Study Early American History with Movies: Colonial Times to the Civil War

Let Your Teens Learn About Early American History with Movies Set in the 1700s to the mid 1800s.

History class sometimes gets a bad rap as being boring.

My family discovered that it’s our favorite subject when we stepped away from textbook-style learning. We love combining our literature and history and then adding in other hands-on projects and media to create an immersive learning environment.

Movies can be a wonderful way for teens to learn more about history. Check out this list for early American history.

Also, be sure to read about four ways to incorporate movies into your homeschool (beyond “read the book and then watch the movie”) in this post:

How to Study American History through Movies for Homeschool Families

Early American History with Movies: A Vetted List

These early American History movies are vetted for appropriateness for high school students (ages 14 and above). Some are rated R, mostly for violence, and they are noted.

There are several movies on this list produced by Disney, which would be appropriate for all members of your family (these are labeled as well).

Parents should preview any movie that they feel is questionable for their children, however, as family preferences may differ. Common Sense Media and Plugged In are helpful sources of movie reviews.

I have not included documentaries or docudramas, only fictionalized accounts of actual events or times.

Some links in this post may be affiliate links. This means that if you click on them, I may make a tiny commission, at no extra cost to you. For more info, check our privacy policy.

colonial american history

American Colonial Times

Felicity: An American Girl Adventure 2005 G Don’t dismiss this one just because it’s American Girl. It’s actually a great family-friendly production starring Shailene Woodley.

Keeping the Promise (The Sign of the Beaver) 1997 G. This Feature Film for Families movie is based upon the book The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare but was originally released under the name Keeping the Promise. You can find it on Amazon Prime and at many libraries.

Disney’s Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale. PG 1994 A live-action story about Squanto’s life and how he escaped capture twice, only to be caught a third time. He played a major part in saving the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Great movie to watch at Thanksgiving, even if not completely historically accurate. Also on Prime.

The Crucible 2011 PG-13. This is a movie version, not a filmed version on the play, so some scenes are split up differently from the stage version. Be sure to discuss how Arthur Miller wrote this play in reaction to the Red Scare and McCarthyism. There are also many literature guides available to help you if you want to examine some of the many themes in this movie.

american history revolutionary war

American Revolutionary War

Early American History Movies for the Whole Family

April Morning 1988 NR (Hallmark Hall of Fame) is the story of the famous “shot heard round the world” which started the American Revolutionary War with Great Britain. It’s also available on Prime.

Johnny Tremain: He Answered Freedom’s Call 1957 PG is a Disney production. It’s a very patriotic look at how colonists stood up and fought for liberty. A good account of the events around Boston leading up to the start of the war. It’s also available on Prime, Vudu, and YouTube.

Early American History Movies Best for Teens

Drums Along the Mohawk NR 1939 This is an older movie, but is in color and stars Henry Fonda. The frontier in the late 1770s was the Mohawk Valley in New York State. The settlers there lived peaceably with the Native Americans until they are stirred up by a British sympathizer.

The Crossing 2000 PG (produced by A & E) stars Jeff Daniels as George Washington. General Washington leads his men across the Delaware River on Christmas Day, 1776, in their last, desperate attempt to defeat the British. Also available on Netflix.

The Patriot 2000 R stars Mel Gibson. If you don’t mind violence, this is a fantastic look at the Revolutionary War in the southern colonies. Gibson’s character is loosely based upon Frances Marion, a military leader in South Carolina. It’s also available on Prime. (There’s another film from 1999 with the same name starring Steven Segall–that’s not the one you want).

The Broken Chain 1993 NR starring Pierce Brosnan. If you can find a copy of this movie, I highly recommend it. (We have the old VHS version.) If you don’t have a VHS player, try searching online (YouTube) for a streaming version. This movie is about two Iroquois brothers who end up on opposite sides of the conflict. One of the few movies that tell the story from the perspective of the Native Americans, who were trying to hold onto their way of life.

American history movies

Westward Expansion

Early 1800s Movies

Sacagawea: Heroine of the Lewis and Clark Journey 2003 NR looks at the life of the Native American girl who was such an integral part of the Corps of Discovery. Not much is known about her other than what was in the Corps’ journals, including where and when she died, so there are differing opinions about many of her biographical facts. Still, it’s a worthwhile film! Also, check out this Lewis & Clark unit study for more information about the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery. It’s also available on Amazon Prime.

lewis and clark unit study

The Buccaneer 1958 PG stars Yul Brynner and Charleston Heston. General Jackson gets help from the “Prince of Pirates” Jean LaFitte in defending New Orleans from the British in the war of 1812. It’s available on Prime.

The Alamo 2004 PG-13 stars Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton. The John Wayne version is pretty famous, but the new version of The Alamo is more historically accurate. Both are on Amazon Prime. Also, be sure to look at this Davy Crockett & the Alamo unit study for more information about the Battle of the Alamo.

davy crockett alamo product
Mid 1800s Movies

Seasons of the Heart 1993 G stars Leigh Lombardi and is a Feature Films for Family movie. (There’s another movie by the same name that stars Carol Burnett.) About a family that loses two children along the Oregon Trail and go on to adopt another. I highly recommend it!

Seven Alone G 1974 is another family-friendly production. It’s based upon the true story of the Sager family as they were some of the first pioneers to make their way to a new life on the Oregon Trail. Older kids can look up the true ending of their story and how they ended up with the Whitman family in Oregon. Also, check out this Oregon Trail unit study for information about the pioneers. This movie is also available on Prime and Netflix.

oregon trail unit study printables product

Dances With Wolves 1990 PG-13 stars Kevin Costner in one of his most famous roles at John Dunbar. Although this movie is technically set during the Civil War, I’ve included it here because it fits more with the Western Expansion theme. This is a must-watch movie! It’s also available on YouTube, Vudu, Hulu, GooglePlay, and Prime.

Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin 1967 G is a Walt Disney Production of the book, By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman. This story is about a young boy who stows away on a ship bound for California, headed to find gold. He is chased by the family’s butler, who wants to bring him home. A fun, family comedy. Also available on YouTube, GooglePlay, Vudu, Disney+, and Prime.

More American History Movies

Mid American History: Civil War up to World War I

Modern American History: World War I & World War II

Post War American History: 1945 to 1970

History with Broadway Musicals

Civil Rights Movement up to September 11 (coming soon)

BONUS LIST: Family Christmas Movies: Beyond Elf and Charlie Brown

Be sure to follow my Pinterest boards US History: Westward Expansion and Middle & High School History for more great hands-on activities and ideas for teaching American History to you homeschool teens!

Don’t forget to pin this post so you can refer back to it later!

early American history through movies
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