Utilization Strategies

Lesson Plans

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By Susan Wheeler
Idaho State University Student

GRADE: 5 to 6

TIME ALLOTMENT: Six 30 minute class periods

SUBJECT MATTER: Social Studies, History, and Mathematics

In the 1840's and 1850's, thousands of people left the Missouri valley to travel west to the Oregon Territory in hopes of a better life. Families left their homes to travel to a place they had heard was an untouched paradise with fertile land that was there for the taking. At this time in history, the most efficient travel to their new homes was in covered wagons along the forded 2000mile Oregon Trail. Much suffering, illness, and death took place on the trek along with hunger, fatigue, and hard work. Through the activities presented in this lesson, the students will become familiar with the sacrifices that the migrants endured crossing the plains to the west. The students will experience some of the problem solving that the pioneers faced and pay the natural consequences of their choices.


Students will:

  • Associate the Oregon Trail experience with their ancestors and their lives now.
  • Describe the conditions of the Oregon Trail and obstacles that the pioneers faced.
  • Experience and relate to the pioneer experience of being part of the Oregon Trail experience.


Standards From the National Standards for History, grades 5-12 www.sscnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards
Students will :

  • Distinguish between past, present, and future time by reenacting some of the events of the Oregon Trail. (Standard IA)

  • Experience measuring and calculating calendar time by figuring the time it took to travel the trail. (Standard 1 D)

  • Reconstruct patterns of historical succession and duration of those who traveled the trail. (Standard 1F)

  • Draw upon historical maps to understand where significant landmarks are located and the location of the trail. (Standard 2E)

  • Integrate historical data to authenticate the experience of traveling the Oregon Trail. (Standard 4C)

  • Identify issues and problems of the past by role-playing and problem solving. (Standard 5A)

  • Have several opportunities to evaluate the implementation of the decisions that they make. (Standard 5F)


Prior to the lesson, bookmark all of the websites and load the necessary plug-ins. Preview the videotape and cue the videotape to the appropriate starting point. Copy the supplies list. Assemble materials for the journal. Get clip art graphics of supplies.


Per group of students:

  • Journal materials
  • Copy of supply list
  • Envelope for supplies
  • Play money ($500)
  • Graphics from Printmaster, Premier 8.0. 1999. Or any other clip art.


Video: In Search of the Oregon Trail, Part I and II: Oregon Public Broadcasting, 1998.


This web site is an informative depiction of how the pioneers prepared for the Oregon Trail. With a click, the historians, they will tell about many of the aspects of the preparations and what they can expect once they are on the trail.

The Oregon Trail. http://www.isu.edu/~trinmich/allabout.html

This site has a detailed list of the supplies that the migrant would need to make the five to six month trip. End of the Oregon Trail.

This site includes frequently asked questions about the trail such as ,“Why did the people want to go?” and ‘”What was the trip like?” Oregon Trail 101 http:www.endoftheoregontrail

An index that has many links to other Oregon Trail web sites. Oregon Trail, The Trail West http://www.ukans.edu/kansas

This site includes a map and a time line for the Oregon Trail. In Search of the Oregon Trail Teacher’s Guide.

This is a site that has integrated activities that can extend the Oregon Trail experience Oregon Trail Teacher’s Guide.


The following activity will prepare the students for their journey on the Oregon Trail and help them relate the experience to their own lives.

Step 1: Make the journal for this unit. Distinguishing between the past and the present. A day before you start the activity, give the students a homework assignment to find out as much as possible about the first people in their family to come west. The next day, ask the students how their families came to the west.
Divide the students into small groups. In small groups, have the students tell who and when the first person in their family arrived and have them tell the difficulties that were associated with the trip and leaving their homes. After each student has had a chance to talk about their family, point out the difficulties in moving from one home to another in our modern day and in the time of the pioneers by explaining the hardships of leaving friends and family behind, expenses, moving possessions, and making a long journey.

In their groups, students record the similarities of their ancestor's migration to the west. They record the differences they found in the journal. Explain to the students that the first groups of people to come to the West came in wagon trains on the Oregon Trail. Tell the students they will experience some of the frustrations and victories of the trek because they will be making a mock trip across the plains.

