On the Fringes of the Prairie, 1800-1850

Teachers Level Three

Learning Goals and Objectives--Grades 9 - 12

Voices and Choices--John McMurty
Note: It is a good idea to print Level Three for easy reference.

Voices and Choices

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.


What do you think?

These questions, which come at the end of each story (minus "the answer"), can be used to start class discussions or be assigned as homework.

Can you find mention of the Black Hawk War in the timelinetimeline?

Discuss with students the ways in which personal narratives, such as that of McMurty, enrich the bare-bone facts of history.

Referring to the timelinetimeline 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.



These are suggested classroom activities and student projects that you may want to use with your students or as models to create your own.

1. Wolves

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 wolves?

Now read a contemporary wolf story written by a woman who owns a "hybrid wolf"--her animal is part wolf, part malamute.

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 propositions:

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Background on Black Hawk: a report on Black Hawk prepared by a seventh-grade student at Wilson School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at:
    Remote Link
  4. Predebate and postdebate discussion topics.

3. Memoirs as Historical Documents

Book Resources

The following books provide wonderful primary-source accounts on frontier life seen through the eyes of women pioneers:
  1. Christiana Holmes Tillson, A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois, Evansville, IN: Unigraphic, 1974.
  2. John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
  3. Glenda Riley, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1989.
  4. 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.
  5. Joanna Stratton, Pioneer Women from the Kansas Frontier, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.


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