Smithsonian

Step Three: Rivers as a Barrier to Travel

Examining a Painting
Distribute Green River Crossing of the Overland Trail by Dave Paulley. Explain that it depicts the crossing of the Green River in Wyoming. Locate the Green River on a map of the United States. Use information from the previous discussion--mountains as a barrier--to travel to begin a discussion about why a river might be a barrier to travel during the early and mid-1800s. Direct students to analyze the painting with these questions in mind: What do you notice about the terrain? What transportation system do you see? What difficulties do you think travelers in the painting may have encountered when crossing the river? What difficulties might travelers encounter at this river crossing in different seasons of the year? Record students’ ideas about the difficulty of river crossings on the board or chart paper (“class list”).

Examining Journal Entries

  • Distribute and display John B. Hill’s journal and Mrs. Amelia Stewart Knight’s diary entry. Identify the texts as accounts from emigrants who made difficult journeys across rivers.
  • Provide definitions for difficult vocabulary or use other vocabulary-building strategies. (See Vocabulary).
  • Explain to students that they will examine these documents to help confirm, disprove, and add to their ideas of the difficulties imposed on travelers crossing rivers recorded in the class list. Students should work with partners to use the painting and journal entries to record their ideas about how rivers became barriers to westward travel in the early to mid-1800s.
  • Compare the students’ list of how rivers served as barriers to travel--a list developed from background knowledge and information gathered from the painting Green River--to information gathered from the journal entries. Explain that rivers such as the Kansas, Columbia, North Platte, and Green were dangerous obstacles for travelers. Note the locations of these rivers on a map of the United States.
  • (Hundreds of pioneers drowned during crossing, and many others were charged outrageous sums of money to use ferries. According to Idaho State University’s Web site on the Oregon Trail, “In 1850 alone, 37 people drowned trying to cross one particularly difficult river--the Green.”)