Conestoga Wagons (Richard Ammon)

Teacher's Guide Author: Alexandra Reub, 3rd Grade Teacher, Robert Lunt Elementary School, Clark County School District


This teacher's guide is for the book Conestoga Wagons by Richard Ammon. Additional teacher's Guides are available for Patty Reed's Doll, Sallie Fox, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and other exploration children's books.


Book Overview: This book uniquely describes and beautifully illustrates many aspects of the Conestoga Wagon. The Conestoga Wagon was originally built in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania between 1750 and 1850 so that goods could be transferred from one area to another. Much of the book describes in full detail how the wagons were built. They had to be built sturdy because of the rough terrain and long periods of time on the rough roads. The book also explains the historical significance and importance of the wagons to the early American economy. This book is a must have for any classroom teacher who is teaching Westward Expansion and pioneer life.

Book Themes: The family unit (families usually traveled together), maps (where and how far did the wagons have to travel?), the building and foundation of the wagons (how and what materials were used?), Colonial Times, Conestoga horses (these were the breed of horses used to pull the wagons), Pennsylvania Dutch, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (the Conestoga Wagon was built here), Revolutionary War, colonial America, necessities for living (food, coal, paper, tools, etc..), taverns (where the drivers would sleep when it came time to rest at night), bartering (sometimes, the innkeeper would barter for items that the driver had to pay the bill at the end of the stay), steam engine (this technology was developing and starting to threaten the use of the Conestoga Wagons).

Suggested Activities

Language Arts

      • Life on a Wagon
        • After reading the book, Conestoga Wagons, ask the students what they thought it might be like to a passenger on one of the wagons. What was life like?
        • Have students write a friendly letter to a friend or family member that they have left behind describing a day in the life of someone traveling on the wagon. On a separate piece of paper to be handed out to the kids, there are some questions to help the students gather their ideas.
          • *How old you? Are you a child on the wagon? Or are you an adult?
          • *Are you a girl or boy? How different would the life be because of gender?
          • *Who is on the covered wagon with you? Brothers or sisters? Mom and dad?
          • *Where are you leaving from and where are you going?
        • Students may use a Circle Map to first write down all their ideas from the questions.
        • After students have drafted and edited their letters, have them share with the class (Author’s Chair).
        • Standards Addressed
          • NV 5.3.2. Write friendly and formal letters.
          • NV 7.3.4 Use correct capitalization: names and titles, dates, moths, holidays, place names; first word in a sentence: pronoun “I”; salutation and close of letters.
          • NV 9.3.3 Present ideas and supporting details in a logical sequence.
    • Comparing Wagons
        • After have read the book, Conestoga Wagons, remind them that the Conestoga Wagon differed from other regular wagons that were traveling on the trails.
          Explain to students that they are going to be finding out at least 4-6 similarities and differences of the two types of wagons.
          Have students use the internet, read books and/or look at pictures to find out information.
          Have students complete a Double Bubble Map or other graphic organizer to explain the similarities and differences between the two kinds of wagons.
          After students have completed map, have them share with others to see if they missed any attributes of the two.
          After students have shared their maps, have them choose either a regular covered wagon or a Conestoga Wagon and write a paragraph explaining what and how it traveled. They can also illustrate the wagons.
          Differentiated Instruction: If students have a difficulty with writing, they may use the computer program of Thinking Maps to help them generate their answers.
        • Standards Addressed
          • NV 9.3.3 Present ideas and supporting details in a logical sequence.
          • 2.3.4 Restate facts and details in text to share information and organize ideas.
  • Mathematics
    • Cooking Corn Fritters
      • Explain to student’s that pioneers ate simple food because it was easy to take on the road and most items were fairly inexpensive to make. One example of this food, was the corn fritter. Tell students that today, they are going to be making corn fritters. Find the recipe at
      • Hand out recipes to everyone. Read over thoroughly with students.
      • Materials will already be complied and ready to use. After putting corn fritters together, teacher will bake.
      • After baking corn fritters, everyone can enjoy!
      • Standards Addressed
        • NV 3.3.2 Select and use appropriate units of measurement; measure to a required degree of accuracy, and record results.
        • NV 7.3.16 Express math ideas; use them to define, compare, and solve problems.
    • Staying Within the Budget
    • This activity was taken from the website, It should give students a basic understanding that at that time, people had little money so it had to be used for only the important things to be able to survive and live a safe and healthy life. Students will have to “earn” cash and “spend” it on their necessary supplies for the family.

