American Settlement of the Great Plains

Author: Dominick Cavalier
School: Dowell J. Howard Middle School Alternative Program, Frederick County Public Schools
Grade Level: Middle School
Time Estimated: 10, 50-minute class periods

This unit will cover the growth of the American West following the Civil War. It will focus on the technological advances that aided this migration and their impact on the frontier. The students will examine primary sources and make real life historical connections. The geographic regions covered will be the cattle raising land of the Midwest and Southeast and the Great Plains. This will be the first unit covered in the school year. Prior to this unit the class will complete an extended United States geography lesson that focuses on the states.


Historical Background:

Settlement in the Great Plains did not fully develop until technological advances allowed this area, once considered a treeless wasteland, to be a viable destination for settlers. These advances included the steel plow, sod houses, railroads, and dry farming techniques. With these advances the potential for settlement of the "wasteland" was forever altered. This great settlement, between 1870 and 1920, has had an everlasting effect on the nation.

The growth of the cattle industry in the Southeast was strongly aided by technological advances, such as the railroad and barbed wire. This growth was felt over the entire nation from the slaughterhouse in Chicago to the steakhouses of New York City. It also led to the rise of the great American folk hero—the cowboy.

It is also important to understand the many reasons why many Americans, native-born or immigrant, moved westward. These reasons, from land ownership to adventure, provide a better understanding of the people who would endure the harsh conditions of the Great Plains at the turn of the 20th century. This will serve as a preview of the next unit that will deal with immigration to America that is taking place at this time.

In addition, it is essential to recognize that this land newly settled by Americans was not empty when the settlers arrived. The Native Americans who occupied this land faced many changes and challenges during this era.

The settlement of the Great Plains affected the United States in various ways. The growth of the cattle industry and the Great Plains farming helped fulfill the essential requirement of feeding the population. It also helped us conquer the land from coast to coast fulfilling what many people considered our “Manifest Destiny.”


Major Understanding:

Due to new labor saving technologies the center of America, once considered a vast “wasteland,” was opened up to new settlement. This settlement led to the growth of new businesses and industries that affected the entire nation.



Students will:

  1. Examine primary documents to identify the challenges faced by the settlers.
  2. Analyze photographs from their historical and cultural perspectives to explore life on the Great Plains.
  3. Examine maps to understand the location and conditions of the Great Plains.
  4. Investigate maps and text to understand the struggle between the settlers and the Native Americans already on the Great Plains.


Standards of Learning:

USII.1 Students will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to:

  1. Analyze and interpret primary and secondary source documents to increase understanding of events and life in United States history from 1877 to the present
  2. Make connections between past and present
  3. Evaluate and debate issues orally and in writing

USII.2a Students will use maps, globes, photographs, pictures, and tables for

  1. Explaining how physical features and climate influenced the movement of people westward.