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An Oregon Trail Unit Study for Upper Elementary Homeschool Families

A Family-Style Oregon Trail Unit Study for Upper Elementary Homeschool Students

This Homeschooling Family-style Oregon Trail unit study is generally for students working at a third to fifth-grade level.

Feel free to mix and match with the Early Learners (preschool to 2nd grade) and Middle to High School (6th to 12th grades) posts to find activities that best suit your children and their learning styles.

In this Oregon Trail Unit Study, your students will:

  • Build a wagon
  • Filter water
  • Cook over a campfire
  • Listen to a Cherokee folktale
  • Find out why the Diet soda + mentos experiment is in this unit
  • Discover why oxen and mules were used instead of horses
  • and much more!

This Oregon Trail unit study combines classical, Charlotte Mason style learning through Living Books, and English Language Arts, History, Fine & Gross Motor, Poetry, and Folktales with full hands-on STEAM activities.

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.

Oregon Trail English Language Arts

Independent Readers

This Dear America Book, My Name is America: The Journal of Jedediah Barstow by Ellen Levine tells the saga of a boy whose family dies while trying to ford their wagon across a river. Jedediah decides to continue to Oregon in memory of his family’s dream to go west. Many libraries carry this Dear America series.

There is a similar series called My America that has an Oregon Trail book, Westward to Home: Joshua’s Diary by Patricia Hermes, that is an easier reading level (2nd to 3rd grade). The second book in the series is A Perfect Place: Joshua’s Oregon Trail Diary by the same author.

This Dear America series book, Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie by Kristiana Gregory, tells the story of Hattie Campbell crossing the continent along the Oregon Trail in 1847. She begins her journal on her 13th birthday in Boonville, Missouri, a small town on the Missouri River, halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City. Be sure to check out the historical notes and photos at the end of the book.

Read Aloud Living Books

Pick one of the two following books for a family read-aloud.

Bound for Oregon by Jean Van Leeuwen is a classic story about Mary Ellen Todd, a nine-year-old girl who really did travel on the Oregon Trail. This book is based upon the book written by Mary Ellen’s daughter, who wanted to preserve her family’s story. When Mary Ellen’s family made the long journey to Oregon, the exaggerated stories of Native Americans attacking settlers were circling the country, in part because of the Whitman Massacre (read this article from PBS to learn more about Marcus and Narcissa Whitman).

In Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw (another very popular Oregon Trail book), Jim has lived with the Crow Indians for six years when he decides to go west with his younger siblings. This is an adventure story that your kids will love!

Folktale

First Nations all have different folktales about how man first obtained fire. Listen to Robert Lewis tell the traditional Cherokee story of The First Fire.

Literary Analysis

Have your student describe the mood and setting of the book that your family used as a readaloud for a literary analysis of that book. Use the Oregon Trail Literary Analysis worksheet for Upper Elementary in the Free Resource Library.

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    Writing

    Start by reading the book If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon by Ellen Levine to learn some facts about traveling on the Oregon Trail.

    Next, answer the questions on the pre-writing page. Use the Oregon Trail Intermediate Research Writing worksheets from the Free Resource Library. The pdf file contains both a pre-writing worksheet and a final draft printable.

    This will help your students organize what they learned in the book into ideas for their writing paper. Use those answers on the pre-writing page to make sentences for your report.

    Finally, have them write two paragraphs with 4-5 sentences each on the writing page about traveling on the Oregon Trail. Copy two pages of the final draft printable if you need more room for your two paragraphs.

    Poetry

    Arthur Chapman wrote his most famous poem, Out Where the West Begins, in1917 in response to some governors of Western states who were arguing over whether their state was “in the west” or not.

    Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
    Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
    That’s where the West begins;
    Out where the sun is a little brighter,
    Where the snows that fall are a trifle whiter,
    Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter,
    That’s where the West begins.

    Out where the skies are a trifle bluer,
    Out where friendship’s a little truer,
    That’s where the West begins;
    Out where a fresher breeze is blowing,
    Where there’s laughter in every streamlet flowing,
    Where there’s more of reaping and less of sowing,
    That’s where the West begins;

    Out where the world is in the making,
    Where fewer hearts in despair are aching,
    That’s where the West begins;
    Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
    Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,
    And a man makes friends without half trying —
    That’s where the West begins.

    Arthur Chapman, Public Domain

    Grammar

    Copywork and narration are a real-life way to work on grammar skills. Use the Oregon Trail Copywork and Narration for Upper Elementary page from the Free Resource Library.

    After your child has written the sentence from dictation, let her see the original to check it with her work. Have her correct her work, so that she knows how it should look.

