Level 2+: Frontier Unit

Get ready to explore the American west! In this week-long unit, we will introduce your child to a period of time that stretched from about 1803-1890, including native and indigenous peoples, the Oregon Trail, the California Gold Rush, and more. There is so much to discover about this time period, but this unit will give your child a general overview that they can build on for years to come. Ready to dig in? Click here to download your skills tracker.

Note: Occasionally we include project modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings) and upgrades (for children ready for more). We’ll mark those with the minus (-) or plus (+) symbols.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Optional additional books:

Optional chapter books:

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Phonics Guide:

New to our phonics guide? Start here. The Phonics Guide this week will highlight the phonics rule that says I and O may say /ī/ and /ō/ when followed by two consonants. 

Lesson 1:

An important thing to remember when beginning to learn about the American frontier is that, prior to being “settled” by pioneers, this land was not uninhabited or uncivilized. In fact, communities of people had lived, worked, and settled the land for centuries prior to the Oregon Trail or Manifest Destiny. To begin our week, we will take a look at just one of these Indigenous populations with the book Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story (or read it here on OpenLibrary).

The Hidatsa people played an important role in settlers’ exploration of America. Sacagawea (also spelled Sakakawea or Sacajawea) was kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe when she was 12 (she was originally a member of the Shoshone tribe). Sacagawea assistance was vital to Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the West. (source) We will learn more about Lewis and Clark tomorrow, but for now, let’s take a closer look at the Hidatsa culture.

Activity 1: Hidatsa is pronounced “hee-daht-sah,” and it was the name of a tribal town. The Hidatsa are the original people of North Dakota and South Dakota, and most Hidatsa people are still living in North Dakota today. The Hidatsa people speak English today. Some Hidatsas, mostly elders, also speak their native Hidatsa language. An easy Hidatsa word to learn is “dosha” (pronounced doh-shah). It is a friendly greeting. (source)

The Hidatsa Indians lived in settled villages of round earthen lodges. Hidatsa lodges were made from wooden frames covered with packed earth. When Hidatsa men went on hunting trips, they often used small buffalo-hide tipis (or teepees) as temporary shelter, similar to camping tents. Unlike other Plains Indian tribes, though, the Hidatsas were not migratory people, and did not use tall teepees for their regular houses. (source)

Construction of the heavily insulated earth and wooden homes was overseen by elder women within the community. Women also managed most of the building, framing the cottonwood posts and rafters, and filling the frame with willow branches, dried gasses and thick sod. Each house would take between seven and ten days to build and had to be reconstructed about every ten years. These homes were used until the late 19th century, when timber homes replaced the traditional style, and earth lodges became a ceremonial structure. (source) You can see photos of some of these lodges in our book.

Let’s create a model of one of their earth lodges using thin cardboard (like a cereal box), a stapler or tape, brown paper, and glue. You will also need a piece of scrap cardboard to act as the base, which your child may wish to paint green to look like the ground.

Cut your thin cardboard into strips and use the stapler or tape to make a circle base. Next, attach other strips to create a dome shape.

Tear your brown paper into scraps. In a small bowl, combine equal parts water and glue and stir to mix. Dip scraps of paper in the glue/water mixture and layer them over your cardboard dome. (The paper will act as the “earth” in our model.) Reference the photos in the book as you build. Be sure to leave an opening for the door!

When the glue is dry, your child may also wish to paint some “grass” onto the lodge to add more detail.

Activity 2: The Hidatsa made pottery as far back in time as their villages can be traced. Pottery making was a protected right of certain women of the tribe. They made very usable and artistic pots. The pots were made by building up the sides gradually with rolled clay coils. Then a smooth stone or anvil was held inside the vessel with one hand while the outside was beaten using a paddle.

Designs were often carved into the paddle. Designs could also be added by impressing twisted cords, pressing the fingers into the moist clay, using sharpened sticks or bones, or deeply scratching in designs. Clays used for the pottery came from deposits found along the Little Missouri river and from other deposits in the Knife River area. The clay was mixed with water, and, crushed granite, clam shells, or broken bits of pottery to keep the pots from cracking when fired. (source)

Would your child like to try making a smooth coiled pot? Follow the steps in this tutorial. (You can use any smooth, flat edge to smooth the pot, like a popsicle stick.) We also recommend using air-dry clay unless you have access to a kiln for firing your pottery.

