Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
A More Perfect Union

The Disease, the Cure

Objective: Students research diseases that affected pioneers, settlers, and Native Americans during westward settlement.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
2-3 class periods

Building Background:
Crossing North America in wagon trains was extremely difficult. The hardships of weather, limited diet, and exhaustion made travelers very vulnerable to infectious diseases such as smallpox, cholera, and dysentery. Smallpox was an especially devastating disease. First brought to the Western Hemisphere by Europeans, smallpox was spread to Native Americans, who had no immunity to the disease. Thousands of Native Americans died after contracting smallpox.

What To Do:

1. Remind students that today, admission to schools usually depends on parents being able to certify that their children have received a series of inoculations. Ask students what they recall of their inoculations to immunize them against various infectious diseases. Point out that during the early eighteenth century, settlers and Native Americans did not have the advantage of such immunizations (despite the fact that Edward Jenner first demonstrated his smallpox vaccine in 1796).

2. Explain that diseases such as smallpox, cholera, dysentery, and measles were fatal. These diseases spread across North America in part by interaction among settlers and Native Americans. Print and distribute copies of the Health Report worksheet. Tell students that they are each to research one disease that plagued settlers and Native Americans during the early- to mid-eighteenth century and use the worksheet to report on its history. Students can use encyclopedias to learn about the disease they chose.

The Overland Trail

Students can explore the Overland Trail, view a map, and share in the experience of traversing the route.

The Oregon Trail

Learn about daily life on the Oregon Trail through the resources at this site.

New Perspectives on the West

This PBS site offers primary source letters, documents, photographs, and journals; an interactive map; an interactive timeline; a biographical dictionary; and more on settlers and Native Americans in the American West.

3. Have students use their worksheets to compile a classroom encyclopedia on infectious diseases that affected people during westward movement. Each students should write a brief description of the disease they chose, including information on any innoculations or cures now available.

Bring students together to share what they learned about diseases that were once common. Have them discuss how the history of this country may have been affected by the spread of disease.


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