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What it means to ‘pack the wagon’ has changed over the past couple hundred years. Today, it might mean heading to the beach with floaties and beach bags. Two hundred years ago, though, packing your wagon meant fitting as many of your belongings and as much food as you could in a covered wagon. Think Oregon Trail. Think sleeping in a two-person tent with six people. Think staring at the back end of a horse all day long–that’ll give a new meaning to the term road trip. When people first began moving to Michigan, before it was even called Michigan, these were the kinds of things they had to deal with in order to get here. Imagine wanting to go to Michigan that badly.
Getting a Feel for the Past
Settlers began coming to Michigan from the east between 1800 and 1830. First, they came by wagon and horseback, and then after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, many came by barge to Buffalo and then by steamboat to Detroit. From there, they again used land transportation to travel further inland. Many settlers also sailed by boat on the Great Lakes and settled in towns along the shores. After 1830, the population of Michigan grew very fast. See the growth in this chart:
Settlers began to move to the Northwest Territory of Michigan from the East for many reasons. Some came to buy inexpensive farm land, others to join relatives already here. A sense of adventure brought young and single men. Later (1840s+), they came to fill jobs (for example, recruiters went to large eastern cities or advertised in eastern newspapers for men to work in the mining and lumbering industries).
Visualize the Journey
- Students will make choices based on reason and practicality.
- Students will measure various objects and fit them into a defined space.
Key Components: You Will Need….
Removable tape or chalk; yard stick or ruler; objects that can be found in the classroom, brought from home or around the school–backpacks, lunchbags, jackets, shoes, desk chairs, basketballs, class pet, etc.
To Begin the Journey, We Must Assess the Space: Packing Means Prioritizing
Divide students into groups of 4-8, depending on the size of the class and the space available to work with. You will need enough space for each group to mark an area on the floor approximately the size of a wagon bed-about 10 to 12 feet long by 4 to 6 feet wide by 2 feet high. Use removable duct or masking tape or chalk to outline the area.
Ask the students imagine that they are members of a pioneer family coming to Michigan to buy a farm in 1830. Have students make up a family profile. How many people are in the family? What are their ages and sizes? Who does the most work, and who does the least? Who needs to eat the most, and who needs to eat the least?
Create a list of roles for each group. Different roles will have different decision-making tasks about what to bring. Each group might make up a different list, e.g., household items (coats & backpacks), tools to start farm (pencils, rulers?), children’s things, clothing, etc. After lists are made, have groups report back and write lists on chalkboard.
Divide the items into three lists:
- Absolutely necessary—must take
- Things we would take if there is room, useful but could do without (e.g., a special piece of furniture);
- Fun items, toys, “extra” clothes.
With the measured area in sight, the class should come to an agreement on what will be included. What is a necessity? Do you need to bring your desk chairs? Or would a basketball be more appropriate? How about the class pet? Why? What things on the list can be left behind? Estimate the measurement of household items, tools, or measure similar items at home. Decide what will be taken so that all will fit, including people. Will everyone ride?
Communicating to the Crowd: Talk About It
1. How did you go about choosing what to take? If members of the group disagreed, how did you make the decision? How do you think the members of an early settlement family made their decisions?
2. Would settlers have taken livestock with them to Michigan?
3. Choose a year in settlement times (e.g., 1840). Find out how far people traveled in a day at that time. Decide how long it would have taken you to travel the same distance you would cover on a field trip from your school to the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing.
At The Museum
- Besides bringing things with them, settlers brought their ideas, language, religions, styles of clothing and other ways of life with them to Michigan. Identify unique aspects of your community that may have come with early settlers. What do recent newcomers to our communities bring that enhance our lives?
- Notice the articles that were brought to Michigan by settlers, e.g., cradle, spinning wheel, farm tools. On the bus trip home, compile a list of those items with the students. Discuss what other items might the settlers have made after they arrived in Michigan. Why didn’t they bring them (e.g., too large, didn’t anticipate their need)?
- Try the “plank road ride.” Discuss how it would feel and sound to ride over Michigan’s plank roads for many hours. What were the advantages of plank roads over dirt roads in different types of weather?
- If you were moving to a Michigan town at a later time in history, what would you bring? How might those things differ from what the early pioneers brought? Why?
- Erie Canal: A waterway around 360 miles long constructed across central New York state from Albany to Buffalo used for travel and shipping. It is now part of the New York State Canals.
- Necessity: Something that cannot be done without.
Michigan Social Studies Curriculum Content Standards
This lesson presents an opportunity to address, in part, these standards:
- 2.3.3. GEOGRAPHIC PERSPECTIVE: Identify people, goods, services, and ideas in their community which have come from other places, and describe why they moved.
- 2.3.5. GEOGRAPHIC PERSPECTIVE: Describe the causes, consequences, routes, and movement of major migration in the United States.
- 3.4.2. CIVIC PERSPECTIVE: Describe fair ways for groups to make decisions.
- Andrist, Ralph K. The Erie Canal (An American Heritage Junior Library Book). Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, 1964.
- Dunbar, Willis F., and May, George S. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (Revised Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980.
- Millis, Wade. When Michigan Was Born. Michigan History Magazine, 36 (December, 1952), pp. 321-50.
Please contact staff at the Michigan Historical Center with questions, concerns, and requests for educational content.Contact