ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Pioneer America: Journey West

Follow the half million people who headed west in the pioneer days of the 19th century


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


In this lesson, students will learn about the early pioneers in America and their motivations for moving West. They will explore what life was like for these explorers on their journeys and will list items necessary for westward travel during the mid-1800s. Students will also create a map of the Oregon Trail, conduct research on historical sites along the trail, and present findings via class oral presentations. This lesson will culminate in the presentation of monologues written by students, in which students present the perspective of an emigrant on their journey westward.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Identify reasons people choose to explore the west.
  • Re-create the Oregon Trail on a U.S. map.
  • Organize a list of supplies needed for a wagon train journey west.
  • Research the dangers of frontier travel.
  • Write a monologue from the point of view of a pioneer.
  • Role-play as a pioneer settler journeying west.

Teaching Approach

Arts Inclusion

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Research

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Internet Access
Required Plugins
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should be familiar with the major overland routes for pioneers heading west, including the Oregon Trail.

Teachers should understand the concept of Manifest Destiny.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Students should know about the westward expansion of the U.S.
  • Students need to be familiar with TV interviews.

Physical Space

  • Computer Lab
  • Classroom


  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



In 1803, then-President Thomas Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis to lead a venture to find an easy water route to the Pacific. With frontiersman William Clark, Lewis headed a team of 31 people west, up the Missouri River, in 1804. Two years later, the team made it to the Pacific, but the route they took wasn’t the best one for overland travel.

Lewis and Clark took comprehensive notes and drew detailed maps along their journey, bringing back details of the unknown land of the American West for European Americans. They paved the way for many more explorers to travel westward: John Jacob Astor, John Colter, Jebediah Smith, and John Fremont, among others. Each of these individuals contributed to the knowledge of the people of the United States.

In the mid-1800s, over half a million people traveled west on the Oregon Trail. While there were other routes, including the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Cherokee Trail, and the Southern Trail, the Oregon Trail was the most popular.


1. Discuss with students the challenges in exploring unknown territory. Ask students if they would like to explore space. Why or why not? Discuss food sources, shelter, cost of travel, fear of the unknown, etc. Compare this situation to that of Americans in the 19th century who chose to go west.

2. Introduce the concept of "manifest destiny." Ask students if they think the pioneers had a right to the lands of the West. Remind them that the Native Americans lived in the West centuries before European colonists set foot on U.S. soil.

3. Have students write a list of all the things their family needed to bring with them the last time they went away on vacation. Share ideas from the lists.

4. Now ask students how they think they would prepare for a journey in which they are uncertain of the final destination. This journey could take months—even years—to complete, and the weather conditions, terrain, and resources are unknown. What would they bring? Remind students that they would have no refrigerators, no electrical outlets, and no ovens on their journey. How would they eat? Remind students that these are some of the decisions the pioneers had to make before they embarked on their journeys.

5. Place students in groups of four and ask them to come up with a list of items they should take on their travels. After they are finished, compare the students' lists with the items the pioneers most likely brought on their journey. Sources of this information:

  • 'To Equip an Expedition' has some items from the Lewis and Clark expedition.
  • The Provisions chapter of 'The Prairie Traveler' has specific recommendations for pioneers, including quantities of food.

Review with the students some of the items they didn't have on their lists.

6. Help students understand the size of the average wagon. Have students use a measuring tape and masking tape to mark a 5’ x 2’ rectangle on the floor of the classroom. While some people had the famous “Prairie Schooner” Conestoga wagons, most couldn’t afford them. Census records show that families often had as many as 8 members. Ask students to figure out how their lists of supplies might fit into the wagon. Have 8 students sit in the wagon, and lead students to realize that the pioneers must have walked much of the way.

Build Knowledge

1. Pass out maps of the United States and ask students to map out the route for wagons to travel along the Oregon Trail. Tell students that now that they know what to bring on their journey, they have to figure out how they are going to get to their destinations. Make sure that students include a title, legend, and cardinal directions on their maps.

2. Have students research historic sites along the trail on the 'Oregon Trail' site and write about one of them. Assign one historic site to each student. For homework, they should prepare a paragraph about what is located on this site. Tell students they should be prepared to report on this site to the rest of the class the next day.

3. Have students present their one-paragraph reports to the class in order from the easternmost site to the westernmost site. This will give students a sense of what it would have been like to travel on the Oregon Trail. As students are presenting, the rest of the class should note on their maps where the site is located.

4. Have students conduct independent research on the journey west. Remind students that the journey west on the Oregon Trail was extremely difficult. Many emigrants had to walk 2,000 miles barefoot, and one in ten died along the way. Ask students what they think some of the most difficult obstacles were in traveling along this route. Give students time to review the primary source documents available through the Trail Archive from the Oregon Trail site. These documents reveal firsthand information about the challenges faced by people traveling the Oregon Trail. Students should take notes, listing some of the hardships faced by people traveling west.

5. Have students participate in an interactive activity. Choose one of these:

  • 'Into the Unknown', developed by PBS and based on Lewis and Clark’s expedition.
  • 'Westward Trail', based on pioneer experiences.

In these activities, students are forced to make decisions as if they are leading a group of people West.

6. After students have engaged in the activity and independent research, foster a discussion about their findings. What were the problems that the emigrants faced? (i.e., cholera, poor sanitation, accidental gunshots, some angry Native American tribes, etc.) Keep a list of these problems on the board.


1. Explain some key points about writing monologues. Tell students that their monologues will be assessed based on the accuracy and believability of the character, originality and creativity of presentation, accuracy of the portrayal of pioneer life, and appropriate incorporation of research materials. For additional tips on monologues, view the section on Monologues on the teachers.tv site.

2. Have students write a monologue from the point of view of a pioneer in the middle of the journey. The monologue should reflect the students' research into some of the joys and challenges experienced during a trip through unknown territory.

3. Allow students to perform monologues.


1. Return to the list of problems on the board. Ask students to consider whether these problems were adequately reflected in their monologues.

2. Read Exploring Unknown Territory handout located within the Resource Carousel and compare these explorers with astronauts. Conclude with an oral comparison of westward migration and space travel.

Extending the Learning

 Go on to the next lesson in this unit, Pioneer Life.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

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Rebecca Haden

Bernard Franklin
Original Writer

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