Teaching American History Project Lesson
  Gretchen Conway

Heading West:
Trials and Tribulations of Life on the Trail

Gretchen Conway
5th grade
Diedrichsen Elementary

Portfolio Cover Sheet

Author:  Gretchen Conway
Title:  Heading West:  Trials and Tribulations of Life on the Trail
Historical Topic:  1800-1862

Nevada Standards:
Nevada History Standards

  • H2.4.2 Describe the experiences of pioneers moving west
  • H2.4.3 Identify explorers and settlers in pre-territorial Nevada
  • H2.4.4 Identify the diverse population of Nevada’s early settlers and discuss their unique experiences.
  • G5.5.4 Construct maps, graphs, and charts to display information about human and physical features in the United States
  • G6.5.2 Identify U. S. regions in which historical events occurred, i.e., thirteen colonies, Underground Railroad, and California gold fields.
  • G7.5.2 List push pull factors influencing human migration and settlement in the United States.

English/Language Arts Standards

  • 2.5.4 Clarify understanding of text by note taking, outlining, completing a graphic organizer, summarizing, and writing a report.
  • 5.51 Write informative papers that develop a clear topic with appropriate facts, details, and examples from a variety of sources.
  • 6.5.7 Share final drafts with a designated audience
  • 11.5.2 Select info from multiple resources to answer questions
  • 11.5.5 Present research findings using charts maps or graphs with written text

Learning about the various emigrant parties and their experiences on the trail heading west give different perspectives about trail life.  The first party to cross the Great Basin in 1841 was the Bidwell-Bartleson Party. This party also included the first woman and child to cross.  Another party, Walker-Chiles, emigrated in 1843. Emigrations, such as the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party’s, prove that with leadership and internal cohesion within a group can be a success.  This party consistently made joint decisions and split up when they needed to in order to make it to their destination.  Even when they had to leave one of their members behind, he was able to survive the winter by trapping animals and eating them.  On the other hand, the Donner party did not work well together, made some very unfortunate decisions (Hastings’ Cutoff), and were unable to make it over the summit before the snowstorms hit.  Due to these events half of their party did not make it to California alive.   

There were many trails heading west, many of them following the path of rivers.  The draw of riches created by the discovery of gold in 1848 created “The Gold Rush”.  People were leaving their jobs, farms, and homes to head to California.  The trails became congested with people trying to make a new life.  By 1849 more than 80,000 people arrived in California.  Most traveled by wagon and horseback over the California Trail.


Portfolio Table of Contents

Activities and Learning Goals:

  1. Primary Source Activity * History Mystery—Emigration Parties

    Learning Goal:  In groups of four, students will study primary sources relating to emigration trail parties.  Students will identify the party based on primary sources given and write an explanation for each primary source.  Each group will share what they learned with the class.  Every student will write 3-5 important facts they learn from the presentations about each emigration party.

  2. Wordle Activity * Venn Diagram—Donner Party vs. Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party

    Learning Goal:  With a partner, students will compare and contrast two Wordles.  They will complete a Venn diagram using the information from their Wordles.  Students will then write a paragraph about the information found in the Wordles.

  3. Foldable * Western Trails

    Learning Goal:  Students will create foldables focusing on the 5 main western trails from the 1840s.  They will include information such as; starting point, destination, distance, and who used them.

  4. Internet/Technology * Timeline Search

    Learning Goal:  Using the website listed students will search the timeline and find important facts about westward expansion and put them in order.  They will also search primary sources from this site.

  5. Art Piece/Writing * Primary Source Paint

    Learning Goal:  Students will choose a westward trail image to copy into a painting using a q-tip as a brush.  When the painting is finished they will write a story about their painting.

  6. Student Project * Timeline Poster

    Learning Goal:  Students will choose a time period during the westward movement.  Students will research and create a poster that includes important things that happened during that time period.  They will also include people involved, locations, effects it had on history and why they were important events.  The poster must also have a map, new vocabulary listed and defined, and at least 2 primary sources.  Once finished, all student posters will be displayed on a timeline throughout the classroom.


History Mystery: “Emigration Parties”

  1.   Get a “confidential file”.
  2.   Use the pictures to help you identify the mystery party.
  3.   On a post-it, describe what you think each clue represents.
  4.   Once you think you have discovered the mystery party, answer the clue provided in your “confidential file”.
  5.   If you answer the clue correctly, you will discover the name of your MYSTERY EMIGRATION PARTY.
  6.   Be prepared to share what you have learned about your mystery party with the rest of the class.
  7.   During each groups’ presentation, write 3-5 interesting facts you have learned about each party.


Wordle Activity

  1. With a partner, compare and contrast the Wordles you have been given.
  2. Complete the Venn diagram using the information in your Wordles.
  3. Each partner must choose a wordle to write a paragraph about. 

**To receive full credit, the paragraph and Venn diagram must be turned in.



  • Create a foldable following the example given.
  • Use the information in your Social Studies book to find information on the Western Trails in the 1840s.
  • Please include the following information about each trail:
        • Starting point
        • Destination
        • Distance
        • Who used them

**The purpose of this foldable is to provide information on some of the main trails that were used by emigrants headed west.



Student-friendly internet sites:

1. http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/events/
Interactive timeline that charts significant events in the west

2.   http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/
Interactive biographical dictionary provides profiles of men and women featured in the west

3.    http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/modules/westward/index.cfm:
Resources and information about westward expansion

4. http://www.isu.edu/~trinmich/allabout.html:
Information on the gold rush, also includes information on “trail traffic”

5. http://highlightskidsplus.com/Stories/NonFiction/NF0597_coveredwagons.asp
Non-fiction story about covered wagons on the Oregon Trail, includes quotes from pioneers on the trail

6. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/WE-CaliforniaTrail.html
Information on the California trail with images

7. http://history.howstuffworks.com/american-history/donner-party.htm
How the Donner Party worked, includes pictures and short video

8. http://www.sfsocialstudies.com/g5/u6/index.html:
Companion website to social studies curriculum, has quiz about the gold rush—students can click to refer to areas in their text books

9. http://www.nevada-history.org/beginning.html#bidwell:
Information about the first emigrant parties that traveled through Nevada

10. http://www.museumca.org/goldrush/fever.html:
Virtual tour of a real exhibition in CA on the Gold Rush, can also see and hear stories about the Gold Rush


Website Activity


Students will use this website to:

  • Find the timeline
  • Search time period of westward expansion
  • Write down 3-5 interesting facts and put in date order
  • search primary sources


Art Piece/Writing

  • Using the internet, social studies book, or class books; find an image representing “life on the trail”.
  • Copy this image using paint and a q-tip as your brush.
  • Once your piece is finished write a story describing what you think is happening in the image you have chosen.  Use the information you have learned about life on the trail and clues from the image.


Timeline Poster

Dear Student,

Your job is to create a poster that represents important events that happened in the time period you have chosen.  This will be a research project, so you will be given time in the computer lab to collect your needed research.  You will have approximately 4 weeks to complete this assignment.  The following are what MUST be included to get full credit:

  • At least 5 important events that happened during this time period.  You must tell why these events were important and the effect they had historically.
  • Information about the people involved in these events and the role they played.
  • Location of where these events took place
  • One map that has to do with your events
  • 5-10 interesting vocabulary words and their definitions
  • At least 2 primary sources
  • The poster must be neat and organized!
  • You must present your poster to the class and be able to answer questions about your events.

All completed posters will be posted on a timeline in the classroom.

Posters will be due by:___________________________________


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