Trails West

Settlers started moving west as soon as the land by the eastern rivers was claimed.  Wanting the right to expand into more territory was one of the factors in the American Revolution, including anger at the Proclamation of 1763 that restricted further settlement. Indeed, many veterans of the Revolution received land grants in the west for their service.  In the late 1700s to the early 1800s, the West could mean Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of Pennsylvania. As those places filled up, too, and immigrants kept on coming, they eventually spread across the plains and into the heartland.

In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase added 828,000 square miles of western territory for the United States. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804 - 1806) was a chance to see what had been bought from France. Soon enough settlers moved into those newly-acquired territories, and more land was added from wars with Spanish-held areas such as Texas and California. When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, adventurous types rode out looking to make their fortunes even while families looked for land to farm. In 1862, the Homestead Act made it possible for settlers, including newly-freed slaves, to claim land at no cost to them except proof of having improved the land.

Of course, the West wasn’t wide open and unoccupied. Tribes of Native Americans lived there, and some large Eastern tribes, such as the Cherokee, had already been pushed out and resettled further west into what was called Indian Territory. As the settlements grew, boundaries were redrawn and the tribes lost more and more of their lands. Some reacted by adopting European customs, others more or less accepted the limits of reservation life, but quite a number were outraged and took their anger out on both soldiers who restrained them and settlers who seemed to be arriving in never-ending waves.

The trails west could be difficult and deadly. Compared to what a family experiences now in a cross-country trip with a minivan, the covered wagon trip of thousands of miles was a long and dangerous proposition. People still speak of the pioneer spirit—the ability to face hardships bravely and make do with very little. Part of that tradition is represented by the kinds of simple, hearty, and quick foods they enjoyed:

A Recipe to Try

Johnnycakes were a favorite pioneer food which could be taken to the fields for the midday meal.  Try making your own johnnycakes

1 cup cornmeal (white, if possible)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup water
½ cup milk
vegetable oil or shortening
maple syrup

mixing bowl
saucepan with lid
mixing spoon
paper towel
pancake griddle or frying pan
pancake turner
adult helper

4 servings

1. Place the cornmeal, salt, butter, and sugar in a mixing bowl.
2. Ask an adult to boil the water in a covered saucepan and pour it into the bowl.
3. Add the milk to the bowl. Mix thoroughly with a spoon to make a smooth, thick batter. (If the mixture becomes too thick, stir in a little warm water.)
4. Use a paper towel to cover the griddle and pancake turner with a light coat of oil.
5. Ask your adult helper to heat the pan.  The surface is hot enough when a drop of water bounces.  Reduce the heat to medium.
6. Drop the batter by spoonfuls onto the hot griddle like you would with pancake batter.  Use the pancake turner to press each spoonful flat (about ½ inch thick).
7. Cook the cakes two at a time over medium heat for about 5 minutes on each side.  The cakes should be crisp and slightly brown when done.  Flip them a second time, if necessary.
8. Serve the cakes hot with maple syrup.
From Pioneer Days: Discover the Past with Fun Projects, Games, Activities, and Recipes by David C. King

Plains warrior on horsebackWant to learn more? Check out our Trails West booklist for great information for history reports, and see our list Growing Up in the Old West for stories about young people living on the frontier.

Web Resources

Digital History: Learn About Westward Expansion
Scroll down to the section on Westward Expansion.

KidInfo: Pioneers and Westward Expansion
Lewis and Clark, Louisiana Purchase, Pike’s Peak, covered wagons, famous trails, pioneer life, cowgirls, the Homestead Act, and much more.

New Perspectives on the West (PBS)
You'll find lots of information here about people, places, and events. Includes lesson plans and a quiz.

Pioneer Crafts for Kids
Make a toy covered wagon, a quilt, a quill pen, and a yarn doll. Scroll towards the bottom of each craft's page for instructions.

CRRL Online Articles

Encyclopaedia Britannica Kids
Go to Social Studies, then United States Social Studies, then Expansion and Reform.

Infotrac Junior Edition
Use Pioneers or other phrases to search by subject .

Kids InfoBits
Click on Social Studies. Go to U.S. History to find relevant topics.