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Teaching with a Pioneer Child’s Account
Michigan’s pioneers—the first people of European decent to settle in various places throughout our state—wrote many accounts of their experiences. A woman who came to Yankee Springs in Southwestern Michigan when she was four years old created one of my favorite accounts. Mary Lewis Hoyt was over seventy when she wrote her story, but she painted wonderful word pictures that answer questions historians ask—
- Where did people live?
- How did they travel?
- What did they eat?
- What did they do for fun?
Because this was written by a person who saw the things she described with her own eyes, it is a primary source. However, a lot of time passed before Mary wrote the account; so we can assume she did not remember everything and her account may have been influenced by things other people wrote or said.
The condensed version of Mary Lewis Hoyt’s account is annotated to help young readers use it to research the question “What was daily life like in the early settlements of Michigan?” I’ve also identified some of the more unusual vocabulary words and the marks used to indicate what I’ve changed. Three dots—. . .—to indicate that I left something out and brackets—[ ]—to show what I changed beyond spelling corrections.
You can use the secondary source account about Mary’s father with teaching ideas for geography and economics Both narratives can also be used to sharpen students’ language arts skills in reading and understanding non-fiction.
Using Mary’s Account in Your Classroom:
Divide students into groups and ask each group to research and report on one part of pioneer life in Michigan. Topics could include houses and the environment, transportation and communication, fun, food and cooking. Class discussion of the reports could compare Mary’s life to life today: Do your students think they could sit still long enough to be photographed in pioneer times?
Historians can’t understand another time if they cannot imagine what it was like to live then. The act of imagining based on research and facts leads to an important adult skill—empathy. Drawing pictures to illustrate Mary’s story is a non-verbal way for students to demonstrate their understanding of pioneer life. To help them imagine what pioneer life was like, share pictures of objects and documents from the Michigan Historical Center.
Timelines are often confusing for students because they cover so much material. A good introduction to creating timelines is to have students create a timeline of Mary’s life from1832 through 1846. Have them note important personal things (birth, moving to
Michigan, important celebrations, trips). Then ask them to add important things that changed life for people around her (the Indians being forced to move away, the coming of railroads, the first photographer in Michigan.) Have them use the same process to create a timeline for their own lives.
A Little Math:
Mary was born in 1832. Have students calculate how old she was at the time of each of the things she describes with a date.
History is about asking questions. Challenge your students to think of questions that Mary’s account does not answer. Think about concrete things from daily life that are different today, such as where our clothes come from, how we process food like butter, sources of light such as candles. Resources that may help your students answer their questions include The Mitten on Pioneer Life and our Pioneer Life Resources Page.
What are you doing to teach about pioneer life in Michigan? Do you have ideas for other ways to use Mary’s account? Do you have questions or needs for other kinds of information and resources to support your work? We’re interested in all your comments.