Activity 3: The Hidatsas were farming people. Hidatsa women from different families worked together to raise crops of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. Men hunted deer and small game and took part in seasonal buffalo hunts. The Hidatsas weren’t migratory people, so they didn’t hunt buffalo as often as other Plains Indian tribes, but buffalo meat was still an important part of their diet because they acquired it in trade from other tribes. (source)

In many Native cultures (including the Hidatsa), corn, beans, and squash are common ingredients in their cuisine. The plants were also often grown together because the corn could act as a pole for the beans, and the squash leaves could shade the ground to keep the plants from drying out. Because of this relationship, they are often referred to as the “three sisters.” (source) Click here for a recipe you can try this week for dinner!

Lesson 2:

Today, we’ll follow along with the journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The Lewis and Clark Expedition is considered to be one of the most important exploration events in U.S. history. President Thomas Jefferson believed it was important to explore the new land area that had just been bought from the French in the Louisiana Purchase.

Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis, his personal secretary, to lead the expedition, and Lewis wanted William Clark to help him lead. The amount of land in the Louisiana Purchase almost doubled the size of the United States, and the expedition would take over two years. (source) Before we get deeper into their story, let’s learn a bit of history of how the United States came to own the territory they explored.

Activity 1: When Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States in 1801, the country basically stopped at the Mississippi River. France controlled much of the land to the west of this waterway.

President Jefferson wanted to acquire the Port of New Orleans, in what is now the state of Louisiana, from the French. Its prime location made it a key spot for trade. In 1803, Jefferson made what’s known as one of the greatest real estate deals in history: the Louisiana Purchase.

After negotiations, France agreed to sell the entire city of New Orleans, which included the port, to the United States for $10 million; they threw in the rest of the territory they owned for an additional $5 million. The agreement—which gave the United States approximately 828,000 square miles of land—almost doubled the size of the nearly 30-year-old nation. (source)

Let’s bring this to life (and illustrate just how much this purchase changed the United States) by making this edible map of the Louisiana Purchase. (Though it might be tempting, try to keep your child from eating their creation today—tomorrow we’ll make one addition before they can start snacking!)

Activity 2: Next, let’s learn more about the expedition to explore this territory in the book The Great Expedition of Lewis and Clark: by Private Reubin Field, Member of the Corps of Discovery by (or read it here on OpenLibrary) OR How We Crossed The West: The Adventures Of Lewis And Clark. Would you like to walk in Lewis and Clark’s footsteps? You can take the first “step” by making a pair of moccasins like the ones they wore for much of their trip! Scroll down to the middle of this post for a tutorial to make your own using a chamois towel.

Activity 3: According to The Lewis and Clark Cookbook: Historic Recipes from the Corps of Discovery and Jefferson’s America, the exploring group survived largely by eating what they could hunt (including 1,001 deer, 43 grizzly bears, 113 beaver, 227 bison, and 9 turkeys, just to name a few!), what they could find, and what was shared with them by welcoming Native communities. Whenever they found themselves with more fresh meat than they would eat in a day or two, they “jurked” (or “jirked”) it. “Jerky” is a phonetic transliteration of the Spanish word charqui and the Bolivian and Chilean word charquear, a verb meaning to pound or “beat up, knock the stuffing out of.” In general, at the time of the expedition “jerk” simply stood for “dried meat.” (source)

Making jerky safely requires either the use of curing salts (containing nitrite) or enough heat in an oven or dehydrator so that the heat will kill organisms before they multiply. The final preservation of the jerky will be by limiting the water available to microorganisms. (source) This is true with meat, as well as other foods!

Let’s bring it all to life with an experiment. You will need some fresh blueberries and a means of dehydrating some of them. (Check out this tutorial for how it can be done with an oven, air fryer, or dehydrator.)

Take two matching containers with lids and put 4-5 blueberries in each. Weigh both groups and record in your lab sheet, if using. Next, dehydrate the berries in group one. For a math application, reweigh the dehydrated berries and find the difference in their weight now that their moisture has been removed.

Next, leave the containers on your counter for about two weeks. Encourage your child to observe any changes they see. At the end of the two weeks (or whenever the fresh berries have spoiled) have your child compare how the berries have decomposed. Was dehydrating an effective means of preserving the berries? If desired, keep the dehydrated berries in the container to see how long it takes them to spoil.

