Chapter 14: The Salt Desert

Teacher's Guide Chapter Author: Jessica Parker, 4th grade teacher, Steve Cozine School Elementary School, Clark County School District

Chapter Overview: The Donner party climbs over a pass in the Salt Desert expecting only another 40 miles to find an expanse of desert that is extensive and beyond what they had anticipated. Once the reach the bottom of the mountain, they rest for a night. The nights are very cold and there is no water or resources. As the families cross the desert they begin to each go at their own pace and soon the Reed family finds themselves miles behind the others. Due to heat exhaustion, the oxen begin to be pushed passed their breaking point and the family has to leave the wagons behind. They traveled at night on foot, carrying what food and what they could. When they finally reconnected with the Donners, they gave the Reed family a ride to the spring. Only one oxen and one cow had survived, the rest had been lost during the night to dehydration (and some suspected possible Indian theft). Mr. Donner pulled their wagons in from the desert with his team, but there were no animals to pull the Reed’s wagons. They transferred their provisions to other family’s wagons and they left the rest in wagon they buried. The party set off once again towards California with much less than they started with.

Chapter Themes: Desert passages takes an extreme toll on the party. The Reed family successfully crosses the desert but loses majority of their animals and are forced to leave their wagons and some provisions behind.

Chapter Activities

  • Language Arts
    • Activity Idea 1 Writing Home.
      • Have the students work in groups to discuss how they would be feeling after reaching the springs. The students would then choose one character and write a letter home describing the ordeal in detail to family member back home. They are to have to major details about the experience and use a friendly letter format.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Write organized friendly letters, formal letters, thank you letters and invitations in an appropriate format for a specific audience and purpose. (4) 5.
        • Identify and use pre-reading, during, and post-reading strategies to improve comprehension (e. make connections to personal experiences and knowledge). (4) 2.1
  • Activity Idea 2 Outlining
      • The students should work in groups of four to go back through the text and create an outline of events and major details in the story. Mention the use of numerals in the chapter numbering (they will need to have some introduction if it is there first time exploring or using numerals). To take this a step further, have the student create a comic strip with nine major events of the story up to chapter 14.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Organize and record information from print and non-print resources using (note-taking, graphic organizers, outlining, paraphrasing). (4) 11.4
        • Identify the text structures of a variety of selections. (4) 3.6
  • Mathematics
    • Activity Idea 1 Timely Chore
      • Have the students create a chart listing all the chores that pioneer children would have to do on the trail. Based on what they’ve read in the children’s literature and textbook along with the text for this project, have them create a circle map to create map that lists the number of chores the children had to help with. Have them create a chart of what type of chore they had to complete and how much time it would take to do that chore. Have them predict and write down what time of day they think these chores would be completed. They should take into account traveling time and what it’s like to take down and set up camp. To extend this lesson have them predict down to the hour or half hour or quarter hour, the exact time of day the children needed to complete these chores. Maybe have them create word problems using these times and create a quiz for their classmates.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Use A.M. and P.M. appropriately in describing time. (4) 3.11
        • Use elapsed time in quarter-hour increments, beginning on the quarter-hour, to determine start, end and elapsed time. (4) 3.9

    • Activity Idea 2 How much did they need?
      • Have the students make a list of food items they may have needed on the trip based on what has been mentioned in the book. Have the students decide in fraction and percentages some predictions on how much of the previsions the party has used at the point when they reach the desert. Use this time to discuss how decimals and fractions are related. Have them account for when the may have stopped for more provisions. Have them research and decide how much water one person, one ox and one horse needs in extreme desert climate. Have them also find out how many gallons the wagons could carry and how much they needed to get through the 80 mile desert. Use conversion tables to have the student go between standard units of volume and metric units. Have them write how much water the Donner-Reed party may have needed to carry and how much it would have weighed to make it through the desert (which was 80 miles and it took them 6 days to cross.
      • Standard Addressed
        • Rename benchmark fractions as decimals and vice versa (e.g. ¼ = .25, ½ =.50). (4 )1.8
        • Estimate and convert units of measure for length, area and weight within the same measurement system (customary and metric). (4) 3.1
  • Social Studies
    • Activity Idea 1 Life as a Pioneer
      • To understand what life was like as a pioneer, instruct student to think about what it would be like to go one night without modern conveniences such as electricity, pens, etc. Student should make a list to share with the class of things they could give up and what they would really miss. Have them create a thinking map (double bubble map) to compare what conveniences they have now and what the life of a pioneer was like. For an extension they could possibly try to go without these items for one night. Another extension could be to bring in items that could be a "trail meal". (This would be at the teacher's discretion but the students could contribute the food or the money. If money is an issue the teacher could ask administration for any possible funding or use their own money to purchase food items for the activity). The class could prepare a "trail meal" of dried bacon, bread and cold beans. Then the students would write about what it would be like to eat this meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner for weeks.