Standards Addressed

        • NV 6.3.1 Select and apply strategies to solve practical and mathematical problems.
        • NV 7.3 16 Express math ideas; use them to define, compare, and solve problems.
        • NV 3.3.4 Read, write, and use money notation, determining possible combinations of coins and bills to equal given amounts.
  • Science
    • Can You Grow Your Own Food?
      • Discuss with students how the pioneers used the land to make their food. They did not go into the grocery stores to buy food! If space is available, have students plant some basic vegetables or herbs; tomatoes, peppers and beans. If not, then plant a few inside. Depending what happens and what grows, allow the students to make something edible from their own garden foods- just like the pioneers did!
      • Standards Addressed
        • 4.6 investigate and describe how changes to an environment can be beneficial or harmful to plants and animals.
        • 4.7 investigate, compare, and contrast identifiable structures or characteristics of plants and animals that enable them to grow, reproduce and survive.
    • Making a Covered Wagon
      • Explain to students that they are going to be making their own Conestoga Wagon out of a shoe box. The original plan came from the website, I chose to modify it because after the wagons are completed, I would like the kids to use their previous knowledge from the Measurement Foss Kit to measure certain dimensions of their wagons and to compare their wagon with others.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 7.3.16 express math ideas; use them to define, compare, and solve problems.
        • 3.3.3 estimate and use English and metric measuring devices to measure length.
        • 1.1 identify, gather and safely use tools and materials needed in investigations.
  • Social Studies
    • ABC Book
      • Tell students that they are going be making an ABC book about the Conestoga Wagon.
        Show an example on the board: H is for handmade. The Conestoga Wagon was made by hand-not in factories! Many were built by blacksmiths.
        After reading the book, assign each student a letter of the alphabet. Repeat until all letters of the alphabet have been assigned.
        After students have written a sentence for their letter, have them draw a picture to go with it
        After all pages are completed, put together and make into a book.
        Read the completed book to the class!
      • Standards Addressed
        • (3) 4.12 describe various types of transportation and communication used throughout the history of the United States.
        • (3) 4.10 describe the lives of pioneers from diversity.
    • How Long? How Far?
      • Hang a map of the U.S. in the classroom. Tell students the push pins at the starting point are going to be them. As the student's find out more information through picture books, the internet or other resources, they can start to move their push pin as though they were making the journey themselves. In addition to moving, the students can also find out how long it took them to make some of the trips and the distance between starting and ending points.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 4.4 ask history related questions
        • 3.38 ask questions about why things are located where they are
        • 3.39 gather geographic information from maps

Historical Overview of Book Themes

As stated before, this book does a very nice job explaining and visualizing the Conestoga Wagon. The first Conestoga Wagon emerged in Pennsylvania around 1749. The name came from the Conestoga Valley near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The construction of the wagon is very interesting. The builders knew that they had to be built tough because the wagons would be hauling heavy freight for many miles on rough terrain. To make sure the wagons would last, they were large, heavy, and had beds shaped somewhat like boats, with angled ends. The floor of the Conestoga wagon sloped so that nothing could fall out of either side. To avoid harsh weather conditions, such as rain, the cover of the wagon was built with watertight canvas that would shelter the precious cargo of people and goods. The canvas was 16.5 feet in length and 4.5 feet in width. The frame and suspension were made of wood, while the wheels were often made of iron or steel. This made the wagon more durable for any kind of condition. The roads ahead of the pioneers could come as a surprise to the drivers. Past rainstorms might have left huge muddles or big holes in the roads or loose gravel. In this condition the planks, spokes, hubs and boards were ranked in their proper places and re-ranked twice. This lumber was kept under the careful eyes of the wagon-maker for three years, before any of it was used in a newly constructed, first-class wagon. The Conestoga Wagon had to also be ready for hills. This is where the "brake" system came to be. If a wagon was traveling fast enough downhill and did not have control, it could be tipped over and everything could fall out of the wagon or people could get hurt.

