Mountains, Sinks and Deserts: The Physical Geography of the California Trail Students use primary sources to learn about the physical geography of the California Trail and to better understand the experiences of its travelers.
5.W.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development and organization are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
Mathematics Common Core Standards
5.G.2. Represent real world and mathematical problems by graphing points in the first quadrant of the coordinate plane, and interpret coordinate values of points in the context of the situation.
Standards for Mathematical Practice (MP)
5.MP.2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
5.MP.4. Model with mathematics.
Overview The physical geography of modern-day Nevada and California greatly impacted travel to California in the 1800s. In this lesson, students will learn about the physical geography of the trail to California in order to better understand the experiences of the travelers.
Purpose In this lesson, students will practice map skills while learning about the physical geography of the California Trail and how it impacted travelers.
Photos of locations along the California Trail for projection – included
Atlases or map of the United States (optional)
The student will be able to:
Describe physical features of the California Trail.
Compare primary and secondary source descriptions of locations along the California Trail.
Graph elevations along the California Trail.
Prerequisite Skills: Student should have knowledge of the Oregon Trail route from Independence and graphing skills. SESSION ONE
Discuss what students know about the discovery of gold in California and the rush of individuals to that state in the latter half of the 1800s. Discuss other reasons for travel to California in the 1800s (e.g., new land, other economic opportunities).
Hand out the map of The Oregon and California Trails and have students locate the route from Independence to where it left the Oregon Trail and then to Sacramento, California.
Hand out the student worksheet #1, The Physical Geography of the California Trail. Have students read together from the worksheet the information and primary sources describing the physical geography of the different sections of the trail. Inform students that the primary source writings have not been corrected for grammar or spelling. (Teacher may want to read these sections aloud if students have difficulty understanding the writing.)
As each section is described (Great Basin, Humboldt River, Humboldt Sink, 40-Mile Desert, Truckee River, Sierra Nevada Mountains/Donner Pass), locate it on the map. Be sure students understand the explanations of the physical processes that shaped the various physical landforms.
Reread the journal comments while viewing the photos of the locations along the route. Explain that the photos were taken in the 1900s, after the event, and are secondary sources. The journal entries were written as the event occurred and are primary sources. Have students describe any differences.
Hand out student worksheet #2, Map Activities, and have them complete the activities on their map. They may use a map or atlas for assistance.
End session by reviewing the variety of physical features encountered by travelers on the California Trail.
Review what students learned about the physical geography of the California Trail in Session One.
Hand out student worksheet #3, Elevations Along the California Trail and graph paper.
Explain that another way to understand the difficulty of the trip is to look at the changes in elevation travelers faced along the route. Discuss the difficulties travelers would have taking wagons over rugged mountain ranges. Review worksheet directions with students and have them complete the worksheet.
After worksheets have been completed, review the lesson by discussing the route in terms of difficulty due to physical features.
Have students complete the assessment for the lesson using the Assessment sheet.
Assessment Students will write one fact about the physical geography of the different portions of the California Trail for a total of six facts. Mastery will be 80%, or five correct facts.
Map activities (Worksheet #2) may also be used for assessment purposes. Ten points are possible. 80% or eight correct items will be mastery.
Extensions Visit the website of The California National Historic Trail at http://www.nps.gov/cali/index.htm This National Park site has information about the history of the trail, as well as photos of locations along the entirety of the trail from Independence, Missouri.
Compare the Truckee Route to other routes of the California Trail (e.g., Carson Route, Lassen Route) in terms of physical geography and difficulty.
Show the photo of Mitchell’s Map of 1846 used by some travelers. Discuss the accuracy of the map and its usefulness to the emigrants.
Have students pretend to be a traveler on the trail and write about their experiences.
Sources Churchill, Stillman. Diary, 1849 (2 volumes). The Library of Congress, American Memory Website.
Cobbey, John Furmes. Journal, 1850. Overland Trails Diaries. Utah Academic library Consortium. Online Collections at BYU.
Cone, Gordon C. Diary, 1849-1850. Overland Trails Diaries, Utah Academic library Consortium. Online Collections at BYU.
Jackson, Edward. Diary, 1849. The Library of Congress, American Memory Website.
Kimball, Violet T. Stories of Young Pioneers: In Their Own Words. Missoula, MT. Mountain Press Publishing Co. 2000.
Stewart, George R. The California Trail. New York. McGraw Hill Co. 1962.
Trails West. The National Geographic Society. Washington D.C. 1979.
Overland Trail Images: Humboldt River, Forty Mile Desert (3 photos), Donner Summit and Donner Pass, http://patriot.lib.byu.edu/. Made available for educational use: Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada-Reno Library.
The Road to California, Echo Canyon and Donner Campsite from The National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/cali/index.htm
Map:The Oregon and California Trails Map, Arizona Geographic Alliance. The Oregon and California Trails Map, http://geoalliance.asu.edu/azga/