Wheel ruts from mid-19th century covered wagons are still visible across America, especially in the desert. What you're seeing here, as the trail stretches into the distance in Wyoming, is a tiny part of the journey migrants took. And they didn't normally travel in the wagons: They walked. This is also a tiny example of what kids will discover in Gone West, my new program for 4th and 5th graders.
Ever have a hard time imagining what a destination will look like before you get there? Ever been surprised by how much you enjoyed a long trip?
Of course. That's because, even with Google Street View and millions of photos at our fingertips, nothing really prepares us for a new environment. Now imagine that your only information came in the form of a map, a guidebook without illustrations, and some very scary news stories involving travelers' nasty deaths . . .
And when you decided to go anyway, your journey exceeded your wildest imaginings, and (sometimes) your greatest fears. You came face to face with the unimaginable.
That was the situation of the wagon train migrants in the mid-19th century. This summer, as part of the research for a school program about 19th century westward migration and its impact, my husband and I hopped in a rented car, and in less than two weeks, followed the wagon trails from the Missouri River to eastern Nevada, a journey that would have taken several months on foot (did I mention that covered wagon folk mostly walked?) We were stunned to think of what the journey must have been like nearly two centuries ago.
I'm working out how to share this insight with 4th and 5th graders whose own westward trip will be virtual. I'm also planning to present on Gone West, the new program, at a couple of forthcoming teachers' conferences.
While I'm set on a road trip theme, I'm not oblivious to the revolution in western history over the past three decades: I'm committed to getting audiences to empathize with Plains Indians as well as migrants,and to understand the impact that westward migration had on indigenous peoples and the environment. We're still living with the consequences of these journeys (environmental disaster, Westerners' fascinating and contradictory views of government, the struggles of Indian communities . ...)
In an age when immigration is in the news daily, I'm helping everyone to understand that, no matter what, people take enormous risks to move away from everyone and everything they have ever known. This week, NPR ran a fascinating segment that explains why even the cruel policy of separating children and parents is doing little or nothing to deter undocumented immigrants. It's astonishing to contemplate that 19th century wagon train migrants almost all had far less pressing incentive to take their gruelling and risky journeys.
These are lofty goals. For Gone West, I only have 75 minutes to show all this to kids. And I have only 40 minutes to present the program to teachers.
Needless to say, many of my optimistic plans have gone out the window. I had naively thought I could also work in the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark's expedition, chat about mountain men, and generally put a bit more historical context around the journey itself. But the good news? Teachers tasked with checking off these bits of curriculum will find it means much more to kids who have enjoyed Gone West, and gained a better idea of what westward migration actually meant to people on the ground, and what it continues to mean to us today.
I'll be talking about Gone West at this year's South Carolina for the Social Studies meeting (postponed to a date TBA owing to Hurricane Florence) and the Georgia Council for the Social Studies meeting in October. I'm also presenting on my World War I program at the National Council for the Social Studies meeting in Chicago in late November. So if you're a teacher, please plan to come and bring colleagues! Meanwhile . . .
Check out These Teasers from Gone West:
A Pawnee earth lodge or Sioux tipi seem inexplicably exotic to many kids. We will talk about why these forms of housing actually made perfect sense.
Among the most fascinating tales of westward migration are seen in snippets of observation, like this comment on a man named James Taylor who hoped to find enough gold in California to free his wife and children from slavery. Taylor is not the man in the photo, who is unknown: For every story found, thousands have been lost.
When wagon train migrants came face to face with reality on their epic journey, they spoke of "Seeing the Elephant." I'll tell the story behind the saying, and invite kids to help me "spot the elephant" as we retrace the migrants' steps. Every time we have an "elephant moment," kids will lighten the load in our wagons by dumping an item from a list of their own most precious possessions.
Oops. There goes the PlayStation.
A great example of "Seeing the Elephant" from the Wasatch Mountains, Utah. Migrants switchbacked along a trail to the top of Big Mountain. That was the easy part. The hard part? The descent. Locking their wagon wheels, and crossing their fingers, wagon drivers and horses skidded downhill at terrifying speed. It's practically a sheer drop. I cringed at the sight of it. They did, too.
Boredom-tinged-with-fear was the hallmark of the months-long Platte Valley phase of the wagon trains' journey. Communicating that feeling is one of the central challenges of creating this program. Among my tools are a short video I shot in Nebraska, in which our imaginary oxen pick up the pace to a hoof-shattering 75 mph (it's legal in parts of Nebraska, in case you're wondering) In reality, oxen, mules, horses, and people traveled 4 mph. It made for a very, very long journey.
Motion matters to 4th and 5th graders. Gone West even animates still pictures: Check out how I made water flow for these California miners (link takes you to YouTube). I will discuss what happened to the migrants when they arrived west, with a special focus on California. Hint: You could find gold in 1850, and, in fact, you still can. But for most miners who arrived after 1849, unless they were already rich enough to afford expensive extraction tools, it wasn't worth the effort. I demonstrate gold panning in a video I made after forking over more than $100 to pan for about $5 worth of gold, tops!
I'm a published academic historian turned historical novelist and missionary for history to elementary and middle school students and teachers. Gone West (available for booking for dates from January, 2019) is just one of six programs I offer in schools nationwide. To learn more about my school programs and books, explore AnnetteLaing.com. Have questions about Gone West? Please comment!
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com