Trailblazers - Now and Then

 Teacher Notes

Have you ever plotted a family trip or vacation on a map, figuring out the best routes to take and the places of interest along the way? Have you ever wondered who were the first men and women to blaze these trails? Were they native Americans, Spanish explorers from Mexico, or European immigrants looking for a way west? In this activity you are going to become explorers and map readers tracing the best routes to travel by land between various U.S. cities. You will then try to learn who were the first known explorers who broke these trails and who were the first groups of Americans to follow them.

The Task

You and your partner will determine all the possible and the best routes between two cities which your teacher will assign. Once you have agreed on the routes, you will highlight them on the maps provided you. Then, using topographical maps, you will determine if there is any route which seems the best based on the lay of the land. Next you will determine the route used by the early trailblazers - the Mountain Men and the pioneers. Then you will compare and contrast your highlighted route and the trailblazer's route, indicating where they are virtually the same, where they differ, and why. Finally, you will step back in history to the time of your pathfinder. Taking on the role of this pathfinder, you will give a first person presentation to the class, describing your place in American history.

The Process

There are many routes and many trailblazers. To help you understand the process we will choose one. Your teacher may assign other trails once you understand how to "blaze" them.

Step#1: With your partner, find the shortest highway route from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Los Angeles, California. Once you have agreed on the route, highlight it on your map of the Western United States.

Step#2: Now look at a topographical map of the region. Imagine it is 1826 and there are no roads. What problems would you face making the journey by horse and/or on foot. Brainstorm with your partner and list the problems you would face.

Step#3: Read the account of the journey of Jedediah Strong Smith in 1826 from the Cache Valley in Utah through the Indian Villages at what is now Needles, California. Then head through the Cajon Pass and into what is now the area of Southern California near Los Angeles. Compare and contrast the current road route with that taken by the Smith party. Prepare a brief paper on your conclusions.

Step#4: Read a summary of the life and accomplishments of Jedediah Strong Smith. Prepare a Living History presentation. You and your partner, in tandem, should become the legendary mountain man. Tell the class about the exploits of your short but important life.


Resources to be used in following the four steps above will vary, depending on the route and the personality your teacher has assigned you. The mapping resources will be useful in every project.

Step#1: Finding the Shortest Route

Mapquest ( ) will give a route you can follow on your map. It is very easy to use. Click Tripquest and follow the directions. You will be able to go city to city and will not need to fill in a specific address.

Step#2: Study the Topographical Map

You may find topographical maps available in class. On line you can find a topographical map of each state at

You need to be able to see a topographical map of the entire region to make sense of the travels of the Trailblazers. Your teachers will be able to direct you to such a map.

Step#3: Biographies of Jedediah Strong Smith

Brief biographies can be found on line at and at A bit more information can be found in encyclopedias, either CD ROM or standard book form. Your school and local; library will have further information in the form of biographies or surveys with chapters about the various Mountain Men.

Step#4: History in the First Person

Becoming a character from history can be a lot of fun. In classes that do this a lot the teacher often will demonstrate just what is expected of you. You can dress as the character, but often a simple prop such as a hat will be enough to allow you to come out of character and become another person. It is often best not to attempt an accent unless you are very good at it. You want to avoid anything which will make the class laugh when it is not supposed to. Speaking from memory is best, but often the teacher will allow flash cards when you are just beginning. Good luck. You will remember your whole life the character you perform and you will carry with you an interest to learn more about the person and the period they lived through.

Learning Advice

To trace the roads from Salt Lake City to LA you will need to have a complete picture of the road system of Utah, Nevada and California. Look at the big picture. Study the maps of all three states. Identify the places you have been. Try to remember the mountains, forests and deserts. Try to imagine that you were hiking in the area.

As you use the various web sites, explore them and see what else you can learn. Many of the sites are like icebergs. Just a little is showing. Ninety percent is hidden unless you take the time to explore.


The project will be evaluated using the map you prepared with current road tracings and the tracing of the trailblazer route. You will be responsible for the compare and contrast paper prepared in step 3. Finally, your first person presentation will be a large part of the evaluation.


Questions to be discussed when the project is finished.

1. What made the trailblazer a success?
2. What are the influences of the Trailblazer's discoveries today?
3. Are there any more trails to be blazed? Where are they?


By doing this project you have learned a process - a way of studying the trailblazers whose heroism and fearless dedication opened up the western United States. There are so many more journeys you could trace: Robert Stuart and the discovery of South Pass; Jedediah Smith and the rediscovery of South Pass; Joseph Walker and the journey when he became the first explorer to see Yosemite Valley; Joseph Walker and the discovery of Walker Pass; John Colter and his trek through Yellowstone Park; Jedediah Smith as he became the first Mountain Man to cross the Sierra Nevada from West to east using Ebbets Pass; the Bidwell-Bartleson party and the countless other emigrants who opened and followed the trails west in the 1830's and 40's.

You will learn a lot from these pioneers. Is there any area where you can become a trailblazer? Don't look for mountain passes and waterless deserts. Look for places and situations closer to home where others fear to go. Blaze trails in the area of racial and ethnic relations. Clean up the trails by learning about and tackling the ecological problems which threaten to turn the west into a chemical garbage dump. Look for a problem to be solved and you will have found another trail to be blazed.

Ralph W. Kline
St. Joseph School
Mission San Jose, CA
CHSSP-SCORE Technology Academy
Reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Al Rocca, Simpson College


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Last Revised: Mon, Mar 20, 2006