Rural America: The Westward Movement

by Tim Bailey

Unit Objective

This unit is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based teaching resources. These units were developed to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Through a step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any primary or secondary source material.

Over the course of four lessons the students will analyze primary source documents that present examples of both the perception and the reality of American westward migration during the 1800s. These documents represent both the romanticism and the cruel realities of this period. Students will closely read and analyze a variety of texts with the purpose of not only understanding the literal but also inferring the more subtle contexts within these documents. Students will use textual evidence to draw their conclusions and present arguments as directed in each lesson.

Lesson 1

Objective

In this lesson the students will carefully read three short primary source documents that advocate Americans moving west and becoming settlers of this untamed land. The students will analyze the documents and identify the arguments that are being made for westward migration.

Introduction

The Great Western Migration      
On April 30, 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte of France sold Thomas Jefferson, then President of the United States, 885,000 square miles of territory in North America for $15 million. Congress sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find out exactly what the United States had purchased. On November 7, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean and the way to the West was opened. Fur trappers, traders, and finally pioneer settlers followed.

President James Polk stated that it was America’s “Manifest Destiny” to settle North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and the people of America showed their agreement by pushing the borders of the United States across the Mississippi River and ever westward. In 1841 the first group of 69 pioneers left Missouri and headed west, bound for Oregon. From 1841 until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 more than 350,000 emigrants traveled by foot and wagon to reach Oregon and California. At the peak of this westward migration more than 55,000 pioneers made the hazardous crossing in a single season.

Materials

Procedures:

At the teacher’s discretion you may choose to have the students do the lessons individually, as partners, or in small groups of no more than three or four students.

  1. Discuss the information in the introduction. You may have the students take notes on the information.
  2. Hand out “The Lovely Ohio.”
  3. The teacher then “share reads” the song with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  4. You can play the song for the students at the Internet link to the Ballad of American website: http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/lovelyohio/index.htm.
  5. Hand out the Summarize for Comprehension organizer. Students will look at the document and then determine which words or phrases are the most important words or phrases in song and copy those words into the box on the right of the organizer.
  6. After they have determined what is most important they will summarize the text in their own words. Students can brainstorm as partners or small groups but must finish their own organizer in order to complete the assignment. Remember to emphasize that they are to first use the author’s own words to determine what is important in the text and then to summarize the meaning of the text in their own words.
  7. Repeat this process with the other two documents: the poem “Out Where the West Begins” and the editorial letter of advice by Horace Greeley.
  8. Class discussion. What is the central argument being made in all three pieces? Have groups or individual students share their summaries and compare with other groups.

Lesson 2

Objective

In this lesson the students will carefully read an excerpt from the journal of a young girl traveling overland with her family to settle in the Oregon Territory in 1844. The students will analyze the document in order to understand some of the difficulties of making that journey. Students will answer a series of questions designed to measure their comprehension of the text

Introduction:

The Great Western Migration
The 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to Oregon was not something to be taken lightly. It was a grueling five to eight month ordeal with one in every seventeen people that began the trip dying along the way. If graves were evenly spaced along the Oregon Trail’s 2,000 mile length there would be a tombstone every 80 yards to mark the resting place of a pioneer who did not survive the journey. Starvation, accidents, hostile Native Americans whose land was being invaded, outlaws, and especially the dreaded disease cholera accounted for those who would not survive to see the lush farmlands of Oregon or the goldfields of California.

If the journey was so dangerous, why did they go? Why would pioneers risk their own lives and the lives of their families in order to make this migration? There are many reasons. Among the most commonwas the promise of something better out west than they could have in the East. In 1843 a trapper who had been to Oregon’s Willamette Valley told a group of prospective emigrants that “the pigs are running around about under the great acorn trees, round and fat, and already cooked, with knives and forks sticking in them so that you can cut off a slice whenever you are hungry.” Popular publications and guide books of the time told of all of the virtues of Oregon and California. One of these books claimed that, “As far as its producing qualities are concerned taken all in all, Oregon can not be outdone . . . whether corn . . . wheat, oats, rye, barley, buckwheat, peas, beans, potatoes, turnips, cabbages, onions, parsnips, carrots, beets, currants, gooseberries, strawberries, apples, peaches, pears, or fat and healthy babies.”

Materials

Procedures:

At the teacher’s discretion you may choose to have the students do the lessons individually, as partners, or in small groups of no more than three or four students.