Lesson 3:

Another major factor of expansion throughout the American frontier was the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail was a 2,170-mile (3,490 km) east–west route in the United States that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon. The Oregon Trail was laid by fur traders and trappers from about 1811 to 1840 and was only passable on foot or by horseback. By 1836, when the first migrant wagon train was organized in Independence, Missouri, a wagon trail had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho. Wagon trails were cleared increasingly farther west and eventually reached all the way to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, at which point what came to be called the Oregon Trail was complete, even as almost annual improvements were made in the form of bridges, cutoffs, ferries, and roads, which made the trip faster and safer. (source)

Westward expansion would ultimately involve more than 7 million pioneers living in the Trans-Appalachian West and the addition of 22 new states. Life on the trail was difficult and dangerous, but people were motivated to move west for many reasons, including escaping persecution, overcrowding in cities, the desire for land to farm, and more. (source)

Activity 1: For our book today, we’ll read Voices From the Oregon Trail by Kay Winters (or read it here on OpenLibrary) to learn more about what life was like for the families that traveled the Oregon Trail. Before we read, use the map in the beginning of the book (or you can use the one on this page), use a different color icing to add the Oregon Trail to your edible map. Next, you can start snacking on the map while you read the book. This book uses a poetic style to share the perspectives of many different people along the trail while also discussing many of the harsh realities people experienced. Read as many of the stories as your child is interested in hearing now, but you can also break up the reading for shorter attention spans.

Activity 2: What would it be like to prepare for a journey on the Oregon Trail? Let’s play a game to find out!

Our next activity is our Oregon Trail Money Game. If you were with us for our Level 2: Quilts Unit, your child may have played this game before, but this time they will likely feel much more confident with the math involved in buying their supplies.

Start by printing and cutting out the pieces to create your “supply store” and give your child the “money” they’ll need to buy their supplies. You can explain that, to safely make it through the Oregon Trail, migrants needed to stock their wagons with everything they were bringing from their old homes and everything they might need along the way. The total expense was usually around $1,000 per family, and often there wasn’t enough money left for backup supplies. (source

For our game, have your child pretend to be getting ready to start the trail. Follow the instructions to determine how many people are in their family and how much money they start with, and explain which supplies they need to get started. If they have extra money, discuss the pros and cons of buying other items. Why might it be important to save money for the journey itself? (As they traveled, there would be other options to make needed purchases along the way.) What would be the dangers of being on the trail without needed supplies or extra money? How could they support themselves along the way?

There is no “winning” this game—the purpose is to get your child to think critically about what it would really be like to be a settler on the Oregon Trail, as well as to learn the basics of budgeting and arithmetic.
(+) Want to try an upgrade? You can play a free version of the Oregon Trail game you likely remember as a kid here!

Activity 3: Children on the Oregon Trail did not have a lot of time for play (or space for toys) but they still found ways to entertain themselves with very little. One popular game was a cup and ball game. (source) Let’s make a simple version of it with this tutorial and work on some hand-eye coordination!

Activity 4: If your child is interested in learning more about this time of life, they may also enjoy the chapter book Little House on the Prairie. Pioneers like the Ingalls had to make virtually everything they needed using what they could find, grow, or occasionally purchase at settlements. For example, has your child ever tried to make their own candles? If you want to try it, this tutorial shares how the Ingalls family made them.

Lesson 4:

Another big reason why people kept heading west? Gold! In 1848, James Wilson Marshall was a carpenter and sawmill worker who was building a water-powered sawmill for business owner John Sutter in Coloma. One day, Marshall went to a nearby river to fetch some water and discovered some tiny shiny nuggets in the river. He then showed them to Sutter and they worked out together that this was gold. Word started to spread after a journalist named Samuel Brannan made a gold discovery of his own at Sutter’s Mill and started publicizing it.

The gold rush itself started in 1849 when thousands of people decided to travel to California to find their own gold and strike it rich. People who travelled by horse-drawn cart or by boat to pan or mine for gold were known as 49ers.

Because a lot of people migrated in the hopes of getting rich quick, boomtowns had to be set up for people to live. Some of those settlements were soon abandoned after the gold in the area dried up, but some towns that still exist today include San Francisco which rose from a population of 1000 people in 1848 to 25,000 a year later.