      • Standards Addressed
        • Read historical passages and interpret details. (4) 4.12
        • Discuss how and why people from various cultures immigrated and migrated to the American West. (4) 4.11
    • Activity Idea 2 Pioneer Travel
      • Instruct students to imagine they are going on a four-month trip in their family car or van. They will be traveling through a remote wilderness with no place to stop for food or supplies. What would they take along? Have students make lists. How are their lists similar to or different from the things pioneers took with them? Compare to travel today. Have student share any experience they have had moving.
        To take this a little further, the teacher (especially for 4th grade), could use their social studies text for further information. Fourth grade studies Nevada and the text book Nevada Our Home has a chapter that describes the westward movement and a short description of the Donner Party’s experience.

      • Standards Addressed

        • Describe changes in how people move from one place to another. (4) 3.24
        • Read historical passages and interpret details. (4) 4.12
  • Science
    • Activity Idea 1 The Salt Desert
      • The students will use their science notebooks and work in groups to research the Great Salt Desert. They will research what might make the desert white and how and why the sand has so much salt in the soil. They will create an experiment with salt, water and soil. Have them make their own prediction and justify their thoughts in their science notebooks. The teacher should be available for suggestions and give the students a list of materials they can use but allow them to create their experiments themselves. (Please see the history section of this project to see how the desert was created in Utah). Basically have them set up an experiment where they create salt water and allow it to evaporate, leaving behind the sand and salt. I have used Grolier Encyclopedia online (http://go.grolier.comm) for multiple research projects online. I also recommend the teacher use any reference from the library. It would also be a great technology lesson opportunity to teach the students about using the internet for research.

      • Standards Addressed
        • Use science notebook entries to develop, communicate, and justify descriptions, explanations and predictions (4) 1.2
        • Conduct safe investigations with a partner and with a small group. (4) 1.4
    • Activity Idea 2 Water!
      • This activity relates to the previous activity in that the teacher will begin a discussion/lesson on the water cycle. Hopefully the students have done some research about Lake Bonneville and how the Great Salt Desert was created. The teacher will have the students work together to create a diagram of the water cycle using the Salt Lake as a reference. For an extension the students can use graphs to represent how much water is on earth, in the ground and in the atmosphere.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Investigate and describe the water cycle, including the role of the sun. (4) 3.3
        • Create and use labeled illustrations, graphs (number lines, pictographs, bar graphs, frequency tables), and charts to convey ideas, record observations, and make predictions. (4) 1.3
Historical Overview of Chapter Themes

In chapter 14 of Patty Reed’s Doll, all the members of the party are pushed to an extreme. They have to cross the Great Salt Desert in what is now Utah. They all suffer hardships and the loss of many animals, forcing them to leave wagons and belongings behind. The desert that they had not really known was coming took a significant toll on all members of the party. Since they had been misinformed about the length of the desert, it was 80 miles and not 40; it took them over six days to reach the springs on the other side. They came into the desert on August 30th and it took 6 days of continuous traveling to make it across. The majority of the people were forced to walk and the animals dispersed due to hunger and thirst (other sources say the winds that kicked up the sand, may have suffocated the animals). (McGill, 2005). Due to these extreme conditions, when the caravan finally arrived on the other side of the desert, they not only arrived separately but the laws and rules had begun to break down. Due to the 80 miles of desert that the Donner-Reed Party had to face because of the decision to take the Hastings cutoff the families faced having to spend the winter in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains.

The Salt Desert in Utah was created when the ancient Lake Bonneville which, due to climate changes and overflowing down the Red Rock Pass, receded and with a few more climate changes became what is now the Great Salt Lake. The lake covered an area of over 19,000 square miles, which is most of Utah and parts of Idaho and Nevada. The desert is white due to the high level of salt and minerals in the soil from the evaporation of the lake.

Additional Resources

  • Grolier Encyclopedia online (
  • Nevada Our Home. (2006) Cibbs Smith, Publisher
  • Really great site for general information about Utah's Salt Lake area.


Teresa Neilson said...

Excellent job on your blog. You put a lot of effort and thought into your lessons. Your information was easy to follow and creative. The "trail meal" sounds fun and students love anything that has to do with food. I have a song called "Friendly Letters" that my class sings before writing their friendly letters the song teach them the five parts of a letter. Using thinking maps are a must at Heckethorn ES, I am glad that you thought to put them in your activity. Thanks for the Grolier Encyclopedia link.

D.C.T. said...

I thought that you came up with some wonderful ideas. I really liked the idea of completing the time line and then making a comic strip because that gives children a chance to summarize in a fun way. The only problem I noticed was there were some grammatical errors that could be corrected, but you did a nice job!