Pioneers in 19th century America faced a wide variety of challenges and obstacles even before they reached their new homes on the frontier. Often, "getting there" was a tremendous, trying, and dangerous ordeal. Many pioneers recorded their experiences and feelings in diaries and journals, and their adventures have been memorialized in stories and songs ever since.
In this lesson, students will analyze a song from the late 1840s which recounts a young couple's journey to their new home on the frontier. After identifying the "story within the song," students will compose additional verses, based on online primary source documents. This lesson can be used as an introduction to a unit on westward expansion in the United States, or as a pre- or post- viewing activity for the PBS series The Frontier House. A basic knowledge of 19th century United States history is required.
Time Allotment: Two 45-minute class periods
Subject Matter: Language Arts and History
Students will be able to:
- Identify the components of a ballad;
- Analyze a 19th-century American ballad;
- Discuss the challenges faced American pioneers in the 19th century;
- Define terms, locations, and ideas regarding pioneer life;
- Compose and create their own verses for a ballad based on primary source documents.
From the National Standards for English/Language Arts,
available online at http://www.ncte.org/standards/standards.shtml:
Standard 1. Students will read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world.
Standard 2. Students will read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
Standard 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
From the National Standards for History grades K-4, available online at
Standard 6A: The student understands folklore and other cultural contributions from various regions of the United States and how they help form a national heritage. Therefore, the student is able to:
Describe regional folk heroes, stories, or songs that have contributed to the development of the cultural history of the United States;
Draw upon a variety of stories, legends, songs, ballads, games, and tall tales in order to describe the environment, lifestyles, beliefs, and struggles of people in various regions of the country.
Examine art, crafts, music, and language of people from a variety of regions long ago and describe their influence on the nation.
Popular Music in American History: "Sweet Betsy from Pike"
This site contains a downloadable MIDI file of an instrumental version of the folk song "Sweet Betsy from Pike." During the lesson, it may be helpful for your students to hear this MIDI file. However, you should not send your students directly to the site, as it contains the complete and unexpurgated lyrics to the song, which are a bit bawdy for the elementary school classroom.
The Frontier House: Who's Who and Plains, Trains, and Spare Wagon Wheels
This site contains information on The Frontier House participants and an interactive feature in which users can assume the identity of a homesteader making their way to Montana in the year 1883. The site requires the Shockwave plug-in, which is available free at www.macromedia.com
The Frontier House: The Video Diaries
This site contains video diary clips from The Frontier House participants. The site requires the Real Player plug-in, available for free at www.real.com
For each student:
"Sweet Betsy from Pike" Song Lyrics (see attached)
Pencil and paper
For each group of 4 students:
Computer with Internet access