History Trunks – Santa Fe Trail


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We enjoyed a second week of hands on history with our class today on the Santa Fe Trail. Like last week, this class was based on a trunk from the Kansas State Historical Society, and was filled with items that would have been carried by families and traders on the Santa Fe Trail.

We started out by talking about how nearby Westport was a popular jumping off point for both traders and settlers, how they would often buy their supplies at the local trading post run by the McCoy family, and how they needed to fill their wagons with everything they could possibly need for their new lives out west. We also talked about how prices were much higher out west for families and traders, and how traders could make lots of money if they were able to purchase goods from the east and take them out west and on to Santa Fe to sell.

The items from the trunk were set up on a table, and the kids had a chance to look at and explore the items. As they looked through the items, we talked about what they were, why they would have been an important item to take out west, and how the item was similar to or different from items that we use today. We were pleased to see that this week’s coffee grinder was better at grinding the coffee beans into finer grounds that would be better for brewing.

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Items from the trunk

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More items from the trunk

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Exploring the items from the trunk

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More exploration and observation

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Grinding coffee

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The much finer coffee grounds – compare to last week’s picture!

The kids were given a worksheet with a list of items from the trunk. We then played a “Price Is Right” style game where the kids guessed the prices a settler living in the west might have paid for each item. They were shocked to find out how cheap (or expensive!) some of the items were at the time, especially after we converted the prices to current dollars.

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The worksheet for our pricing guessing game

We passed around a set of paper bags containing four kinds of fabric – cotton, wool, silk and lace-edged linen, and the kids had to guess what the material was, and which one was the most expensive. We talked about what each kind of material would have been used for, and why cotton would have been cheaper than silk, why the wool would have been used for blankets, rugs and wrapping things, and why a linen handkerchief edged with Irish lace would have been a thoughtful gift for a lady. We also felt the churro wool and the beaver pelt, and talked about how they were used for trade from the west to pay for items from the east if “hard money” was not available. The kids looked at the pieces of eight and we talked about the high quality of the Mexican silver and its use as a form of currency in both Mexico and the U.S.

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Beaver pelt, churro wool, trading beads and silver pieces of eight – the various forms of trading route currency

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A close-up view of the pieces of eight

We spent some time talking about how families preparing to go west had to make all kinds of decisions – what to pack, how much to pack, what kind of wagon to purchase, and so on. These decisions were also important for traders traveling west to sell their goods in Santa Fe – if you took a wagonload of less desirable goods, or goods that many other traders also took west, you would make less money. The kids completed a worksheet about some of the decisions that had to be made, and took home a worksheet on trail terms. We talked about the choices the kids made, and the possible outcomes from those decisions.

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The trail terms sheet and the decisions worksheets

After that, the kids were free to look through some books about traveling west, play a Santa Fe Trail game that I put together, complete some coloring pages or to explore the trunk items further.

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Books about traveling west

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Santa Fe Trail game

Items from the trunk
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Household goods
Back row, L to R: Coffee grinder, ink well and quill, sad iron
Second row, L to R: Block of Chinese tea, bone buttons, sewing notions – two spools of thread, a brass thimble, and a pair of “stork” scissors
Third row, L to R: A twist of tobacco, a mule shoe, an oxen shoe in two parts
Front row, L to R: A padlock and an axe head

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A candle mold with wick

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Men’s clothing – cotton shirt, cotton duck “britches”, suspenders, socks, felt hat and leather shoes

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Items for ladies (clockwise from left) – white cotton stockings (would be worn with a ribbon garter to keep them up), a parasol, lemon-scented soap, a bottle for French cologne, a linen handkerchief edged in lace, a hair comb, two tortoiseshell hair pins, a heart necklace

2016-01-27 10.27.24Modeling a ladies’ parasol

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Items for children – a slate tablet and slate pencil used since paper was difficult to obtain, a “Frozen Charlotte” porcelain doll

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Fabrics available for purchase or trade
Top row, L to R: jerga, a type of woven wool; cotton; black silk
Botton row: a serape, which could be used as a wrap, as a blanket, as a shawl and for other purposes

Many thanks to the Kansas State Historical Society for the two wonderful trunks that we used for our classes! They have definitely enriched our discussions about Kansas history, and helped to make history engaging and interesting for all the families who attended the classes. We look forward to using more trunks to learn about Kansas history!

Also, a big “thank you” to all the families who attended these classes – it has been such fun to learn more about Kansas history with you!


2 comments for “History Trunks – Santa Fe Trail

  1. February 16, 2016 at 8:43 am

    Thank you for sharing the KSHS trunk Trading on the Santa Fe Trail trunk not only with the students, but as part of the blog. I am so glad that your group had an opportunity to use it. These items were replicas of the type of items that American traders would have been transporting to Santa Fe and beyond. In addition we also have included items that Mexican traders brought to Missouri. This economic route was an international route in more ways than just America to Mexico and vice versa. Many of the items transported by the Missouri traders to be sold in Mexico were from foreign lands–France, China, England, and other countries. What an important part of American history to convey to students.

  2. February 27, 2016 at 1:16 pm


    Thank you so much for putting together these great history trunks! They are a wonderful addition to the study of Kansas history, and really made the trade routes come alive for the kids (and parents too!)

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