    As an extension of the narration, have him find the preposition phrases in the sentences.

    Vocabulary

    Use the Oregon Trail Intermediate Vocabulary from the Free Resource Library to learn new Oregon Trail words like “overlanders” and “bullwhackers”. My oldest daughter hand-drew all of the vocabulary images to look like they are from an Oregon Trail journal.

    You can use the vocabulary words as spelling words, as a word wall to practice copywork, or as flashcards to work on memorizing definitions or just making sure that they understand the concepts.

    Spelling

    Research shows that kids retain information better if they are using it in a meaningful way. Spell out your spelling words with Scrabble tiles and see which word has the most points.

    Get all of the printables for all levels of the Oregon Trail Unit Study in one convenient download!

    Oregon Trail STEAM

    Science

    Animals

    The emigrants chose mules or oxen to pull their wagons instead of horses. Learn why mules and oxen were a smarter choice for the 2170 mile trip in the book, The Oregon Trail by Karen Bush Gibson (on pages 64-65), or another non-fiction book about the Oregon Trail from your local library, or this page from The National California/Oregon Trail Center.

    Next, talk about the differences between cattle and oxen.

    Learn more about oxen at these pages from Living History Farm and the Miles Smith Farm. Use the Oregon Trail Mules & Oxen Comparison worksheet from the Free Resource Library to show what you’ve learned.

    Then find out how mules are different from horses here.

    Not a member of the Whole Child Homeschool Tribe yet? Scroll up to the dark pink box above to sign up and get immediate access to the Free Resource Library.

    Soda

    Soda Springs, Idaho was considered an oasis along the Oregon Trail by the emigrants. The area was filled with natural geysers, fountains, warm water pools, and mud-pots.

    The emigrants bathed and washed their clothes in the warm water. They loved sampling the different flavored soda waters and used them to leaven their bread dough. The geysers were created by water mixing with carbon dioxide.

    Most of the waters contained heavy concentrations of sulfur or iron. The Native Americans believed the springs had healing water.

    Dry lakebeds in the region would be covered with white alkali (baking soda) that the emigrants called saleratus. If your kids haven’t tried the diet cola and mentos mints experiment, this would be a fabulous tie into this unit. The candy mints release all the carbon dioxide in the soda, creating a giant geyser. Get the full instructions from Steve Spangler Science.

    Technology

    People traveling by wagon couldn’t carry much water with them each day because water is heavy! They had to rely on finding good water sources each day for their own needs as well as the oxen, mules, and cows with them. Many of the emigrant’s journals describe the difficulty of finding clean water and having to drink dirty, gritty water that may or may not have been safe to drink.

    In the United States, we are lucky to have clean, safe water! See what it’s like to filter water with this experiment from Teach Beside Me.

    Engineering

    The wagons that the emigrants used were very narrow and long, usually 4 feet wide and 10 feet long.

    Using some common household supplies, see if your kids can put together a wagon that will hold a full soda can or a regular-size can of fruit or vegetables.

    Give your kids some cardboard, a handful of pipe cleaners, masking tape, toothpicks, 8 drinking straws, 4 plastic lids for wheels (we used the kind that twists off of pouches of applesauce), paper, and scissors. Let them experiment to see what works and what doesn’t.

    Art

    Fine Arts

    Albert Bierstadt was born in Prussia in 1830 and moved to the United States with his family when he was one year old. He painted very detailed, romanticized landscapes, mainly of the American West.

    Bierstadt often used luminism, a glowing lighting appearance, in his work. Unlike many artists, he achieved financial success during his lifetime but was largely forgotten after his death in 1902.

    For art appreciation this week, look at the many details and luminism of his painting, The Oregon Trail. Bierstadt also painted a similarly titled work, Emigrants Crossing the Plains, or Oregon Trail, which is in the Primary lessons for this unit.

    oregon trail unit study
    Albert Bierstadt, The Oregon Trail, 1863 Public Domain
    Practical Arts

    The emigrants cooked their meals over campfires each day that they were able.

    If you have access to a campfire area, try cooking your supper over a fire. If you don’t have an outdoor area, or it’s wintertime when you’re studying the Oregon Trail, cook something in a covered pot in your kitchen which is like the Dutch Oven pots that the emigrants used.

    Learn how to build a campfire for cooking at Earth Easy. Watch the Backwoods Gourmet and learn how to cook pinto beans over a campfire.

    Or go modernday and use this recipe for Campfire Nachos from Fresh Off the Grid.

    Math

    Despite the popular notion that the wagon trains used Conestoga Wagons, the emigrants preferred the smaller “prairie schooners”.

