Goals and Objectives--Grades 9 - 12
Voices and Choices--John McMurty
Note: It is a good idea to print
Level Three for easy reference.
John McMurty is a pioneer farmer surviving on the fringes of the
prairie with his family, which comes under threat of war by Black
Hawk, chief of the Sauk, and his people. McMurty must decide how to
best protect his family and his land from the Indians.
These themes can be explored with either a social studies or
language arts curriculum. Use these themes to tie in other
resources to your class discussion, i.e., other books, other
cultures, students' own lives.
- Memoirs as historical documents. The story of McMurty
and his family was recorded by his daughter Martha in the form of a
"reminiscence," or memoir, about her life growing up on the
prairie. What can we learn about history from such personal
accounts as memoirs, diaries, and letters?
- Cultural conflict between the white settlers and the
American Indian tribes they displaced.
- The significance of the frontier as open, unclaimed land
that provided individual families with opportunities to settle the
land, establishing their own communities on their own terms.
These questions, which come at the end of each story (minus "the
answer"), can be used to start class discussions or be assigned as
Can you find mention of the Black Hawk War in the timeline?
Discuss with students the ways in which personal narratives,
such as that of McMurty, enrich the bare-bone facts of history.
- In what ways does this story enrich the timeline?
Referring to the timeline can you
find the two technological innovations discovered during this era
that would greatly aid farmers like McMurty?
Have you and your family ever moved from one location to
another? What was this like for you?
How do students feel about moving; what memories or ideas do
they have about the topic? Can students bring personal experience
to bear on the experience of the early pioneers to Illinois?
If you lived in a settled place, why would you move to an
unsettled place, as McMurty and his family did? What kind of
difficulties might you encounter? What would be your motivation to
make such a move?
Men like McMurty moved their families to the Illinois prairie
because land was cheap and plentiful. Many pioneer families were
first- or second-generation European immigrants. The vastness of
the American prairie lands held the promise of success and wealth
through farming that was not possible for poor men in Europe.
How do you think McMurty viewed the land and issues of
ownership vs. how Black Hawk viewed the land?
Native American beliefs towards the land differed radically from
that of the white Europeans. Native Americans saw the land as a
shared resource that could not be owned because it was the source
of all life, the "mother" of creation.
Can you compare early American settlement patterns to those of
the French who colonized Kaskaskia and Fort de Chartres? What is
similar and what is different?
Review the French period map section. The French closely
followed the European settlement patterns to which they had been
accustomed in France, which centered around a village with shared
lands outside the village. Early American settlers set off on their
own, and with their family established isolated cabins on land that
they saw as their property.
- Refer to the French period maps
These are suggested classroom activities and student projects
that you may want to use with your students or as models to create
The story of John McMurty and his family is based on the memoir's
of his daughter Martha.
One of Martha's most riveting accounts in her memoirs is that of
Mrs. Denbow's perilous escape from wolves.
From this passage can you infer how Martha and the settlers must
have felt towards the wolves that inhabited the Illinois
wilderness? If you had lived during the 1800s, how might you feel
about wolves? After reading this story, how do you feel about
Now read a contemporary wolf story written by a woman who owns a
"hybrid wolf"--her animal is part wolf, part malamute.
- How does Emma feels about her hybrid wolf pup? Can you compare
her experience with wolves to Mrs. Denbow's?
- How have attitudes towards wolves and knowledge about wolf
behavior changed over the past 100 years?
Use your favorite World Wide Web search engine to find other
wolf-related websites. See if you can find articles that show
contrasting viewpoints toward wolves.
Below are two links that contain articles from wolf-related
websites to help you get started.
2. Class debate: Black Hawk vs. the white settlers
This debate concerns the Sauk claim to the land vs. the white
settlers' claim to the land around the Rock River. The debate can
take place between Black Hawk, chief of the Sauk, and McMurty or
between a group representing the Sauk and a group representing the
settlers. Students can debate either of the following
- Resolved: The United States government is justified in using
force to remove the Sauk from the Illinois territory.
- Resolved: The Sauk claim to lands in Illinois are justified and
ought to be respected.
In November of 1804 at St. Louis, General Harrison of the United
States made a treaty with the chiefs of the Sauk and Fox nations of
Indians by which the Indians ceded to the United States all their
land on the Rock River. This agreement was confirmed by part of the
tribe in a treaty with Ninian Edwards, the first governor of the
Illinois territories, in 1815 and again in another treaty in May of
1816. These lands, according to former Governor of Illinois Thomas
Ford (1800-1850), "included the great town of the [Indian] nation
near the mouth of the rivers. The purchasers from the government
moved onto their lands, built houses, made fences and fields, and
thus took possession of the ancient metropolis of the Indian
nation." Black Hawk, "an old chief of the Sauks," denied the
validity of these treaties, moved back onto the land and declared
war upon the settlers. The war resulted in defeat for the Indians,
and by 1832, Black Hawk and his people were removed from the state
to the wilderness west of the Mississippi. The last of the Indian
lands were ceded to the United States government in 1833.
The following excerpts provide background information:
- Background on the events surrounding the treaty of 1804 and the
start of the Black Hawk War in 1832: Governor Thomas Ford's retelling
of "Black Hawk's own account of the treaty of 1804" and subsequent
decision to resettle his lands.
- A speech given by Corn
Tassel, a Cherokee leader, made to the United States government in
1785. In this speech Corn Tassel argues that the whites had no
claim to Indian lands.
- Background on Black Hawk: a report on Black Hawk prepared by a
seventh-grade student at Wilson School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa,
- Predebate and postdebate
3. Memoirs as Historical Documents
The following books provide wonderful primary-source accounts on
frontier life seen through the eyes of women pioneers:
- Christiana Holmes Tillson, A Woman's Story of Pioneer
Illinois, Evansville, IN: Unigraphic, 1974.
- John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois
Prairie, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
- Glenda Riley, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of
Women on the Prairie and the Plains, Lawrence, KS: University
Press of Kansas, 1989.
- Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western
Trails 1840 - 1890, edited by Kenneth L. Holmes (6 volumes);
Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1983.
- Joanna Stratton, Pioneer Women from the Kansas
Frontier, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
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