Westward Expansion

IMG_0358“Road Tripping American History: Westward Expansion” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, September-October 2019

Our homeschool covered the story of westward expansion in two week-long trips to Arizona and Wyoming. There are a number of other places we could have gone, but those coincided well with a visit to family in Phoenix and a family get-together at Yellowstone National Park. (Part of successful road schooling is figuring out how to do it as inexpensively as possible!)

Wyoming & The Oregon Trail

We spent the weeks prior to our trip to Wyoming reading historical fiction about the emigrants who traveled west on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails during the mid-19th century. Some of our favorite included: Bonanza Girl by Patricia Beatty, Aunt Clara Brown: Official Pioneer by Linda Lowery (a rare portrayal of an African American pioneer) and the graphic novel Donner Dinner Party by Nathan Hale. We also read books written from the Native American perspective: Sing Down the Moon by Scott O’Dell (a fictionalized account of the Navajo’s forced migration from their homeland) and Buffalo Song by Joseph Bruchac (a true story about how the Salish tribe helped save the buffalo after their near-extinction by white settlers). Older students might enjoy watching Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary The West, or any of the collections of letters written by westward travelers. For the plane or car ride, you can’t beat the retro Oregon Trail video game, now available online or in a handheld format at some toy stores.

We flew into Denver, Colorado and drove north to Wyoming, stopping first where tens of thousands of westward emigrants stopped: at Fort Laramie. This trading post-turned-military garrison is now a National Historic Site and has a number of restored buildings that date to the period of westward migration. After a tour, we stopped at the post store for a few bottles of sarsaparilla.

Not far from Fort Laramie is one of the best-preserved sections of the original Oregon Trail: the Guernsey Ruts. Standing in the marks cut by thousands of covered wagons through the sandstone rock gives one a powerful sense of just how many people traveled along the trail. Nearby, and not to be missed, is Register Cliff—where emigrants carved their names in the rock as they passed.

From Guernsey, we proceeded to the cowboy town of Casper and the National Historical Trails Interpretive Center. Perched on a hill overlooking the town, the interpretive center has sweeping views of what remains of the scrubland and the North Platte River that emigrants traversed. Inside the free museum are exhibits on the trails, the pioneers and the Native American tribes they encountered. There are also activities where visitors can select what items they would bring with them, try pulling a Mormon hand-cart and take a virtual reality trip across a river on a covered wagon. 

But to really experience what it might have been like to be a westward pioneer, nothing beats an actual covered-wagon trip on Oregon Trail. We opted for a bumpy two-hour trek in a reproduction Conestoga wagon, led by the Casper outfitter Historic Trails West. At one point we held our breath and clung to the side of the wagon as our guide expertly navigated us over a fairly modest hill. The nerve-wracking experience helped us understand why so many pioneers opted to walk alongside their wagons instead!

Tombstone, Arizona: The Wild, Wild West

When one thinks of the wild West, likely one of the first things that comes to mind is the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral—immortalized by dozens of books and movies. Many of those are more legend than truth, but if you’re looking for a town that captures the feeling of a frontier town, you can’t go wrong with Tombstone, Arizona.

Tombstone is located about an hour southeast of Tucson, the nearest major airport. The historic part of downtown has been recreated into a circa 1881 frontier town. (Think a wild west Williamsburg, without quite as much attention to historical accuracy.) The infamous shootout is reenacted four times per day near the site of the actual event. There is also a small museum and film about the events of October 26, 1881. Several of the buildings along historic Allen Street date to the 1880s and have been turned into themed shops or family-friendly saloons. There’s even a said-to-be-haunted historic theater where visitors can search for bullet holes in the walls left by visiting outlaws.

Part of the story of westward expansion is that many of the towns that sprung up around mines and railroad lines did not survive into the 21st century. One such ghost town is Fairbank, located a short drive from Tombstone. Visitors can take a short hike around the former town site and see the remains of the post office and general store. An old schoolhouse has also been partially restored and is sometimes open as a visitor center and gift shop.

Before driving south to Tombstone and Fairbank, we spent several days sightseeing in Tucson. The Arizona History Museum had several great kid-friendly exhibits about the west, including one about Apache leader Geronimo and a recreation of a copper mine. And if you didn’t see enough gunfights in Tombstone, the nearby theme park Old Tucson offers a number of “western experiences” including stunt shows and can-can dancers.

My kids’ favorite part of our westward expansion unit was learning about the outlaws and lawmen. Among the various tall tales, two favorite mostly-nonfiction books were The Legend of Bass Reeves: Being the True and Fictional Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West by Gary Paulsen and Bad Guys: True Stories of Legendary Gunslingers, Sidewinders, Fourflushers, Drygulchers, Bushwhackers, Freebooters, and Downright Bad Guys and Gals of the Wild West by Andrew Glass. The latter added some interesting new lingo to our vocabulary!

Heather Cole is dough boxer, biscuit roller and school marm to a pair of blue belly buttons who take a cotton to seeing the elephant without spending a heap of Lincoln skins. 



Arizona History Museum, Tucson, AZ: arizonahistoricalsociety.org

Fairbank Historic Town Site, AZ: blm.gov/visit/fairbank-historic-townsite

O.K. Corral, Tombstone, AZ: http://www.ok-corral.com

Old Tucson, Tucson, AZ: oldtucson.com


Fort Laramie, WY: nps.gov/fola

Guernsey Ruts & Register Cliff, Guernsey State Park, WY: wyoparks.state.wy.us

Historic Trails West, Casper, WY: historictrailswest.com

National Historical Trails Interpretive Center, Casper, WY: nhtcf.org

Oregon Trail video game: archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990

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