    Prairie Schooners got their name because they looked like boats with white sails floating across the wide prairie as they moved through the very tall prairie grass (buffalo grass grew six feet tall).

    Prairie schooners were usually painted bright blue with red wheels and were four feet wide by ten feet long.

    Have your child figure up the square footage of the wagon. Talk about how the emigrants had to fit ALL of their belongings into that space. Ask your kids if they think they could fit everything they needed into that space if they were going to move across the country.

    prairie schooner wagon train oregon trail

    The oxen or mule team needed to be able to pull the wagon up and down mountains. That means that the wagons couldn’t weigh too much or the animals would suffer and possibly even die if they were made to pull too much weight.

    Prairie schooners could hold 1.5 tons, but emigrants were advised to keep their load well below that limit. The wagon itself weighed 1300 pounds and the team could pull a wagon with 2000 pounds loaded in it fairly well over the mountains.

    Families with greater financial means usually took more than one wagon.

    Use this lesson plan from the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center to decide what you would take in your wagon.

    Oregon Trail History

    Listen to Francis Parkman, Jr.’s classic book, The Oregon Trail. Many libraries have the audiobook available through Hoopla or you can listen at Learn Out Loud. Or, you can listen to smaller chunks at a time with the Bedtime Stories with Thomson podcast.

    Oregon Trail Music

    Katherine Lee Bates wrote the poem, America, in 1893, as a tribute to Pike’s Peak (the purple mountain’s majesty) in the Rocky Mountains.

    She revised some of the lyrics in 1904 and again in 1911. It was set to music written by Samuel Ward in 1910.

    Here is the original 1893 poem. Can you tell where changes were made? (hint: mostly in the third stanza and the last line, which is probably the most famous and most-quoted line).

    America the Beautiful, Original Lyrics

    O beautiful for halcyon skies,
    For amber waves of grain,
    For purple mountain majesties
    Above the enameled plain!
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee,
    Till souls wax fair as earth and air
    And music-hearted sea!

    O beautiful for pilgrim feet
    Whose stern, impassioned stress
    A thoroughfare for freedom beat
    Across the wilderness!
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee
    Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought
    By pilgrim foot and knee!

    O beautiful for glory-tale
    Of liberating strife,
    When once or twice, for man’s avail,
    Men lavished precious life!
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee
    Till selfish gain no longer stain,
    The banner of the free!

    O beautiful for patriot dream
    That sees beyond the years
    Thine alabaster cities gleam
    Undimmed by human tears!
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee
    Till nobler men keep once again
    Thy whiter jubilee!

    Katherine Lee Bates, America, 1893

    That last line of the original seems like it might have a racial implication, but the research I did suggests that Bates was referring to God’s Heavenly Kingdom. At any rate, it’s probably good that she changed it! You can learn more about the original lyrics at Nerd in the Word.

    You can listen to both the old and new lyrics of America the Beautiful sung by Lexi Mae Walker.

    Devotions

    The emigrants had to have an enormous amount of sheer determination to make it to Oregon. They also must have had faith, courage, perseverance, and optimism, all good character qualities to have when you are setting out on a journey and you don’t know what you’ll encounter, or if you’ll even make it there.

    Use the Oregon Trail Character Traits worksheet (available in NIRV and ESV) from the Free Resource Library to match the character trait to the Bible verse.

    Not a member of the Whole Child Homeschool Tribe yet? Scroll up to the dark pink box above to sign up and get immediate access to the Free Resource Library.

    Oregon Trail Gross and Fine Motor

    Fine Motor

    One of the most important things the emigrants took with them was salt. They needed salt to preserve meat since refrigeration hadn’t been invented yet! Make a fine motor writing tray with table salt like the one pictured below to practice spelling words.

    oregon trail salt tray fine motor

    Gross Motor

    Some of the primary sources of journals written by emigrants on the Oregon Trail mentioned that the young boys like to pick up and throw the buffalo chips! Pretend that your Frisbee is a buffalo chip and toss it around with a friend or sibling.

    Oregon Trail Sensory and Body Awareness

    Most of the emigrants on the Oregan Trail walked because it was too bumpy to ride in the wagons. That means that they walked around 2000 miles!! They wore out their shoes very quickly! Wear a pedometer for the week and see how many miles you walk.

    More Ideas for your Family-Style Oregon Trail Unit Study

    Be sure to follow my Pinterest board US History: Westward Expansion for more great hands-on activities and ideas for your Oregon Trail unit study!

    Don’t forget to pin one of these images so you can refer back to it during your Oregon Trail unit study.

    oregon trail
    oregon trail homeschool

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