Western Expansion for Kids - Pioneer Life on the Frontier Illustration

Western Expansion for Kids - Pioneer Life on the Frontier

For Kids

In the 1800s, people who made their home in the American frontier were called pioneers. People came from all over the world, from Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, Russia, Ireland, Scotland, and Italy to start new lives in the "land of opportunity". Many settled in the frontier.

Land: The first thing the pioneers did was to claim land or buy land. In the 1830s and 40s, land was about $2 an acre around the Great Lakes and in Oregon and California. The Homestead Act offered 160 acres for free (with certain requirements.) Until then, people traveled through the plains and prairies to reach the far west. They though the plains would not work well for settlement because there were very few trees and water was scarce. But free land, combined with the coming of the Transatlantic Railroad, made settlement on the prairies very attractive.

Homes: Upon arrival at their new home, wherever they settled, people needed to build a home. In areas where trees were plentiful, they built log cabins. They built sod houses on the prairies. Besides building a home, they needed to locate a source of clean drinking water, which meant sometimes they had to dig a well. They had to protect their animals and plant crops.

Friends, Family, Loneliness: If they were lucky, they were met by family and friends, or joined an existing community, with people willing to help them carve a farm of their own out of the frontier. But some settlers were on their own. One of the biggest problems with frontier life was the loneliness. Even those who grouped loosely together might not see another family for weeks or months at a time.

Bees: Many settlers developed an attitude towards work that woudl make it more enjoyable. Instead of trying to make quilts alone, the women would gather and make quilts together, many quilts at one time. These were called quilting bees, or bees for short. While the women quilted, the men would build a barn or a house at the location of the bee, or do other work that was needed. After the work was done for the day, food was served. Kids played games. Adults danced. Everyone looked forward to a bee.

Books: One of the biggest recreational activities on the frontier, besides bees, was reading. Most pioneers could read. The pioneers read everything they could find, including magazines, newspapers, the Bible, and other books when available. The mail was slow, but welcomed eagerly when it arrived. 

Clothes: Pioneer clothing was simple, and made from sturdy materials. The fibers of the flax plant was used to make linen. Leather was used a lot because it was sturdy and available. Buckskin, leather made from deer hide, was used to make pants, jackets, and boots. Pioneers with sheep used the wool to make thick winter coats. Farmers wore smocks and overalls (still wore today.) Cowboys wore denim, leather breeches and tall boots. In the 1850s, a tailor named Levi Strauss began making and selling denim trousers, which today we call "Levi jeans".  As settlements grew, especially after the transcontinental railroad was built, fabric was easier to purchase. Frontier women could buy cotton to make shirts and dresses. Girls dressed like their mothers. They additionally wore pinafores or aprons. Pinafores pulled over the head and hung from the shoulders. Aprons tied at the back of the waist. Boys wore clothes like their fathers.

Hats: Cowboys wore great big leather hats that they used to carry water to their thirsty horse. Cowboy hats also doubled as wash basins for the owner. Farmers wore straw hats to protect themselves from the sun. Women wore soft linen caps indoors and bonnets outside. 

Hair Styles: Men grew bushy side whiskers, mustaches, and beards. Women let their hair grow long, and wrapped it up in a loose or plain bun.  

New Inventions and Mail Order Catalogs: The invention of the sewing machine in the mid 1800s helped pioneer women greatly. Not all pioneer owned a sewing machine, but those that did were very lucky, and usually employed to sew clothes for other pioneers. As railroads connected the west to the east, people began to be able to order ready made clothes. Catalogs from Sears-Roebuck and Montgomery Wards were sent all over the country for mail orders.

Education: Some communities had a one-room school house, with one teacher that taught all the grades. Some kids rarely made it to school. It was too far or too cold. Teachers were paid. Female earned about half of what male teachers earned. Kids were taught reading, writing, math, music, and a little history. Teachers were often invited to live with one of the families. It helped supplement their earnings, but they had to do chores. Even kids as four or five had chores. Life was harsh on the frontier. Everyone had to help to survive.

Games Pioneer Kids Played (sackschools)

For Teachers

Pioneer Life and the Frontier - Free Lesson Plans and Classroom Activities