View a clip of the video and watch for the things they will need to know about the trip before they leave. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION telling them to listen for ways that the Oregon Trail has influenced our lives today. START the video, In Search of the Oregon Trail Part 1, at the introduction to where it shows the words on the screen of the title, In Search of the Oregon Trail. Ask the students what influence the Oregon Trail has on them today and what influence the people of the past have on their lives today. Then have the students log onto http://www.isu.edu/~trinmich/allabout.html and click on and listen to historians talk about the journey and how they might prepare for it.


Divide the class into appropriate groups.

Step 1: Students will experience measuring and calculating supplies for the journey. Explain to the students that there were not many places to stop and buy things along the way and when the opportunity was there, the supplies were very expensive; therefore the pioneers had to pack everything that they would need for the five to six month trip in addition to the supplies they would need to start their new lives. The students will shop for supplies and will research what they will need.

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by telling them to write down all of the supplies that are listed and keep track of amounts. START the video where the screen says "Jumping Off' continue to the point where the narrator says "some vinegar and molasses" and before the place where the historian with the blue shirt starts to talk. For further information on supplies look at the Internet site http://www.endoftheoregontrail.org/outfit.html

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by having them take notes on the information to know what needs to be purchased before they leave on their journey.

Step 2: The students will learn the problems of the past and work through them with problem solving. While they are doing research, lay out the items for the trail on a large table with prices on them for the students to purchase. When the students feel they have enough information to go shopping, they will receive $500.00 for each group to buy the supplies for their trip and provide money to take with them. The students will need to use their research and information about the trip to figure out how much they will need, e.g. how far apart the supply posts are. They will also work together to get a common consensus of their necessities. They will need to know that the trip is 2000 miles and that they will be able to travel about 15 miles a day. They will need to take into consideration the amount of food they will need per day. Inform the students that they will need money along the way to replenish supplies and to pay to be ferried across water.

Step 3: The students will have several opportunities to evaluate thetheir decisions. The journey will begin by having each group look at a map on the Internet site http://www.pbs.org/opb/oregontrail/teacher/index.html.

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION.They will keep track of their journey on the map by printing it , following their route, and labeling the places where they stop along the way.

