Teaching American History Project Lesson
  Joel Sharpe

Author:  Joel Sharpe

Unit Title:  The American West

Lesson Title:  Stereotypes of the “Wild West”

Subject:  United States History

Level:  8th Grade



Most of what the average person knows about the 19th century West comes from popular movies and T. V.  Unfortunately for the history teacher, these mediums combine just as much fiction as they do fact.  What teachers find, then, is a classroom full of students who think they know about the “Wild West,” when much of what they know is actually distorted or inaccurate.

The purpose of this lesson is to expose the misinformation students have received from pop culture.  Using a modern western movie, students will be shown some of the most common stereotypes in western film making.  Then, students will create a poster of the stereotypical western to show his/her understanding of these stereotypes.  This lesson would be an ideal way to start a unit on the American West because it would communicate to students that a study of the 19th century West has to go beyond the study of “cowboys and Indians” in order to be complete.



  • Learners will demonstrate an understanding of some of the more common stereotypes of the West.
  • Learners will demonstrate the ability to analyze film.
  • Learners will demonstrate the ability to synthesize what they learned about western stereotypes and translate that into a visual form.


Nevada State Content Standards:

Standard 2.0: History Skills: Students will use social studies vocabulary and concepts to engage in inquiry, in research, in analysis, and in decision making.
Benchmark 2.8.2 Evaluate sources of historical information based on: credibility, reliability

Standard 7.0: 1860 to 1920: Students understand the importance and impact of political, economic, and social ideas.
Benchmark 7.8.5 Describe the western frontier.


In-class Student activities:

  • Open the class by having students write down their answers to the following question written on the board or overhead transparency:  What is a stereotype (include a definition and an example).  Have students share their definitions and examples.  Tell students they will be looking for stereotypes about the “Wild West,” and then recreating some of those stereotypes on a cartoon poster they will draw, annotate, and color.
  • Have the class brainstorm everything they think about when they think of the “Wild West,” and write their ideas on the board.  Next, show two clips from the film Back to the Future Part III (or any other western movie that clearly plays off western stereotypes—see “Additional Bibliography/Acknowledgement” at the end of this lesson for other movie ideas).  The first scene begins approximately 17 minutes into the movie, when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) first travels back to the West in the year 1885.  Have students write down anything they see from the movie that was written on the board.  Also, they can write down anything that seems “western” that was not written on the board.  Tell them they must write down at least 5 “western things” for each film clip.  Have students complete this same exercise for the second scene, which begins approximately 28 minutes into the film, when Marty walks into the saloon for the first time.
  • After the students have written down their ideas, make a comparison between what was written on the board and what was scene in the film clips.  Then, have them share classic stereotypes about the “Wild West” that was not written on the board, and add these to the list.  Highlight a few of these stereotypes and point out why they are not accurate.  Some stereotypes you may want to focus on from Back to the Future Part III are:
  • In the first clip, Marty finds himself in the middle of a stark desert with monoliths all around.  Though considered “typical” of the West, this environment is actually found in only a small portion of the West (point out the differences between this desert region of the Southwest, the wet forests of the Northwest, the stark mountains of the Rockies and Sierras, and the flat plains of the Great Plains—all of which were a part of the 19th century West).
  • In the first clip, a band of yelling Indians is being chased by the U. S. cavalry (a classic cowboy and Indian scene).  It is true that Indian wars did take place during the later part of the century, but witnessing such a scene would have been more the exception than the norm for most westerners.  Explain to students that most people who went west did not fight with Native Americans, though the Native American threat was exaggerated even in their day.
  • In the second clip, Marty walks into a “typical” saloon and runs into the bad cowboy wearing a black hat.  Ask students how many cowboys they think there were during this time in history.  They will almost certainly be surprised that at the height of the profession (between 1880-1890), the cowboy population never got higher than 2% of the total western population.
  • Tell students they will be using the list of stereotypes written on the board (you may want to have students copy this list onto their own piece of paper) to create “The Stereotypical Western” poster.  Students must have a central person in their poster, as well as five other smaller drawings.  Each drawing must be annotated with an explanation of each stereotype.  These posters should be reminiscent of the cartoon posters that are published to make fun of common stereotypes.  You may want to show them an example of a professional cartoon poster to illustrate what one looks like (see Jim Snook’s website under “Additional Bibliography/Acknowledgements”).
  • Pass out an 11X17 size piece of paper to each student.  Have them first draw and annotate their poster in pencil, then add color after you have checked it for completeness.  Students will probably need time to finish their posters at home.
  • Post finish posters around the room.


Extended Enrichment materials:

  • Have students watch a classic western, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and then write up a one page review of the western stereotypes in the film.
  • Chose a western stereotype and research what the west was really like in that particular area.  Create a presentation that exposes the myth and reveals the truth behind the stereotype.


Materials list:

  • Back to the Future Part III (see bibliographic information under “Additional Bibliography/Acknowledgement”)
  • 11X17 white paper (one per student)
  • Colored pencils


Evaluation /Assessment:

  • Students will first be evaluated informally when the teacher walks around the room to check students’ posters before they are colored.  The teacher will provide feedback that the student must incorporate into his/her work.
  • The final evaluation will be based on each student’s finished poster.  The poster must have a central character, five smaller drawings, and an annotation for each drawing (including the central character).  The poster will be graded on completeness, creativity (including humor), and quality (including color).


Additional Bibliography/Acknowledgement:

  • Back to the Future Part III.  Dir. Robert Zemeckis.  With Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.  Universal, 1990.
  • Jim Snook Outdoor Sports Cartoons!!!http://www.jimsnookcartoons.com.  See Jim Snook’s website to order a catalog for his cartoon posters.  His posters are great examples of the type of illustrated cartoon posters the students are going to create.