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Grades 9-12
The physical environment often dictated not only the trails North American settlers used in their move westward but also their destinations. The lure of open spaces and inexpensive land was so great that many pioneers risked dangerous conditions to make it to the Great Plains.

In this lesson students will consider the experiences of settlers on the American Great Plains in the late 1800s and explore the ways in which humans use technology to overcome obstacles in the physical environment.

Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, history, language arts
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 15: "How physical systems affect human systems"
Two hours

Materials Required:
  • Computer with Internet access
  • Song lyrics to "Dakota Land" (below)
  • National Geographic's Historical Atlas of the United States (or other sources that detail the settlement of the American Great Plains)
  • Writing materials
Students will
  • identify hardships caused by physical systems; and
  • gain an understanding of the constraints the physical environment can place on human activity.
Geographic Skills:

Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
Have students locate the Great Plains region of the United States. They should research the physical environment of that region. When they know about the climate, vegetation, and terrain of the area, have them compile a list of words that describe the area. Write down the responses.
Distribute copies of the song lyrics to "Dakota Land."

[Note: The folk song below appeared in a lesson developed by Jim Kract of Texas A&M; University, "Perceptions of the Great Plains in 19th Century Folk Songs—Teaching About Place."]

Dakota Land

O Dakota Land, sweet Dakota land,
As on thy fiery soil I stand,
I look across the plains,
And wonder why it never rains,
Till Gabriel blows his trumpet sound
And says the rain's just gone around.

We've reached the land of desert sweet,
Where nothing grows for man to eat.
The wind it blows with feverish heat
Across the plains so hard to beat.

We've reached the land of hills and stones
Where all is strewn with buffalo bones.
O buffalo bones, bleached buffalo bones,
I seem to hear your sighs and moans.

We have no wheat, we have no oats,
We have no corn to feed our shoats;
Our chickens are so very poor
They beg for crumbs outside the door.

Our horses are of bronco race;
Starvation stares them in the face.
We do not live, we only stay;
We are too poor to get away.

Have students read the song and individually write down five words describing the physical environment from the song. Have students individually speculate on measures that enabled humans to adapt to this environment. Place students in small groups to share their findings.

On the chalkboard, compile a list of technological developments that enabled humans to respond to the demands and constraints of the physical environment of the Great Plains. (Some important applications of technology on the frontier included windmills, steel plows, railroads, barbed wire, and home-construction techniques.)

Have students formulate generalizations about how technological developments facilitated settlement of the Great Plains. Write the generalizations on the chalkboard, and discuss them as a class.
Suggested Student Assessment:
Show students photographs of North American pioneer families taken during the middle years of the 19th century. Ask them to write fictional but realistic accounts of where the pioneers originated, the forces that lured them to leave their homes, their means of transportation, and their ultimate destinations.
Extending the Lesson:
Have students identify contemporary examples that show how humans adapt to the constraints of their physical environments. How has technology allowed humans to live in otherwise inhospitable locations?

Fred Walk from Normal Community High School in Normal, Illinois, contributed classroom ideas for Standard 15.

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