Lesson Plan: Overview

The Wild, Wild West, or Was It?

Grade Level: 5th
Baker Letter

Academic Standards

Standard 5-2: The student will gain an understanding of the continued expansion of the Western United States.

5-2.4 Provide examples of conflict and cooperation between occupational and ethnic groups in the West, including miners, ranchers, and cowboys; Native Americans and Mexican Americans; and European and Asian immigrants.

Social Studies Literacy Elements
No literacy elements available for this lesson plan.
Essential Questions

1. How have your opinions of the West changed since the study of this unit?

2. Why do you think the opinions of those settling in the West vary?  Explain your answer with evidence from primary resources.

Historical Background Notes

It is often portrayed that the West was a time of great discovery.  The “Wild West” full of cowboys and Indians.  The West has been idealized to something that was great and full of adventure by the movie industry.  While moving to the West did prove to be a great adventure, many of the details and tragedies are left out of the movies.  In researching this topic, it is no wonder that this time period was idealized. 

Many tried to convey a West that was booming and just waiting for settlers.  Peter H. Burnett would travel around speaking to the public trying to convince them to move west.  He told them that the Oregon soil was so rich a farmer could raise huge crops of wheat with little effort; a climate so mild, livestock could find their own food all winter. He declared, “And they do say, gentlemen, they do say, that out in Oregon the pigs are running about under the great acorn trees, round and fat, and already cooked, with knives and forks sticking in them so that you can cut off a slice whenever you are hungry.”   The same story was told about Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas. (Hine 186)

The notion above is obviously embellished.  However, it is true that the West was a place of prosperous opportunity.  Excerpts from the accounts of the Lewis and Clark Expedition mention “vast open spaces, rich soils, fast flowing river and abundant game.” (Gale Encyclopedia of U.S Economic) Accounts like this, along with the promise of new opportunities, are what led many Americans west.

It wasn’t these rumors alone, however, that led many people west.  Many people saw the West as something different than the life they already knew.  They could leave behind the small or large town life or even leave the farming communities they had always known for something that was a little less well known.  People became intrigued by the “seemingly boundless land- immensely challenging in its distances, ruggedness, resources (or lack of them).”  This land had so much to offer, yet many left in the beginning only in search of free land. (American Journey Online)

While many were content to idealize this movement West, there were a few that did portray the dangers.  It is my hope that through my selection of primary resources, my students will see the excitement and dangers of frontier life.

Whatever the reason for the movement West, “the seemingly unlimited amounts of unclaimed land and natural resources to be found on the Western frontier earned America its reputation as a land of opportunity.” (Torr 32)  This is the true image of not only the West but America.


Primary Sources

"A Pioneer Woman's Letter Home, c. 1856." DISCovering U.S. History. Gale Research, 1997. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. Accessible for South Carolina residents through SC DISCUS.

Calamity Jane. "The Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane." Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. Accessible for South Carolina residents through SC DISCUS.

Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Letters from a Woman Homesteader (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), 279-282.

Letter, William Baker to Mary Baker, 14 October 1866. Manuscripts Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C. 

Secondary Sources

Hine, Robert F. & Faragher, John M.  The American West, a New Interpretive History. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2000.

Stover, John F.  Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Torr, James D.  Westward Expansion: Interpreting Primary Documents.  San Diego, California: Greenhaven Press, 2003.

“Westward Expansion.” American Journey Online: Westward Expansion. Primary Source Microfilm, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale. Accessible for South Carolina residents through SC DISCUS.

“Westward Expansion.” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale. Accessible for South Carolina residents through SC DISCUS.


• highlighters

• copies of primary resources, see Primary Sources section above

• Video Clip of Wild West Montage

• Wireless Laptops and Tech Zone for Blackboard Chat (paper and pencil work fine as well)

Lesson Plans

1. Introduce Lesson by playing video clip of a Wild West Montage from the You Tube website.

2. After video clip, ask students what they picture the “Wild West” being like.  Who was involved?  Why did people move west?  What was it like when they traveled west? 

3. Tell students that our objective today is to read several primary source documents, see Primary Sources section above, from different types of settlers in the West.  We want to determine if this is what the West was really like.

4. Pass out primary resources, see Primary Sources section above, to students and allow them to analyze them in small groups.

5.Ask students to highlight key words or phrases that tell them how their person feels about living in the West (Point of View). Also give them an analysis worksheet to help them learn more about the document they are reading.

6. After students have had ample time to read over and discuss their document with their group, pull students back together.

7. Allow each group time to tell the class who their person was, how they felt about living in the West, and whether the group’s opinion of the West has changed any.

8. Ask the students this question: “Was the West exactly like what film directors depicted in Old Western films?”

9. This lesson is to be used as a way to introduce the unit.  Students will engage in a blackboard chat about what they have learned so far and what they hope to learn throughout this unit.

Teacher Reflections

Reflective Essay

Student Assessment

Students will lead a discussion on how their opinions have changed about the Wild West. They will be encouraged to think about what they want to gain out of this unit of study. They will also have time to discuss what they learned through the primary resources, see Primary Sources section above. Students will be given a participation grade for this assessment.

Examples of Students Work

Student Letter Discussion

Student Letter Discussion 2

Student Letter Discussion 3


Desiree De Wit
2007 Midlands Summer Institute