Chapter 15: Along the Mary's River

Teacher's Guide Chapter Author: Lindsay Warneka, 4th grade teacher, Sheila Tarr Elementary, Clark County School District

Note: This content is also available on Miss Warneka's blog.

Chapter Overview:
The wagon train has made it through the salt desert and reached the Mary's River. The Donner party has finally made it back to the main California Trail, though they are behind schedule and pasturage is scarce. One day tempers flare and in the heat of the moment, Mr. Reed stabs a man who raised a whip to him. The man dies and Mr. Reed is banished from the wagon train.

Chapter Themes: Survival, struggle, justice

Chapter Activities
  • Language Arts
    • Activity Idea 1 Board Game
      • Design and write the rules to a board game about the Donner Party and their journey
      • Students will create a board and all the pieces necessary to play the game, they must also write the directions and rules to the game.
      • Standards Addressed
        • P.S. 9.4.5 give clear concise directions to complete a task
        • 6.4.2 Organize ideas through activities the require sequencing and classifying skills
    • Activity Idea 2 Persuasive Essay
      • Write an essay to persuade the Donner Party to stay on the main trail and not take the shortcut
      • Standards Addressed
        • 8.4.1 distinguish fact from opinion
        • 5.4.5 write compositions with a main idea and supporting details
  • Mathematics
    • Activity Idea 1 Map the Donner Party's Progress
      • to draw the parties progress on a map and measure the distance using the scale, finding the total miles crossed since their starting point to the Mary's River.
      • Standards Addressed
        • (4)1.23 describe and use algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division
        • (4) 3.3 measure, compare, and convert length in inches, feet, yards, and miles to the nearest fractional part
    • Activity Idea 2 Counting the Days
      • Students will calculate how many days the wagon train has been traveling up to the day of the incident on October 5th.
      • Standards Addressed
        • (4)3.10 recognize the number of weeks in a year, and days in a month
        • (4)1.24 generate and solve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems using whole numbers in practical situations
  • Social Studies
    • Activity Idea 1 Debate
      • Students will take a positive or negative stance for punishing Mr. Reed and argue their decision with evidence from the book. Make a recommendation for punishment that can allow everyone involved to feel that justice was done.
      • Standards Addressed
        • (4) 1.15 evaluate the causes of issues and problems
        • (4) 1.16 recognize the role of mediation in problem resolution
    • Activity Idea 2 Time line
      • Build a time line on the Donner Party, marking important locations and events
      • Standards Addressed
        • History 1.0 Students use chronology to organize and understand the sequence and relationship of events
        • Geography 6.0 Students apply geographic knowledge of people, places, and environments to interpret the past, understand the present, and plan for the future.
  • Science
    • Activity Idea 1 The Rain is Coming
      • Students will research to explain the water cycle and how it can snow in the mountains when it rains in the valley
      • Standards Addressed
        • E5A2 describe the water cycle including the role of the sun
        • N5A3 Draw conclusions from scientific evidence (data)

    • Activity Idea 2 Pacify your Thirst
      • Students will work in small groups to design and conduct an investigation to measure how well sugar can satisfy thirst
      • Standards Addressed
        • N5A5 describe how to plan and conduct a simple investigation
        • N5B3 Explain the benefits of conduction an investigation with a partner or small group
Historical Overview of Chapter Themes

Struggle to survive:
Many pioneers traveling west had to make difficult decisions in order to stay alive and keep their families together. In many instances families ended up with next to nothing when they arrived at their final destination whether it was in Oregon, California or somewhere along the way. One way a family could lose all their possessions was in one of the many river crossings. A fatal tip could see a family's only belongings washed down the river. The same could happen when crossing a mountain. Ropes could fray and break, and an entire wagon would be lost down a steep grade never to be recovered. In the Reed families case, they were forced to leave everything behind in the salt desert or die of thirst and the animals with them. These kinds of choices had to be made. The only way to survive on a journey such as this is to travel in groups and be willing to help a fellow member. The Breen family helped carry some items for the Reeds once their wagons were lost.
Not all families lost their items in one fell swoop. Some left items behind one at a time, when their animals were tired or a family member was ill and needed the space in the wagon. This was less drastic, but still necessary for the well being of the family unit. The families in the wagon trains depended on one another to make it through the long journey not just physically but also emotionally and spiritually.
Many who traveled depended on their faith for comfort and guidance. They also relied on each other to help when someone fell ill or was injured. In the unfortunate case of a death, the members of the train would pitch in and do their best to console those left behind. Travelers on the wagon trains also did their best to entertain each other and boost each others spirits when needed. The long days and difficult travel took their toll on many.
Despite the weather, terrain and travel difficulties the hopeful pioneers persevered through it all clinging to each other and the hope of a better life in the West.

Additional Resources

  • Nevada: Our Home, Chapter 5 (pp.82-97)


DenberCruz said...

I think that "Time Line" (Chapter 15, Social Studies) is a good idea. The assignment is late enough in the book that there has already been quite a few events that have taken place. The Language Arts standards as well as Math standards that can be tied in to a project like this can also increase student achievement.

A recommendation that I would make is that concurrent to the time line is a geographic line as well. On a map that the Donner Party travels, times and marks are placed on the map. This way, students can make an additional connection to what they are learning in a different method.

Christy G. Keeler, Ph.D. said...

I love your creativity! The board game is a great idea for language arts! You might, however, changing the language arts essay assignment to be a letter writing or newspaper article assignment. These writing methods would be more "true to the history."

I also really like the debate over what would constitute justice. You could bring a great civics lesson here by having students engage in a mock trial to determine if Mr. Reed was guilty. Then, have them determine the appropriate punishment. You could correlate this process with the current judicial system.