Pilgrims, Pioneers, and Native Americans: Confusion in the Classroom

Unlike Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving is one of the holidays we are required to study in the classroom. Our state social studies standards mandate the study of Thanksgiving for three years in a row, and the relationship of Native Americans and Pilgrims for five straight years.

Since there are some confusions that tend to arise during these lessons, and practice makes perfect, some students end up perfectly confused. In order to nip that in the bud, let’s examine the confusions.

Pilgrims vs. Pioneers We study both pilgrims and pioneers in the context of Thanksgiving and in the context of relationships between Native Americans and Americans of European heritage. Both traveled to new lands, enduring hardships and uncertainties. Both words begin with a “P” and both groups lived a long time ago — an unimaginably long time for our youngest students. Is it any wonder that they mix the two up? However, there are some very important differences between the two groups:

  • They are separated by a couple of centuries.
  • The Pilgrims were pioneers of a sort, but the Pioneers were not pilgrims.
  • The Pilgrims were British colonists, while many of our states never were British colonies; kids in our region who mix up the Pilgrims and the Pioneers usually get confused about this point.
  • The Pilgrims did not live in most of our states. Kids who get these two groups confused have both time and space to get confused about.

How can we make certain that our students don’t get confused? First, study the two groups thoroughly enough that the kids have more than a vague impression of people in long dresses and hats.

Resources for studying pilgrims:

  • Scholastic’s excellent Thanksgiving site has lots of resources, including graphic organizers that will help clarify the Pilgrims’ location in time and space.
  • Plimouth Plantation’s online learning center gets very busy as the holiday nears; use it toward the beginning of the month for best results. If they’re too busy to let you in, check out “Talk Like a Pilgrim” and you will find links to recipes, coloring pages, and more, too.
  • Enchanted Learning’s printable  Pilgrim Book includes maps and simple reading, as well as pictures to color.

Resources for studying pioneers:

  • More coloring sheets are available at the linked site, in the form of links to PDF files.
  • An animated map of the U.S. showing its expansion from the 1600s through 1900s. Pair this with a timeline.
  • Here is a site with data about building and living in a log cabin. Here in our region, a log cabin was usually about 10 feet square. Measure and mark that much space on the floor with Mavalus Tape. If students are old enough, have them analyze local census records from 1830 or 1850 to determine the average size of a family (find the records easily in the genealogy section of the local library). If your community is like ours, they will find that families contained 8 or 10 people as a rule. Have 8 to 10 students settle into the cabin space marked on the floor and see what the space felt like.
  • The Prairie Traveler is a wonderful resource for the study of the pioneers.

Now use a Venn Diagram to clarify the difference between the two groups.

Native Americans, here and there It is easy for students to get the idea that Native Americans are a single group, and important for them not to get that idea. If students have the mental image of the Wampanoag when they think of Arkansas native Americans, or think that Squanto was Cherokee or Osage, they have a basic confusion.

Start with some map work. Milliken’s Early North America contains a computer CD with a printable map of the major Native American cultural groups. Show students an online map or post a Native American Tribal Map in your classroom. Use blank U.S. map pads to let students make their own maps of this kind. The hands-on work will help cement the information.

Delve deeper. Here are some resources for studying specific groups of Native Americans:

  • The Native Languages of the Americas database is an impressive resource. Kids can work on technology skills as they explore the database, looking for information on the various groups you choose to study. One approach would be to use the Web Organizer pocket chart. Label the center “Native Americans,” and use the six outside circles to gather data on your local Native American groups and those who joined the Pilgrims for the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Depending on your grade level, the circles might include information on the place where the particular tribe lived, the language and cultural group, the current status and location of the tribe or the tribal government, or details about livelihood and lifestyle.

web organizer pocket chart

  • Check out a chart comparing Native American groups to gather additional information, or send students to the library or computer lab to conduct further research.

The variety of ideas here will give multisensory lessons focusing on different areas of the multiple intelligences schema and different levels of Bloomfield’s taxonomy. Critical thinking and cross-curricular connections, a multicultural outlook, and a good variety of products for assessment should make this a very rich study. And we would be willing to bet that your class will not be confused any more when you finish.


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