  • During first day you will travel on the flat plains and cross the Blue River. The river ruins your flour supply, and you must replenish it at either the Blue Mill or Fitzhugh Mill. You camp there for the night.
  • Cross the Kansas River: The River is 200 yards wide with rapid and deep currents. The animals can swim across, but the wagons, people, and mules have to be taken over on a ferry. To cross the river you must use the Pappan Ferry run by two brothers who use two canoes with poles to carry the wagons over. You coil a rope around a tree to lower the boat into the water. The wagons will cost $4.00 each, the mules $.25 each, and people are $.10 each.
  • Fort Kearny: Mail letters and replace used supplies at double the rate. Spend $5.00.
  • Ash Hollow: This is the first steep grade you will encounter. It is steep enough that everyone is very scared and there is not a word spoken for the last two miles. You lose many hours and camp at the bottom of the canyon You travel only five miles today. Discuss how this will affect your supplies.
  • Courthouse Rock: The lush green plains have turned into a dry desert. A huge rock formation sits in the middle of the desert that looks like a castle or a large jail. It stands alone in the prairie and you've been watching it for days. You become very thirsty and your lips and noses are cracked. At night there is a terrible thunderstorm, which scares the animals. You have to settle them down. If you didn't bring a rope you lose two pack animals.
  • Chimney Rock: Another large rock formation in the middle of the flat dry ground. your necks are unprotected and you need some medicine to put on their blisters.
  • Scott's Bluff: On the south bank of the Platte River, you pass a high cliff. There is no wood and you’re forced to use buffalo chips to make your fire. This is the most expensive ferry you will use to cross a river. It is $16.00 for the wagon, people, and animals.
  • Fort Laramie: The wagons are too heavy. You must lighten your load before you go over the Rocky Mountains. You choose six items to remove from your wagon. There is no turning back after this point.
  • Independence Rock: It's the Fourth of July and you spend the next couple of days celebrating around this huge granite rock that is 3-4 acres in size and looks like a giant whale. You celebrate independence with patriotic singing, picnic lunches, and carving their name on the rock. You lose three days.
  • Sweetwater River Crossing: You camp near the river that evening in the tall lush grass with good water to drink and bathe in. Native Americans, who want to trade for tobacco and guns, enter the camp. You decide to trade two guns and all of your tobacco for two buffalo hides. If you do not have the supplies to trade, two people in your party are killed and you do not get buffalo hides.
  • South Pass: Halfway point, still another 1000 miles to go. Early snow has hit the pass that marks the Oregon Territory. You use their new buffalo hides to cover yourselves and eat twice as much as planned for five days to stay alive. If you do not have buffalo hides one person dies and the others in the group need whiskey for medicine to keep them warm.
  • Steamboat Springs: You pass a natural phenomenon, but do not want to camp there because the water shoots out and emits a noise like a steamboat, tastes like metal and is hot. Two of your oxen die of thirst.
  • Soda Springs: You’ve decided to camp here in a cedar grove where there are open areas. One hole contains a natural soda water. You bake several batches of bread with this water because they raise without yeast. The other hole contains water that is like beer. Several men drink too much of it and got giddy. You lose a whole day here and another ox.
  • Fort Hall: 800 miles left to travel. Although this isn't the nicest fort you’ve stopped at, it sells fresh vegetables, which you’ve not had since the trip began. You buy supplies, but they're expensive: sugar is $.50 per pint, coffee is $.50 per pint, flour .is $25 per pint, and rice is $.33 per pint. Two members of the group starve to death, if you do not have money for a few more supplies. You spend $10.00 at this point.
  • Fort Boise: 400 miles left. The worst part of the trip is traveling near the Snake River. There are dead animals laying everywhere. You see that a few trees are ahead and you camp there tonight. You lose a mule here. One of your group dies of Cholera, if you did not buy medication.
  • Barlow Road or Across the Columbia: There are 100 miles left to travel. You have come to the Columbia River and it is very swift and deep. You can choose to pay a large fee and be ferried across, but you have watched others cross and many are drowned. You can choose to take the Barlow Road, which will take you many days longer, but your lives might be spared. If you decide to take the Barlow Road, your wagon will lose an axle and you will have to carry your belongings. You will decide what is most important enough to carry. If you decide to take the Columbia River across, your wagon falls from the ferry and one person in the group is able to save one item. You will decide what is the most important thing to save.
  • Willamette: Your final destination. You made it, but what do you have left to make a life here? What kind of supplies do you have? How many of your group is alive to see the place where you have traveled to? Talk about what your situation is like and what you went through.


In order for students to reflect on the activity, it is important for them to write down some of their feelings and what they learned.

Step 1: Read actual diary entries from the Oregon Trail to give students a feel for what they should write in their journals and to give them an idea of how the people of that time felt about actual events.

Step 2: The students will write about the experience in their journals by expressing what they have learned and what kinds of choices they would make differently and tell about their good decisions.


Physical Education:
Each group will design a game for the next day. Oregon Trail Teacher's Guide: http://www.nps.gov/whmi/educate/ortrtg/ortrtg.htm will provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by giving them ideas of games that were played at that time to share with the class. During PE, each group can share their pioneer games with the other students in the class by teaching and playing them. Later, the journey will continue. This website is also the place I found many other ideas to extend this lesson. Arts and


  • Native American beadwork
    Have everyone learn the steps of some basic hand sewing/stitching. This could be accomplished by darning old socks, mending old clothes, making a simple pot holder, or making small quilt blocks by hand. This project would give the students an idea of what it was like to be a pioneer, who had no electric sewing machines or much access to ready-made clothing.
  • Natural Dying
    Some natural dyes could be produced by using plants native to this area. Students could experiment with various plants that produce different colors and could learn steps necessary to extract the dye from these natural substances. Pieces of cotton fabric could then be dyed. Various books on dying may be obtained through your local library or inter-library loan.
  • Have students make rag dolls, similar to those that the children at the mission played with.
  • Have students make a construction paper weaving of a Native American bag or garment. Different colored strips of construction paper can be "woven" together, creating various designs and patterns.
  • Make pencil sketches or paintings of Native American villages, the mission site, or of pioneers/Native Americans involved in activities.
  • Allow students to make some of the food that the pioneers made on the trail and let them get a taste of what was available to eat.
  • Make covered wagons with paper to store the items that were bought for the trail.


