Chapter 2: Prairie Days

Teacher's Guide Chapter Author: Dana Matthews, Fifth grade teacher, Doris Reed Elementary School, Clark County School District

Chapter Overview: In this chapter, life on the trail is introduced. Sallie and the other members of the wagon train are having a typical day on the trail. During this time, Sallie reminisces about the early days on the trail and wonders what life is like on the trail that lies ahead. We learn about her sister Relief (Liefy) and the leg ailment that could affect her time on the trail. Her father’s importance on the trail is also hinted at and the fact that he uses books to help him is also noted. Finally, her mom talks about who they will be seeing in California and talks about her wedding to Alpha Brown, so that we learn more about the structure of the family.

Chapter Themes: Leaving Home, Organization of a wagon train, Leaving to join family, Daily Activities/Schedules, Use of Guidebooks, Cooking/Preparing Food

Chapter Activities

  • Language Arts
    • A Time When They Left Home
      • Students will write about a time they left home. Some examples would be going to camp, staying at a friend's house for the first time, going to Grandma's, etc. Then, students will write about how it would feel if they knew that they would never get to see their family again. This can be written as a letter, a newspaper article, or a journal entry.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Write paragraphs with main ideas and supporting details.
        • Use rules of capitalization.
    • Create A Trail Guide
      • Procedures:
        • Students will read a portion of Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies (
        • Students will work with a partner to create their own trail guide. This may be to any place that they have ever visited or that they want to visit.
        • Students will be required to use the Internet to find information about their place and use factual information in their trail guide.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Select information from multiple resources to answer questions.
        • Formulate research questions and establish a focus and purpose for inquiry.
  • Mathematics
    • Load Your Wagon: How much food do you need?
    • Students will figure out how many wagons they need for a family of five going on the Oregon Trail. The following is how much food they will need per person:
      150 pounds of flour
      20 pounds of corn meal
      50 pounds of bacon
      40 pounds of sugar
      10 pounds of coffee
      15 pounds of dried fruit
      5 pounds of salt
      ½ pounds of baking soda
      2 pounds of tea
      5 pounds of rice
      15 pounds of beans
      5 gallons of water
    • Students will have to figure out how much each person's provisions cost and then multiply by five. Since a wagon could only hold 1800 pounds, students will have to then make a guess as to how many wagons they think they will need, considering the fact that they have not put anything else in the wagon.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Generate and solve multiplication and addition problems
        • Apply multi-step, integrated, mathematical problem-solving strategies.
    • How is your day like a pioneer child's day?
      • Students will create two daily schedules: one that is a typical pioneer child's day and one that is a typical day in their life. Students will then make a double bar graph comparing how much time they spend doing the following activities compared to a pioneer child: chores, school, cooking, playing, and sleeping.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Select an appropriate type of graph to accurately represent the data and justify the selection.
        • Find elapsed time.
  • Social Studies
    • Frozen Moments: Pioneer Life on the Trail
      • Procedures
        • Students will get into groups of four and receive a card with one of the following topics on it: cooking breakfast, "nooning," driving a wagon, crossing a river, nightly entertainment, doing laundry, collecting water, collecting buffalo chips for fuel.
        • Students will create frozen moments. They have to start and end in a frozen position. They must also act out their activity without making noises or talking. The students have to use props. When they are done with their frozen moments activity, the class will guess what their activity was.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Describe life on the Santa Fe Trail.
        • Participate in group discussions as a contributer and leader.
  • Science
    • Which Leavening Agent Would Be Best?
      • Students will investigate what they could use as a leavening agent for cake baking while on the prairie.
      • One group will make a cake using baking powder, one group will make the same cake using egg whites, and one group will make the cake using baking soda.
      • Students will decide as a class whose cake worked the best.
      • Standards Addressed
      • Design and conduct experiments in a small group
        • Make careful observations and test things more than once
    • There's A Hole In Your Bucket, Dear Liza
    • Since carrying water was very important on the trail, students will design a bucket that leaks the least.
    • In small groups, students will be given materials to create a bucket. They may use all or some. They will receive wax paper, construction paper, aluminum foil, modeling clay, pipe cleaners, string, rope, rubber bands, popsicle sticks, a cardboard box, a paper bag, glue, and a stapler. Students will create their bucket, fill it with two cups of water, and will be timed on how long it takes for the water to leak out. The team with the lowest time will win.
    • Standards Addressed
        • Use provided materials to construct objects for a particular tasks.
        • Manipulate objects and observe events in an experiment.
Historical Overview of Chapter Themes

