Our family has been studying United States history for quite a while. We have been reading the three part series of Masterbooks’ America’s Story.
We are taking our time and allowing ourselves to become easily sidetracked as we deep-dive into various historical events. Most recently, we all became fascinated with pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. Consequently, I developed my own Oregon Trail homeschool unit study.
It is not surprising that we are interested in the history of the pioneers who settled in Oregon, because that is where we live. But the story of what the pioneers left behind and all the challenges they faced because they believed they could make a better life for themselves and their children is a story that will inspire your student no matter where you live.
The books we used for this unit study:
Bound for Oregon
We used Bound for Oregon for our family read-aloud. This is the fictional account of an actual pioneer family, the Todd family, as they travel from Arkansas to Oregon. Two things to note about this book:
First, the “N” word is used twice in chapter 8. The book is set in 1852, just as the issue of slavery was coming to a head in the United States. The clear protagonists of the book are against slavery, but one family in the wagon train formerly owned slaves.
Second, the story refers to the states as they are now, not the historical territories that existed at the time the Todd family traveled through them. For example, Wyoming did not exist in 1852. This is why it was so helpful to use multiple maps as we were reading the book.
For reference, we kept on hand a current map of the United States, a map of the Oregon Trail, and a map of the US as it looked in 1852. Anytime the book stated the location of the family as they traveled, we could look at our maps to get a visual idea of their journey. If you would like to see some of the maps I printed out, you can visit my Oregon Trail pinterest board.
Daily Life in a Covered Wagon
My children used Daily Life in a Covered Wagon to complete their comprehension assignments. This book is full of visuals and information as it follows the diary of the Larkin family heading West. I found more than one of my children engrossed in this book after our history lesson was over.
The Prairie Traveler
One book that I found particularly interesting was The Prairie Traveler. This is an actual guide book that was published in 1859 for pioneers heading west. It covers all sorts of topics from routes to provisions to setting up and guarding your wagon camps to repairing broken wagon wheels to interacting with natives- you get the idea. Basically, this book contains the information that travelers needed to help them prepare and make the journey.
Our Great Northwest
Our Great Northwest was published in 1954. Although now out of print, you can find used copies easily on sites like Etsy. This book has colorful illustrations and stories of Native American life, pioneer life, and information about the Northwest corner of the US. I would not use this book as a textbook, but it contains enjoyable, short stories.
Comprehension and application worksheets
We had many discussions all about pioneer life as we read the books listed above. Therefore, I kept the actual work load minimal for my kids. They were each given one comprehension assignment.
For my second grader, I made up a simple “Pioneer Packing List” with bullet points for him to fill out. He needed a couple prompts, such as “What tools would they have needed?”
For my fourth grader, I made up an “Interview with a Pioneer” worksheet. I included questions like:
- “What are some reasons you are traveling West?”
- “Can you list some of the dangers and hardships you have encountered along the way?”
- “What did you pack for your journey?”
My sixth grader researched landmarks along the way and the significance of each.
Hands-on pioneer activities:
- make pretzel (or Lincoln log) log cabins
- make your own lye from wood ash, then use the lye to make your own soap
- churn your own butter
- candle dipping
- make a sourdough starter, like the pioneers did so that they could make bread without bakers yeast (we love all things sourdough!)
- cook over a campfire in a dutch oven
- learn how to start a fire
Places to visit along the Oregon Trail
Taking a field trip to enhance your Oregon Trail unit study will, of course, depend on your location. Here are a few ideas:
- National Frontier Trails Museum
- Museum of Westward Expansion
- Fort Larned National Historic Site
- Great Plains Black Museum
- Oregon Trail Museum/ Scotts Bluff National Monument
- Fort Kearney State Historical Park
- Chimney Rock
- Pioneer Museum
- Pioneer Heritage Center
- Fort Laramie National Historic Site
- Fort Bridger State Historic Site
- Devil’s Gate National Park
- Independence Rock State Historic Site
- Fort Hall Replica and Museum
- Old Fort Boise Replica and Museum
- Pioneer Village
- California Trail Interpretive Center
- Nevada County Historical Society Museum
- Donner Memorial State Park and Emigrant Trail Museum
- Pioneer Farm Museum
- The High Desert Museum
- End of the Oregon Trail Museum
- Philip Foster Farm
Please comment below if there is a good spot to visit that I have neglected to mention or if you know of a good resource for learning about the Oregon Trail!