  1. Discuss the information in the introduction. You may have the students take notes on the information.
  2. Hand out the journal excerpt “On the Plains in 1844.”
  3. If you choose, you can share read this as you did the passages in Lesson 1 or have the students read it for themselves.
  4. Prior to the lesson you may want to find primary source visuals of the pioneer migration such as pictures of the land crossed, wagons used, and of pioneers themselves.
  5. Hand out the Critical Questions worksheet. Students must use actual quotations from the text as the basis for their answers. Summaries should be complete sentences.
  6. Students can brainstorm as partners or small groups but must complete their own organizer in order to complete the assignment. Remember to emphasize that they must use the author’s own words in order to validate their answers.
  7. Class discussion: Have groups or individual students share their answers and compare with other groups.

Lesson 3

Objective

In this lesson the students will demonstrate their understanding of the documents presented over the past two days. They will be preparing a mock debate in which they will be role playing prospective pioneers and will be debating questions concerning the wisdom of making the journey out west.

Introduction:

The Great Western Migration
Oregon seemed, from all accounts, to be paradise on Earth. All you had to do was get there and claim your little bit of heaven. It was that hope that made it worth the risks of the journey. In addition, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848 created a huge surge in the number of people choosing to emigrate to the West and try their luck in California.

These factors pulled people west while a number of factors pushed people out of the East. The first of these was a series of financial crises, the first in 1837, which brought about a depression and ruined many farmers. In addition, a series of epidemics were sweeping many parts of the eastern United States: typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, malaria, and yellow fever. Perhaps the most devastating of all was cholera, which had arrived from Asia in the 1830s and in 1850 accounted for more than 50,000 deaths in the United States.

Others choose to emigrate to the West for the same reason that many people came to the Atlantic shores of America two centuries before: religious freedom. The Mormon pioneers, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left Illinois in 1846 to find a place to practice their religion without fear of persecution and settled in the Salt Lake valley of Utah.
Adventurers, missionaries, land speculators, and many others with a variety of goals followed the reasoning of Henry David Thoreau when he said, “Eastward, I go only by force, but westward I go free . . . the prevailing tendency of my countrymen.”

Materials:

Procedures:

Students should be organized into groups of three to five students. All of the students should have copies of the listed materials.

  1. Discuss the information in the introduction.
  2. Share read the song “The Wisconsin Emigrant” with the class and then listen to the song by using the link above.
  3. Discuss the song by asking text-based questions: What reasons does the husband give for wanting to move to Wisconsin? What reasons does his wife give for staying? According to the husband, what will be better if they move? What argument does his wife make that finally convinces him to stay?
  4. Tell the students that they are going to have a mock debate based on the reasons to journey out west in the 1800s or stay in the East. They need to choose one person in their group to be a debate moderator; the rest of the group will be divided evenly between those in favor of moving and those in favor of staying.
  5. Inform the students that they will be writing the script for a debate based on the issues raised in the primary documents and the secondary source document that they have been studying. This script is to be written as a team effort and everyone in the group will have a copy of the final script. This will not be an actual debate but more like a short reader’s theater piece.
  6. The teacher will provide one question that all groups must address during their debate. The students should add another two to four relevant questions. The answers they write must be taken directly from the primary source material.
  7. It is important that the students portraying those who want to move and those who don’t want to move use the actual text from the documents to make their arguments.
  8. Give the students the following question to be asked by the moderator and addressed by both sides:
    • What is the best reason for making or not making this journey? (Make sure to support your answer with evidence from the text.)
  9. Students can then construct two to four questions of their own to be answered by either side with the opportunity for rebuttal.
  10. Remind the students that everyone in the group needs to work on the script, not just one side or the other, and that the responses need to be taken directly from what the authors of the documents wrote.
  11. Student will present their scripted debate in Lesson 4.

Lesson 4

Objective

In this lesson the students will demonstrate their understanding of the documents presented over the past three days. They will be participating in a mock debate in which they will be role playing prospective pioneers and will be debating questions concerning the wisdom of making the journey out west.

Introduction

There were many factors both pulling and pushing Americans into moving out west in the 1800s. There were also many reasons not to make the dangerous journey. That fateful decision, to move or to stay, is the subject of today’s debate.

Materials

  • Student-prepared debate scripts and any supporting documents from previous lessons.

Procedures

  1. Students will present their debates to the rest of the class while role playing both sides of the argument; to move out west or stay in the East.
  2. One student in the group acts as the debate moderator and asks the scripted questions that the group wrote in Lesson 4.
  3. Each side answers the questions, and if they have written rebuttals they can offer them as well. Each group should have from three to five questions and answers prepared for the debate.
  4. Class discussion: After all of the debate presentations are concluded, discuss the best arguments made by the groups and the best text-based evidence used.

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