The History Center Excursion Navigation
Pioneer Women - For Teachers

For Teachers

Classroom Activities


Activity Summary:
Letter reading activities are designed to help students interpret 19th century letters as primary sources of historical information. The Documents page provides a complete list of historical resources including the letter reading activities. These activities will also help students to develop questions that illuminate the life of a pioneer farm family. Students will interpret historical facts and concepts as they apply the elements of historical inquiry.

The investigation is guided by a spectrum of questions that range from the general to the specific. For a more general approach, younger students can answer questions such as: Who wrote the letter and why was it written?

For more involved investigations, older students can seek answers to the specific "ask the curator" questions inserted within each letter on post-it notes.

This web activity can be used to teach or supplement units on:

  • Pioneers
  • Westward Movement
  • General historical inquiry process

Notes Regarding the Letters

The letter dated 02/16/1849 was written by John H. Kelsey to his brother James who was still living in Lewiston, Niagara County, New York. Their parents were Charles Pemberton and Rachel [Sutphen] Kelsey.

John was born in 1819 and James in 1821 at Mound Farm, Niagara County, N.Y. James followed John to Linn County in 1851 and bought the farm John had purchased. James returned to New York in 1853, married Harriet Jane Rogers and brought his bride back to the "Cottage Home" he had built at a bend in the Red Cedar River. Jane was born in 1823 at Pekin N.Y.

They had an early Post Office called Mon Dieu in their home, thus the reference in the letter dated 07-04-1854 about putting up the mail. The close-up view of the 1859 map shows the location of the Post Office.

The letter dated 07/04/1854 was written by Jane to her sister Mary.

February 16,1849 Letter

Based on the information found in the Kelsey letter of February 16, 1849, select from the following activities based upon the themes found in the Kelsey letters.

  1. Have students brainstorm reasons pioneer settlers came to Iowa. Then have students use the CampSilos website describing push/pull factors to confirm their ideas.
  2. Ask students to describe the role of letters and posters in drawing settlers to Iowa. Students may check out the poster on Iowa.
  3. Provide a research activity for students to investigate methods of transportation used by settlers traveling to Iowa.
  4. Discuss methods of transportation used by pioneers in traveling to the frontier in the 1800's and read aloud the journal of William Buxton describing his travels from England in 1853 at the same time the Kelseys were settling near Cedar Rapids. Buxton traveled by ocean steamer, steamboat, rail, stagecoach and walking.
  5. Develop a Venn diagram comparing the reasons settlers moved to Iowa in the 1800's with the reasons people move to Iowa today.
  6. Ask students to compose two paragraphs comparing and contrasting the reasons pioneers moved to Iowa with the reasons some people move to Iowa today.
  7. Have students research how land was bought and surveyed in Iowa.
  8. Provide a T-chart for students to complete as they research the price of Iowa land today and in the 19th century when pioneers were coming to live in Iowa. Then have them theorize why land prices today are much greater than in pioneer days. Ask students to compare the price of crops in 1849 with the price of crops today (wheat, corn, oats) and the price of certain household items (lumber, tea, sugar, coffee, calico fabric).
  9. Have students create a bar graph comparing the amount of corn raised per acre in 1863 with today's yield.

July 4, 1854 Letter

Based on the information found in the Kelsey letter of July 4, 1854, select from the following activities based upon the themes found in the Kelsey letters.

  1. Have students describe how family life on the 4th of July has changed since 1854.
  2. Ask students to describe the place of religion in the life of Jane Kelsey.
  3. Have students research to discover what the Methodist church they were about to build would have looked like in 1854 and describe what materials would be used to build it.

September 20, 1863 Letter

Based on the information found in the Kelsey letter of September 20, 1863, select from the following activities based upon the themes found in the Kelsey letters.

  1. Ask students to read aloud this true story of a pioneer mother who loses her child to disease.
  2. Have students describe the medications used by pioneer families and why they were used.
  3. Have students describe the gendered division of labor during pioneer times. What was considered woman's work? What was man's work? Children? Then discuss the question, "Why was a woman's work never done?"
  4. Compare Jane Kelsey's letter with Sarah Kenyon and Sarah Nossman's pioneer experiences.
  5. Have students research food preservation to find out how early pioneers preserved their food.


Activity Summary:
Acting as curators, students will be asked to explore the four maps listed below. Initially, no dates will be provided. By looking for geographic detail, using map color clues, and searching for evidence of community development from one map to another, students will discover the order in which the map were created.

1859 Kelsey Bend Map
J.C. (James Cooper) Kelsey land with Post Office Mon Dieu in relation to Cedar Rapids and Red Cedar River.
Map of Linn County Iowa, compiled and published by Mc.Willimas & Thompson, 1859

1859 Close Up Map
Close up of 1859 Kelsey Bend Map
Map of Linn County Iowa, compiled and published by Mc.Willimas & Thompson, 1859

1906 Color Map
Kelsey land (144 ½ acres) now owned by H.M. (Heinrich) Kelsey, Jane and James' son. Also shows Stony Point school.
Clinton Township, Atlas of Linn Count: Davenport: The Iowa Publishing Company, 1907

plat map 2001

Photo Interpretation

Activity Summary:
Students will work with a learning partner and review the 1880's cottage photo and discuss observation and interpretation questions using the photo analysis guide.

  1. Use the photograph as the basis for a descriptive writing assignment. Ask students to assume the identity of one of the people in the photograph. Using their imagination, have students describe the context of the photograph. What happened before it was taken? What happened after?
  2. Print the photo and leave space below for students to write a story about the photograph.
  3. Write a one-paragraph caption for this photo to include as part of an exhibit.

Field Trips

The Field Trip Guide provides things to do before your class visits the History Center and activities for your class to do after visiting the History Center and extension ideas.


Bottom of Journal