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Map Quest: Before There Was GPS! Reinforce Map Skills by Teaching Westward Expansion

written by: Sarah Degnan Moje • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 3/19/2013

Have your students work on their geography skills during a unit on Westward Expansion. This lesson has students examining primary sources as well as maps of the U.S. in the 1830's and 50's.

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    Looking for a long term social studies project that incorporates some geography skill building exercises? The perfect unit to incorporate a geography lesson is when you are teaching Westward Expansion in American History. From 1830 to 1850, the size of the country grew tremendously, due for the most part to westward expansion. The growth of industry and railroads were key factors in this endeavor west and led to a great many wagon trains heading across the plains to form new territories. However, with westward expansion, our country also saw an expansion of slavery, as the territories petitioned to enter the Union as slave states or free states. By dividing this lesson up into three different parts, you have work for students complete at home or during down time all unit long.

    Part 1

    The first skills the students need in order to study Westward Expansion is the vocabulary that is common to that area of study. Give them the list of vocabulary words and have them define them. Ask them to create flashcards that illustrate the meanings of the terms in some way so that they have an easy trick for remembering. Hold students accountable for recalling these terms all through the unit and tell them that they will be tested on them weekly. That way, the words remain in their vocabularies.

    Part 2

    Moving on, literally, it’s time to incorporate the geography component. Obtain two blank maps of the United States. Label each map with the information listed below. One map should show the territorial boundaries of the United States in 1830 and the other map should show the territorial boundaries of the United States in 1850. Label the 1830 map and the 1850 map in different colors. The handout that can be downloaded with this lesson asks for specific labels on each map. Make sure students know you will be collecting it and checking it for accuracy. It’s always a good idea to keep extra blank maps someplace in the classroom, just in case of geographic errors.

    614px-Texas flag map.svg Part 3

    Finally, have students apply their knowledge by answering the following question. What major difference do you see in the United States between 1830 and 1850? How much new territory was gained? How did the borders of the United States change? What effect did this expansion have on slaves and slave owners? Let them hand you a well developed essay on this topic, which shows they learned something and were able to articulate their thoughts into words.

    Looking for that one final assessment? Use the downloadable Primary Source reading on the Annexation of Texas. Have students discuss why this decision was so important to our country and the arguments for and against. Ask them to analyze how the geography and industry of our country would have changed had Texas not become a state. All in all, you have great methods of assessment for your students; ones that will keep them motivated to keep learning more!

Westward Expansion

This unit is great for grades 7 through 10. Teach your students about westward expansion in the U.S. with primary source documents.
  1. John Henry: Steel Driving Man
  2. Vigilantes and Rebels in the West
  3. Map Quest: Before There Was GPS! Reinforce Map Skills by Teaching Westward Expansion
  4. A Fateful Wyoming Wagon Train: The Donner Party to Teach Westward Expansion





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