The trip to California would take most emigrants 4-6 months to make. Since it was such a long journey, a wagon train had to be an organized mini-city. Emigrants joined together into parties so that they would have protection and help. Most parties consisted of relatives journeying west together or people from the same hometown, as in the case of Sallie Fox. Some companies consisted of people who met at a jumping off place and were looking for a group to join. The most successful groups were those that had a written constitution, a set of rules, or a code to go by when disagreements happened. There were rules governing drinking, gambling, camping, and marching. The captain’s train usually got to go first, with a set order of how the other wagons would follow. There were also penalties written into the codes for rule breaking and how to help the sick or deceased and their families. Almost every wagon train elected a leader, or captain. The captain had a vitally important job. They decided when and where the group would camp each night, where and when they would stop for meals, when they would start in the morning, how to cross rivers, and which trail they would take. The captain was often elected because they were the richest or oldest member of the wagon train, not necessarily the one with the most experience or knowledge, which could have devastating effects later on in the journey.

Shortly after starting their journey, a well-defined daily routine became the norm on the trail. A typical day for a pioneer family began before sunrise, with a breakfast of bacon, coffee, and bread. The wagons had to be loaded and re-packed so that the wagon train could leave by six or seven o’clock in the morning. Around mid-day, they stopped for nooning. Lunch consisted of a cold meal of coffee, beans, and bacon that was eaten at breakfast, also. This was also a time to stop to rest the horses and to take a break from walking. The wagon train usually stopped around 5:00 every night, after traveling anywhere from 10-20 miles that day. The wagons were circled to protect the travelers. In the evening, a hot meal of rice, boiled beef, and tea was usually served. Men took care of the animals and made repairs to the wagons. Evening activities usually included some schooling for the children, singing and dancing if somebody had an instrument, and telling stories around the campfire. Some wagon trains would stop on Sundays to rest all day and get needed chores done, or take the morning off for religious services and continue on in the afternoon.

Additional Resources


Christine Anderson said...

I really appreciated the amount of research that must have gone into the historical background on this blog. As a teacher it is nice to see a little more of the picture so that I can answer the questions that come up as we read. I was also a fan of many of the activities that were posted here. Everything fit nicely with grade level standards and seemed to flow well with the story. I especially liked how the writer starts out by having the student make personal connections with the text through a journal entry about a time when they left home. That always seems to make the story more meaningful to the kids. The "Frozen Moments" activity also looked very interesting. That is one I have never done before, but would be very eager to try.

Sarah Nicol said...

I liked your idea of frozen moments. That is an excellent way of getting those students that are more kinesthetic involved. We all have students that could benefit from moving around. We also all have students that would hate to be in front of the class acting something out, so it is good that you have balanced your activities. I would love to try this with my 5th graders just to see what they could come up with.

I also liked your idea about "loading up the wagon." I have done this with my students and they enjoyed it. What would be awesome is if the students could visually see how big an average wagon was. You could rope off a section of the classroom. That way when they are "buying" items they could see how much room they would have.

ELEE273 said...

Dana I really really liked your loading up the wagon idea. I think it wil really help students to make connections to what life was like in a covered wagon, and the decisions that had to be made about what to bring. I also like your idea of the students graphing their daily activties. The double bar graph is a good idea. I like the use of graphs, and elaspsed time beacause my students usually struggle in this area.

Christy G. Keeler, Ph.D. said...

Having students compare the number of hours they work per day and their activities to those of the pioneers will be a real eye-opener!

Following up on comments I included on your Chapter One blog page...
There are two great hands-on, arts-based activities you list in the current chapter. I love the frozen moments idea. You could have students look at a variety of pictures from the pioneers of the era doing whatever activity they were assigned to develop their own picture. Also, designing the bucket is a great way to teach about tools and engineering!

beth said...

I absolutely loved your idea on the frozen moments. I can see the students in my class doing this and enjoying the activity. Most students like to do skits and to act in front of the class and what an easy way to let them incorporate this into our history lesson.

Just as with chapter 1, I was impressed with the amount of stuff that they had to pack. As a followup, we coul dhave them work on how much they used each week and how much is left for the rest of the journey. Maybe they could average out their supplies and together we could bring in one day's worth of rations to see how they would enjoy just having that to live on so they didn't run out. I think somebody else mentioned elsewhere that most of us forget there were no stops anywhere for supplies, no grocery stores to run to if you ran out, or a McDonalds for a quick fix! I personally want to try this and see what it actually looked like!

Colin Haas said...

I really liked the idea of loading the wagon. Thats a great way for the students to try and understand what they could bring and not bring. I have an excellent lesson on how to build a wagon and my students would also do it in 4th grade. This also could be a great math lesson because a lot of those wagons were just supplies for the trip so the ycould figure out much money and supllies they would need for the trip.