail after them! Cowboys used rope on their round-ups, on the ranch, and on trail drives. Research the history of rope making, and try making your own! (See www.makerope.com.)

• Find out what the term mark twain means.

People of the West

• Cattle Barons: Charles Goodnight (names in the cattle/meat packing industry: Swift, Armour)

• Cowboys: Nat Love, Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok

• Outlaws and Lawmen: Jesse James, Billy the Kid (See www.thewildwest.org.)

• Mountain Men: Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, John Colter, Jedediah Smith

• Pioneers: Narcissa Whitman, Brigham Young (Mormon Trail), The Donners and Applegates

• Pony Express: William Russell, Buffalo Bill

• Native Americans: Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull

• Frontiersmen: Daniel Boone, Johnny Appleseed

• Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery/Sacagawea

• Mark Twain: riverboat captain, author, journalist, lecturer, humorist

• John Butterfield: Stagecoach Operator (www.heritagetrailpartners.com/trail_butterfield.html)

Resource List

Women of the West by Bobbie Kalman

Bandannas, Chaps, and Ten Gallon Hats by Bobbie Kalman

Cowboys by Kristin Helberg

The Cowboy’s Handbook by Tod Cody

Life on the Ranch by Bobbie Kalman

The Home Ranch by Ralph Moody

Red Flower Goes West by Ann Turner

Grandpa Was a Cowboy by Silky Sullivan and Bert Dodson

Daily Life in a Covered Wagon by Paul Erickson

If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon by Ellen Levine

Prairie Songs by Pam Conrad

Lewis and Clark for Kids: Their Journey of Discovery with 21 Activities by Janis Herbert

Seaman’s Journal: On the Trail with Lewis and Clark by Patricia Reeder Eubank

Gold Rush by Bobbie Kalman

By the Great Hornspoon by Sid Fleischman

Overland Stage: The Story of the Famous Overland Stagecoaches of the 1860’s by Glen Dines

Daniel Boone: Woodsman of Kentucky by John Zronik

Who Was Mark Twain? by April Jones Prince and John O’Brien

Legendary Outlaws and Lawmen of the Old West coloring book by E.L. Reedstrom

Pony Bob’s Daring Ride: A Pony Express Adventure by Joe Bensen

Jimmy Spoon and the Pony Express by Kristiana Gregory

The Pony Express (We the People: Expansion and Reform series) by Jean Kinney Williams

• Read “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (See www.classicshorts.com/stories/frog.html.)

The settlement of this great nation is a rich and important topic to understand and merits delving into as a serious study. The homesteading spirit of courage and determination possessed by pioneers is truly an inspiration worth emulating. I would encourage readers to step away from the few pages any textbook might devote to such a topic and plan to spend a month or two reading as many living books about this period of history as possible. Students can build a mental timeline, beginning with an understanding that the West used to mean the new frontier—land west of the original thirteen colonies. The frontier kept moving west “to” the Mississippi River until the United States doubled its size with the Louisiana Purchase. Soon after that, men explored the territory during the Lewis and Clark expedition. Mountain men and trappers in the Rocky Mountains then discovered passageways for travelers who would come west in covered wagons. The development of the railroad and the California Gold Rush soon followed. This is the West!

Jennifer Steward is a humorous and encouraging speaker drawing experience from her twenty-three years of homeschooling. She is the author of Everything You Need to Know About Homeschool Unit Studies and many other books. Jennifer has inspired and instructed parents nationwide with her workshops, which emphasize interactive teaching using living books, notebooks, and unit studies. The Steward family manages their business—Steward Ship Publishing—from their home in Northern, California. www.unitstudies.com, stewardship@unitstudies.com


1. Morley, Jacqueline, and David Salariya, How Would You Survive in the American West?, Grolier Publishing, Danbury, Connecticut, 1997, page 9.

Copyright 2010. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine®, Summer 2010. Used with permission.

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