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Unit 5: Development of the Industrial U.S.

Settling the Western Frontier

by Vanessa McGuire


Grade Level: 11

Discipline: U.S. History


Standards Addressed

  • (US10A) Geography. The student understands the effects of migration and immigration on American society.  The student will be able to analyze the effects of changing demographic patterns resulting from migration within the United States.
  • (US11A) Geography. The student understands the relationship between population growth and modernization on the physical environment. The student will be able to identify the effects of population growth on the physical environment.
  • (US2B) History. The student understands the political, economic, and social changes in the Unites States from 1877 to 1898. The student will be able to analyze economic issues such as industrialization, the growth of railroads, the growth of labor unions, farm issues, and the rise of big business.
  • (US23A) Science, technology, and society. The student understands the influence of scientific discoveries and technological innovations, including those in transportation and communication, have changed the standard of living in the United States.
  • (WH26) Social Studies skills. The student communicates in written, oral, and visual forms.  The student will be able to interpret and create visuals including graphs, charts, time lines, and maps.


Contrast the cultures of Native Americans and white settlers and explain why white settlers moved west. Summarize the role of gold in luring people to the American West. Describe people’s experience in their often-fruitless efforts to find gold. Trace the development of the cattle industry. Describe both the myth and the reality of the American cowboy and explain the end of the open range. Explain the rapid settlement of the Great Plains due to homesteading. Describe how early settlers survived on the Plains and transformed them into profitable farmland. Describe the role the railroad played in the settlement of the west and the closing of the frontier.


Songs used in lesson:

Other resources:

Textbook: The Americas, Reconstruction to the 21st Century, McDougal Littell Inc., USA 2003.

Song History

“Oh, California” was a popular song of the gold rush. The song was adapted from a Stephen Foster’s 1847 song, “Oh, Susanna!” John Nichols, who while sailing for the California gold fields, changed the words of the song and renamed it “Oh, California!”

“The Old Chisholm Trail” (author unknown) was one of the most popular songs sung by cowboys on their long cattle drives. The song’s verses describe the life of the cowboy on the trail. “The Old Chisholm Trail” is believed to have at least 143 verses. Only 13 verses will be listed in this lesson.

“Home on the Range” was created from a poem, My Western Home, written by Dr. Brewster Higley in 1872 and set to music by Dan Kelley.  Dr. Higley was one of thousands who took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and moved to Kansas to stake his claim. “Home on the Range” had spread across the west as cowboys and homesteaders passed through Kansas and then adapted the tune to fit their own home state. Some of the lines changed over time. “Home on the Range” never appeared in Dr. Higley’s poem. Vernon Dalhardt first commercially recorded today’s version. Kansas has taken “Home on the Range” as their state song.

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” also has an unknown author.  Some believe the song came from an old Irish work song in the west and others believe it is an old African American song used when working on the Louisiana levees. The tune has been adapted for “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.” Regardless of the song’s origin, it became another popular American folksong.

Note: “Dinah may refer to a woman or a locomotive. The horn signifies the call to lunch.”


Introductory learning activities:

  • Student is to have read textbook pages 203-204 & 207-217.


In the late 1800s, American Indian lives are forever changed by the arrival of miners, ranchers, and cowboys. The western frontier was “closed” by 1900 with government-sponsored homesteaders and the railroad. This lesson will discuss the positive contributions of these groups as they settle the west.

The songs chosen for this lesson are folksongs that were sung by many during the late 1800s. It is my wish to reintroduce these songs to students, which may have disappeared from the students’ musical history.

Part 1: The American Indians

Discussion questions:

  • What were the characteristics of the Plains Indians culture?
  • How did the culture of white settlers differ from that of the Plains Indians?
  • Why did settlers continue to push westward?
  • Why was the destruction of the buffalo so detrimental to the Native Americans’ way of life?

Part 2: Miners

Introduce song “Oh, California!”

Song discussion questions:

  • What clues do you find in the lyrics that indicate that this song is about gold mining?
  • What expectations does the singer have abound finding gold in California?
  • How does the tune of this song make you feel?
  • What precious minerals drew miners to the west during the 1800s?
  • What are boomtowns and where were they located?
  • Give at least four examples. What problems did prospectors face in underground mines?
  • Would “Oh, California” be an accurate account of mining in the west? Why or why not?

Part 3: Cattle Industry

Introduce song “The Old Chisholm Trail”

Song discussion questions:

  • What strikes you most about this song?
  • What musical phrase is especially memorable?
  • What makes it so memorable: melody, rhythm, lyrics?
  • How often does it or a similar phrase occur?
  • Describe the life of a cowboy based on the verses of this song.

Part 4: Homesteaders

  • Have students sing the song “Home on the Range”
  • Play song (instrumental)

Song discussion questions:

  • How was the mood of the song you sang different from the recording?
  • What instruments did you hear?
  • What emotions does the song express?
  • How might the song’s message or meaning change with different people or in different environments?

Give students copy of the song’s lyrics.

Have students sing all verses of “Home of the Range”

Song discussion questions, continued

  • Which verse seems not to fit the rest of the song?
  • What did the writer try to convey in this song?
  • How did the transcontinental railroad open up the west for settlers?
  • How did the federal government encourage western settlement?
  • What new technology helped the homesteaders farm the prairie?
  • Do you think the song, “Home on the Range” encouraged settlers to stay in their new homestead? Why or why not?

Part 5: Railroads

Introduce song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

Song questions and activities:

  • What do you think the song is about?
  • How does the song illustrate the life of a railroad man?
  • Have students relate other “school yard” versions of this song that they have heard.
  • Why was this song easy to parody?
  • Have students break into groups and create a new version and then share with the class.

More discussion questions:

  • How did the US government encourage the railroad companies to build rails across the country?
  • What two railroad companies built the transcontinental railroad and where did they meet?
  • What were the working conditions of the railroad builders?
  • What role did the railroad serve in settling the west? Immigration? Migration?
  • Why did the railroad also play a role in ending the long cattle drive?
  • Would “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” be an accurate account of working on the railroad? Why or why not?


The American Indians on the Western Frontier were pushed off their land by the demise of the buffalo, and the arrival of the homesteaders, ranchers, miners, the railroad, and US Army. Boomtowns, cow towns, and railroad stations grew as a great number of people moved west. In 1900, the Census Bureau claimed the United States no longer had a continuous frontier.

Follow-up learning activities (assessments):

1.  Create an illustrated cube (below)

2.  Follow-up quiz

Settling the Western Frontier Cube Project

Follow the directions for completing each side of the cube.

Side 1:  Indians use of the Buffalo (p.207)

  • Illustrate 4 or more uses of the buffalo by the Indians

Side 2:  Cattle trails (p.209)

  • Create a map illustrating and labeling the four cattle trails.

a) Chisholm Trail

b) Western Trail

c) Goodnight-Loving Trail

d) Sedalia and Baxter Springs Trail

Side 3: Railroads (p. 215 and Atlas)

  • Create a map illustrating the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads.
  • Mark and label the meeting point of these two railroads.

Side 4: Mining (p.213)

  • Create a bar graph that shows the percentage of people who set out for the Klondike who did not get there, got there, staked claims, found gold, and became rich. Information found on page 213.

Side 5: Farming (pp. 216 & 217)

  • Illustrate a sod house and at least three new technologies that helped the settlers to farm the prairie.
Side 6:  Vaqueros
  • Illustrate at least three contributions of the vaqueros to the American cowboy.

Supplies needed:

Colored pencils, poster board, pattern, scissors, and scotch tape.