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Teaching Guide

Teaching the West

It's wild.


The ranges of the wild, wild west weren't actually jam-packed with lone rangers, heroic cowboys, and Will Smith rapping. That means you have a lot of misconceptions to clear up about the age of the American frontier. But don't worry, pardner—we can help.

In this guide you will find

  • lessons exploring the lives of homesteaders and the iconic images of Western heroes.
  • discussion questions about the ideology of life in the West.
  • historical resources on the California Gold Rush, the Transcontinental Railroad, and Teddy Roosevelt.

And much more.

You can leave your cowboy hat and spurs at home…but if you do wear them to class, send us pictures. Please.

What's Inside Shmoop's History Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring history to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

The Library of Congress has posted a rich rich collection of letters for students interested in homesteading and prairie life. The Uriah Oblinger Collection is filled with the mundane details of prairie life – your students should not begin their reading with expectations of high drama. But a patient reading provides insights into the struggles, rewards, and hardships of the homesteader's life.

1. Direct your students to this site, where they can read about the letters and the Oblinger family.

2. Ask your students to select a period of time and read at least ten letters, in sequence, from that period. In order to ensure coverage you may find it necessary to assign certain critical periods (i.e., 1872-1873). Insist that they stick to their selected period. They may be tempted to jump around in their reading, but the value within this sort of research lies in maintaining a concentrated focus. In addition, they will find the letters more interesting if they build a connection with a person over a span of time.

3. The following questions may help you debrief your students' readings. 

  • Are the letters dull? Interesting?
  • What do you think of the individuals writing them?
  • What subjects dominate the correspondence?
  • What do these reveal about the homesteaders' lives?
  • How similar were their lives to yours?
  • Would your letters home be filled with the same sorts of content?

Instructions for Your Students

Hundreds of thousands of people left their families and friends to start new lives in the West. Sound exciting? Would you be interested in this sort of high adventure?

You will be reading some letters from a family of homesteaders. Before you begin, you might think about what you would expect to discover in their letters. What will they talk about? What topics will fill their lives and therefore their letters?


Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary & Analysis    Timeline    People    Facts    Photos    Best of the Web    Citations    
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