Karen Wiegmann

With the publication of books, letters and guidebooks proclaiming California to be a paradise, emigrants began to head west. Lansford W. Hastings' The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California made the trip sound easy. His suggested cutoff to save time and distance led to one of the most horrific episodes in California's history. The Donner Party's disastrous winter in the Sierra Nevadas in 1846 still holds people's attention. After all these years, people are still trying to discover more about these unfortunate pioneers.

Patty Reed's Doll is a core literature selection for fourth graders. It is an interesting book, but I have some problems with it. It describes much of the journey west as a sort of picnic, which does not do justice to the difficulty of the trip, especially for early travelers who had no roads to lead them. Nor does it explain what the settlers resorted to in order to survive the particularly harsh winter that left the party stranded in snow drifts that came up to their rooftops. I think it is important for them to know these details. In the past I have been able to find only a few references to exactly what happened, and none of these sources had any accounts by people who actually lived through the ordeal.

This lesson plan is an attempt to explore a part of California's history and meet several grade level standards at the same time. The activities presented cover standards in Reading, Language Arts, and History - Social Science. In order to fully cover the story of the ill-fated Donner Party accurately, students will compare and contrast Patty Reed's Doll with Across the Plains With the Donner Party. The first book is a work of fiction, while the second is a reminiscence Virginia Reed Murphy (Patty ReedÕs sister) wrote in her adulthood about the ordeal combined with letters and journal entries her father wrote to relatives back home during the historic journey.

Goals of the lesson: In an effort to connect Language Arts and Social Studies, the following lesson plan includes activities that relate to the several state standards for fourth grade.


  1. Prior to reading Patty Reed's Doll and Across the Plains With the Donner Party, ask the students to define the word pioneer. Brainstorm a list of characteristics a pioneer might possess.

  2. Give students the Prediction Page (handout I) and have them answer the questions. Discuss what the trip on a wagon train might have been like. Read If You Came to California in a Covered Wagon (Scholastic, 1986) then have students answer the questions on the handout again, with a different color ink so that they can compare their answers.

  3. Explain that thousands of people came to California this way and that they are about to read about some actual people who came in 1846. Show pictures from various sources. Have students make a Venn diagram to compare the romanticized version versus the realistic one. They can also do a quick write to explain their opinion about the point of view of the pictures. (I prefer to have my students make their own Venn diagrams, but here is an example.)

  4. Take a look at a covered wagon. A good resource can be found online at:
    Compare these to the description of the Palace Car in Patty Reed's Doll.

  5. At this point, start comparing the chapters of both books. Following are some suggestions for specific chapters and activities:

    Ch.9/Within Minutes There Were Three Bulls Coming Toward Me
    Have students decide which chapter they prefer. Ask which one helps them understand what it felt like to be hunting buffalo. They can write about the selection they prefer, or they could list words that described the experience most effectively.

    Ch 10/Two Hundred Miles Farther On, A Better Route, and The Hasting's Cutoff
    Have students answer the questions on Handout 2 about the Hasting's Cutoff. have them make up a note they would leave for anyone following them, similar to the one the Donner Party found in Patty Reed's Doll. Have them tear it up and wrinkle it, then mount it on brown construction paper signboards.
    Ch. 15/Tragedy
    Notice that Patty Reed's Doll has only four more chapters, while almost half of Across the Plains... remains to tell of that winter.

  6. Finish the two books, then Discuss/Compare/Contrast point of view of the two books. Ask students why they think Patty Reed's Doll
    was written from the dollÕs point of view. See if they can determine who the intended audience for each book might be. Check publishing dates and discuss whether that might have an effect on the chosen point of view. Have students complete Handout 3.

Extending Activities:

  1. After reading Patty Reed's Doll and Across the Plains with the Donner Party, students will simulate a trip to California in a covered wagon. They will choose the items they take with them and will make choices about what items they can leave behind when they need to lighten the load at various places along the route. (Handout 2)

  2. I Am a Pioneer poems. Brainstorm a list of verbs that fit the subject so students may choose the words they would like to use for their poems. They may choose to be a child or an adult, male or female, to determine which words fit their character. (I always have my students include a symbolic border around the edges of their final copies. Having symbols that fit the subject helps me instantly assess their comprehension of the topic.)

  3. Cooking- Using recipes from Oregon Trail Cooking by Mary Gunderson, Blue Earth Books, Mankato, MN, 2000.(Link to the book on's Website)

  4. Compare journals, diaries and reminiscences. An excellent resource for this can be found online at:

    Discuss the differences, and have students compare the corrected versions in the book Across the Plains with the original writing/spelling of both James Reed and Virginia Reed Murphy which can be found in various resources. A copy of a letter Virginia Reed wrote to her cousins is used as a primary visual source above.

    Students could also keep journals or diaries, and should also be able to write a reminiscence about an event in their life from their perspective today.

  5. Response journals can be kept during the course of reading the books. Choose a paragraph or line from the book that you want students to respond to. Have them copy it exactly on the left side of the paper, and put their response on the right side. For example, try the first paragraph of Chapter V, "Out on the Prairie".

  6. Reader's Theater activities can be written by teachers or students.