There were many wagons made with six wheels belonging to it. The higher set was to be used for a trip to Philadelphia; and the lower set to be used on the farm. The wheels used under the front carriage in a trip to the city would be used under the rear part when the wagon was used on the farm. The high bodies were different to fit their intended uses. The commercial wagons had high sides, with three adjustable chains across the tops to hold them together. The bottom had an enormous double swell, so that barrels, casks or hogsheads, which constituted many of their loads, would work towards the middle instead of breaking out the sides as the wagons rolled along the road. The body used for hauling charcoal from the mountains, had only one swell, but much higher sides and extra top shelvings with extra guard chains.

There were four varieties of lumber used in the construction of the early wagons. The axles were hickory and the hubs were of gum. These two parts were the foundation of a good wagon. The heaviest pieces were always seasoned four years before used. On the cut of the wooden spindle, the proper iron plating and the setting of the ponderous wheels, depended the success or failure of the construction. Any practical teamster, or maker, could tell the quality of a wagon when the many squads or caravans lumbered down the pike.

Excerpts from and Theodore Roosevelt

Additional Resources


Note: This teacher's guide was developed as part of one of the Clark County School District's Teaching American History grants. In this grant module, teachers focused on using children's historical literature to teach cross-curricular concepts relating to 19th century westward movement. For more information about this blog, related teacher's guides, or the grant module, please contact Dr. Christy Keeler.


Neil G said...

I really liked your activities, and what is even better is that many of them could be interlinked with one another. They didn't seem like separated, isolated skills, but activities that could be combined for use with the book.

In offering a couple of suggestions, I would want to know more about the calculation activity. I went to the website to find it and downloaded the PDF file, but I would have liked to have had a description of the activity in your guide, so I knew what I was going to find. Also, there were a few formatting problems (though I know this may not be your fault; I can't tell you how much time I spent on formatting) with extra bullets and the recipe not hyperlinked. These are just a few minor things, but I think they could add to your teacher’s guide.

Overall, nice job. I think you had a good variety to keep students engaged.

Lisa Shireman said...

I loved your math activity “Cooking Corn Fritters.” I always forget that cooking with the students is an option. It really gets them involved and excited and is something that a lot of students don’t get to participate in at home. As a extension activity, you could have the students to a comparison chart of how cooking now is different from the pioneers. I also liked your “Making a Covered Wagon” activity. I love anything that is hands-on and really open the student’s minds in different ways. As a suggestion for even higher level thinking, you could go as far as having the students make a packing list for their family with on a limited number of things they can bring. Once they really get into it, they would have to problem-solve the situation. Great activities!

Christy G. Keeler, Ph.D. said...

What a wonderful collection of book themes! You make it clear that there are many, many directions teachers could take when using this book instructionally!

I appreciate the detail you include in your activity suggestions. I could follow your suggestions and have little else to do in preparation for my lessons relating to this book. Thanks for making it easy!

Nice use of higher level thinking with your wagon comparison social studies activity. One difference I would make is having all students (not just those with writing deficiencies) use Inspiration (or another concept mapping tool) to complete their activity. This brings in more 21st century skills without taking additional instructional time.

Jamie A. said...

Great job integrating so many skills with the Language Arts activities. Administration loves it when we use Circle Maps!:) I especially liked the letter to friends and family describing life on the Conestoga Wagon. It relates their own lives to the experience. When researching how certain wagons are alike and different, you could develop, or perhaps find, a WebQuest or Trackstar track to make the research easier on them and you. Your awesome cooking activity was also engaging and a great cross-curricular connection. They have fun and learn. Everyone wins!

RJ Mallien said...

What a wonderful description of the book. Made me want to reread it again. My heart is that you added so much for the writing activity. It was very thoughtful and a great lesson plan for a substitute too. My wish is that there were science lessons included. Another heart was the incredible amount of detail of the themes. That iwll really help teachers tie this book into other lessons.

Sarahd64 said...

I thought that all of your lessons very very thought out and would be a lot of fun to do. I would think it would be hard to make corn fritters with a class. Would you have a lot of it done? How would you manage this in the classroom? Also, a lot of the lessons for science and social studies seemed very time consuming. Would you do these in class or outside of class time. Overall, I thought it was very well planned and thought out.