  • As the pioneers traveled, they would measure distances by the revolution of their wagon wheels. If you have a wagon wheel available, have students measure distances (by counting revolutions of the wagon wheel) between various points. You can also use a bicycle wheel or any other large wheel. Students can then compare this distance with that of more standard measurement such as tape measures, meter or yard sticks, rulers, etc. Which form of measuring distance is the easiest to do? Measure the circumference of a wagon wheel. Have students determine how many revolutions of a wheel it would take to cover approximately one mile of ground.
  • The prices of supplies differed from one trading post to another. Have the students figure out these differences, and using shopping advertisements of the same items today, have them compare the prices then and now. Calculate how much you would spend today. Fort Hall, Fort Boise, Whitman, The Dalles Mission

    • Flour: 0.20 per lb., 0.20 per lb., 0.05 per lb., 0.18 per lb.
      Beef: ————, 0.20 per lb., 0.07 per lb., 0.25 per lb.
      Sugar: 0.50 per lb., 0.40 per lb., 0.20 per lb., 0.50 per lb.
      Bacon: ———-, ———–, ———–-, 0.50 per lb.
  • The pioneers would have to estimate the distance across a river in order to ford it safely. Use pacing to have students estimate the distance between two points in the schoolyard. Estimate first, count paces, then measure accurately. Practice regrouping with subtraction by finding the differences between today's date and important dates in Oregon Trail history.

Language Arts:

  • Tea dye paper, burn edges, or use other means to make their journal look weathered and old. Have students write short stories (individually or as a group project) and then substitute sign language for written words.
  • Students can make up the sign language and perform stories in front of the class (using sign language only). See if other students can figure out the story line.
  • Perform a skit or a play about pioneer or Native American life. Props can be designed and constructed as an art activity and music can be taught during music class (if possible to incorporate with other staff).
  • Have students write reports on occupations of yesterday. Obviously, historical occupations were different than today, due in part, to advances in technology. A brainstorming session, followed by a library research activity session could begin this assignment. A variation would be to discuss and develop papers dealing with occupations of today that possibly will not be necessary in another hundred years.
  • Discuss necessary ingredients and steps involved in the preparation of traditional pioneer and Native American foods. Have students write about cooking techniques, create recipes and design steps for preparing and cooking of their dishes.
  • Have the students dress in pioneer clothing, pick a pioneer name, and form a family as a group by picking a mother, father, children, grandfather, etc.


  • Word Searches
  • Crossword Puzzles
  • Matching Exercise
  • Spelling Bees
  • Syllabication

As trading increased between the fur trappers and the Native Americans, a common language was needed. This language, called Chinook jargon, is a combination of French, English, and several Native American languages. While this is the language used for trading, the real Chinook language has long since disappeared.


1. Baby— enas
2. Beaver— eena
3. Canoe— canim
4. Deer— mowitsh
5. Dog— kamooks
6. Duck— Kweh Kweh
7. Eagle— chak chak
8. Elk— moolock
9. Family— illicurns
10. Fire— piah
11. Fireplace— kah piah
12. Grandfather— papa kaka papa
13. Grandmother— mama kaka mama
14. How are you? - Klahowya
15. Love— tikegh
16. Potato— wappatoo
17. thank you— die
18. Parents— papa pe mama
19. Pants— sakoleks
20. Students— tenas kopa school

Go over these words with your class. How did the people arrive at common ground? Discuss possibilities. Take several different languages such as English, Spanish and Japanese. Have students take several words and try to combine them into a common language. Possibly use vocabulary words.

Review the three basic types of rocks: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Have examples of each rock type for students to handle and examine. Discuss the differences of these three rock types and identify the rocks which the pioneers saw or used. Various uses of different rocks could be discussed and researched. Groups can review and research types of rocks and write mini-reports.

Have students simulate Independence Rock by writing their names on of butcher paper or in hardening clay and including their own personal messages. Talk about hardness levels of different rocks. Have the students write about various uses of rocks (in the past and present). How did the pioneers and Native Americans use rocks? How do we use rocks today? Have uses for rocks changed through time? What materials do we use today instead of rocks? Why has the use of rocks increased or decreased over time? Define and explain Continental Divide.

For additional lesson plans and ideas relating to this topic and many others try TeacherSource at PBS Online! You will find activities, lesson plans, teacher guides and links to other great educational web sites! Search the database by keyword, grade level or subject area! Mathline and Scienceline are also great resources for teachers seeking teaching tips, lesson plans, assessment methods, professional development, and much more!

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