Whole industries were built around the gold rush, and because gold miners needed plenty of equipment like pans, pickaxes and shovels, many entrepreneurs profited from the sale of tools and supplies without panning for gold themselves. In truth, it tended to make people rich more often than gold mining did. A few gold miners got rich, but the majority didn’t.

By 1855, it’s estimated a total of 300,000 people made the move to California. Most were Americans but thousands of Mexicans, Chinese people, Britons and people across the world travelled to the area. It’s said that the gold rush peaked in 1852 and petered out by 1855 after most of the loose and easy to find gold was claimed. (source)

Let’s learn more about this time period with the books Gold Fever: Tales From the California Gold Rush (or read it here on OpenLibrary)OR (+) If You Were a Kid During the California Gold Rush. You can also listen to this brief video podcast for kids to learn more about this time period.

Activity 1: Gold is a soft, heavy, shiny metal. It is also a chemical element. Its chemical symbol is Au. A chemical element is a basic substance that cannot be broken down into simpler substances. Chemical elements are the building blocks for all matter—that is, everything that takes up space in the universe. The elements are often organized in chemistry in a periodic table, which generally looks like this:


Sometimes all those elements can feel intimidating, but this lesson is designed to give your child a relatable introduction to the elements. Begin by printing the Periodic Table of Elements, in Pictures and Element Cards on this website. (You may also wish to laminate these materials for repeated use.)

First, work with your child to understand different ways the elements can be classified. Identify the solid, liquid and gaseous elements, and then identify the metal and non-metal (or organic).

Finally, let’s identify the elements that can be found in your home with a scavenger hunt! Have your child lay out the cards in a way that makes sense for them (either mimicking the full table or in the categories they have identified). Next, have them look at the pictures and then see if there is something in your home they can gather that is made with or from that element. (In most cases, they will likely find a compound state of the element, not a pure element.) Play until they’re ready to move on!

Activity 2: One popular method of trying to find gold during the gold rush was panning! Try your hand at it with this tutorial.

Activity 3: Finding gold nowadays isn’t likely to happen, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make our own “gold”! Use this tutorial (and a little science) to grow some “gold” crystals of your own.

Lesson 5:

As we discussed at the beginning of this unit, Westward Expansion was not positive for everyone. The hundreds of Native people who were already living in there territories found themselves ousted from their land and were the victims of extremely unjust treatment. Throughout history, there were many Native people who played an important role in this time period. For our last day of activities we’ll get to know one many who is still considered one of the greatest heroes of his people. His name was Tasunke Witco, but he became well known by the name Crazy Horse. We’ll begin by reading the book Crazy Horse’s Vision (or read it here on OpenLibrary). This article shares more about his later life.

Activity 1: Crazy Horse was a member of the Lakota tribe. The Lakota, also known as the Teton, form the largest and most well-known band of the Sioux Nation (Oceti Sakowin). Renowned for being a strong and fierce tribe of warriors, they led much of the resistance against settlers encroaching on their land and were one of the last tribes to settle on a reservation. (source)

One thing the Lakota people are especially well-known for is their incredible bead work. You can see some examples of it here in this online shop. Let’s pull inspiration from these stunning works with our own bead projects. Click here for a woven bead tutorial your student can try.

Activity 2: Crazy Horse became known as a quiet man who only spoke when he had something important to say. Let’s use one of his famous quotes for copywork or dictation today. Read the following quotes and let your child choose the one they like best. (source + source)

***For tips on doing copywork, check our blog post here. For tips on dictation, read this article.

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.” 

“I salute the light within your eyes where the whole universe dwells. For when you are at that center within you and I am at that place within me, we shall be one.” 

“My lands are where my dead lie buried.” 

“One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.” 

“We preferred our own way of living. We were no expense to the government. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone.”

“I see a time of Seven Generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the Sacred Tree of Life and the whole earth will become One Circle again.”

Activity 3: Crazy Horse’s legend continues down to our day, and a group of Native people have even commissioned a massive monument in his honor in South Dakota. You can see footage of the monument in this video and learn more about it here. The real memorial is still under construction, but let’s create our own on a smaller scale! Have your child use play dough or air-dry clay to create their version of this impressive stone sculpture.

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.