What do you like to do on the weekend? Rent a movie? Play
video games? Or do you run down to the community center with the
rest of the neighborhood to take part in a fast-paced spelling bee?
Spelling? For fun? If you were growing up on America's Great
Plains in the 1800s, you'd consider a spelling bee a boot-stompin'
Children and adults "would come from all over to see a
spelling bee," says Priscilla Clement, a professor at Pennsylvania
Imagine what it was like growing up 100 years ago in places
like Kansas, Wyoming, or Wisconsin before there were big cities,
paved roads, or McDonald's.
Perhaps you've gone on a camping trip or eaten dinner by
candlelight when the power went out on a stormy evening. Maybe
you've read books about frontier life like Laura Ingalls Wilder's
famous "Little House" series. (The pictures on these pages are from
those books. They were drawn by Garth Williams, who also
illustrated "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little.")
Historian and author Harriet Sigerman says the account of
pioneer life in the "Little House" books is pretty authentic though
somewhat romanticized. "She creates a sense of community that is
authentic," Dr. Sigerman says.
Settling on the frontier was exciting for children, but it
was also hard work. "Work really shaped their lives," Sigerman
says. "Even young girls were accustomed to roping cattle and doing
Moving west wasn't like stopping at the nearest real estate
office or keeping an eye out for "for sale" signs. Families were
settling in undeveloped areas where they had to build their own
houses and grow their own food.
To understand how children lived, it's important to
understand a little history.
People pushed westward in search of free land and new
opportunities. Some were immigrants from Europe trying to escape
poverty and religious persecution. Others sought riches or
By the 1840s, settlers had reached California. But it wasn't
until the 1860s that the Great Plains - the grasslands between the
Missouri River and the Rockies - were safe for settlement.
The Homestead Act of 1862 offered a quarter section (160
acres) of land to anyone who agreed to improve it over a five-year
period. Thousands of families piled their possessions in wagons,
hitched up horses or oxen, said "giddyap!" and jolted their way
Parents depended on their children to help out. A quarter
section of land is the size of 120 football fields! "Kids were
expected to work," Dr. Clement says. "They didn't do the same
things adults did, but they could weed, garden, tend cows, ride
CHILDREN'S days would begin at first light, Clement says.
"They would go to the well, lay a fire, bring in wood, and boil
water. The children would then milk the cows and collect eggs."
(Quite a difference from being asked to tidy your room, take out
the garbage, and turn down the TV!)
Without electricity or running water, everyday chores took
longer. Doing the laundry might take an entire day. And you'd never
hear your parents demand that you take a bath every night!
"Bathing didn't happen very often," Sigerman says. "Putting
together a bath was a big undertaking." Parents did strive to
"maintain a sense of decorum," though.
Children learned to cook, bake, make soap and candles, sew
and spin. "Young children did household chores together and then
around the age of 9 or 10 they started to work in the field - boys
For girls, working alongside boys was a big change. In more
settled parts of the country, girls were expected to do only
household chores. "Girls had freer lives in the West," Clement says.
But just because TVs and Monopoly didn't exist, it doesn't
mean pioneer children didn't have fun. Instead of playing Frogger,
they might have gone outside and actually caught frogs. And instead
of inviting the neighbors over for a barbecue, your parents might
have them over to, well, make cheese. …