Prairie Settlement

Hook | Questions | Procedures | Data Investigation | Analysis | Findings | New Questions

Student Page

Nancy Johnson
Charles R. Coon


The student page contains the hook only. It is intended to spark interest in the topic and lead students to ask questions or make predictions.


Look at the picture above.

What do you think it would have been like to be one of the individuals in this picture? These people all lived on the Nebraska prairie between 1862 and 1912. As you can imagine, life was very different over 100 years ago. How could you learn what it was really like during that time? When you click on the web site right below the picture, you will be able to read letters and see pictures that will help you answer questions about one particular Nebraska family named the Oblingers.
  • Why do you think the Uriah W. Oblinger family settled in Nebraska?
  • What were some of the challenges facing the early settlers of Nebraska?
  • How did geography and climate of the Great Plains affect housing and agriculture?

Note to Teacher: The reason these topics were selected is because they are broad in scope and will lead the student to ask more questions and conduct research by reading the letters and looking at the pictures in the primary digital resource collection. In looking at the data, students will find biographical information about Uriah Oblinger and his family including a family tree at the following URL address: 

Specific letters and pictures will give the student insight into the life of Uriah Oblinger and his family. In addition, one can find documentation of the hardships they faced while attempting to settle and farm the Nebraska prairie.


Students might ask similar but different questions than those listed here. The more students are guided to ask specific questions, the less inquiry-oriented the activity.

The purpose of this web inquiry project is to challenge students to not only learn about early prairie life in Nebraska, but to experience it. This Library of Congress digital resource will allow students to imagine they are fellow homesteaders of the Oblinger family. As they analyze pictures, read letters, and view land deeds, they will know firsthand what life was like between 1862 and 1912.

After looking at the hook questions and visiting the web site, students may be led to ask additional questions such as:

  1. How much land could settlers get because of the Homestead Act?
  2. How did they make a living?
  3. What did they do if they got sick?

There might be a list of sub-questions that will be asked as well.

  1. How many children did the Oblingers have?
  2. Where did they get their food?
  3. Where did they get supplies to build their homes?


After students have asked questions related to the topic, they will need to decide a number of things, including:

  • Type(s) of data needed to answer the questions
  • Defining important terms
  • Choosing tools for data manipulation
  • Defining how data will be manipulated and presented

Type(s) of Data

Students may benefit from an introduction of the different types of primary sources in the Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters digital resource.  It is possible they may include in their search:

  • letters
  • photographs
  • land deeds
  • family tree
  • 3,000 glass plate negatives

Defining Important Terms

Since the letters and documents being investigated were created in the late 1800's and early 1900's, it is possible that terms encountered may have to be defined during the activity. Because these are casual letters between family and friends, slang, shorthanded words, and parts of words are often used. Students should be encouraged to record words in a journal, looking up definitions for some, and being aware that some will have to be determined by context since they may no longer be in modern standard dictionaries.

"uncle sam"

Investigation Tool(s)

Students will use the Internet for investigation, and should be able to stay on the primary digital resource in the hook for the duration of the project.

  • Table: In the early stages, students can keep track of their information in a three-column table which addresses the three main areas of investigation.
  • Timeline: A timeline would also be helpful, since the letters span the years of 1862 to 1912 and cover the weather conditions at different times of the year, as well as crop and health conditions over time. The members of the family also change over time.
  • Concept Map: As students branch off from the three starter questions with their own questions, they will have a wealth of information to make sense of. At that point, it would be helpful for them to begin an Inspiration concept map which they can add to until completion of the project.

Manipulating Data

As students begin, they will keep their table and perhaps their timeline in a folder or journal. Decide how you want to share out at the end of each day. Students tables should grow significantly after the first day of investigation. On day two, you may want to model concept maps. Even if they do not have access to Inspiration early on, they can record their bubble clusters in their journals, "growing" their map as they find new areas of investigation.

Data Investigation

There is often a giant leap from defining the type(s) of data desired and actually finding the data. Providing guidance to students in finding the necessary data may be necessary.

Web Inquiry Projects use data/information other people have gathered and placed online. Part of the inquiry process is finding the needed information.

The Library of Congress, American Memory Historical Collection, Prairie Settlement digital resource at will act as the primary source, and will be more than sufficient. Students will get the opportunity to perform historical inquiry using a variety of authentic documents located at this site.


Raw data/information usually has to be manipulated before it can answer any questions. Students might be unaware of how data can best be manipulated, so teacher guidance may be appropriate.

Preliminary Concept Map:
Students may start out with a simple concept map with the three basic questions of investigation, either provided by the teacher or made independently. A preliminary concept map could be as simple as the following:


In the hook, the students are directed to the primary URL where they will find two links, "Oblinger Family" and "Prairie Settlement." Clicking on "Oblinger Family" brings up three more icons: Oblinger Family Tree, About the Letters, and Biographical Notes. Choosing "About the Letters" will show introductory text where, in paragraph 5, we found the answer to the first question, "Why do you think the Uriah W. Oblinger family settled in Nebraska?" Also on that page was a letter icon dated December 1st, 1872. Clicking on it will provide more details answering the same question. Students may choose to record findings in their journals on a simple table such as the one below, containing the three inquiry questions:


Clicking on the remaining icon, "Prairie Settlement," students have the option to "search by key word," "browse by subjects," "correspondents," or "letters by date." Looking on the icon, "Letters by Date," students may find answers to the remaining questions about hardships and weather conditions. There they can find patterns of weather or hardship by time of the year. A letter dated November 24, 1874 from Mattie Oblinger to the Thomas Family says that the Oblingers and their neighbors had both agricultural and health hardships. Their neighbors lost a baby to whooping cough at nine months old. They mentioned the grasshopper region where there were "many needy persons that will suffer unless they are helped." If students are interested in the grasshopper problem, they can go to "search by subject" and put in the word grasshoppers. There they can find many pictures of the grasshopper infestation, including an amazing picture of grasshoppers descending on a farmer and his corn crop. Students can add the information to their table, creating an updated table like the following:


To continue their investigation about geography and climate, students can click on "correspondents," bringing up a list of letters mailed from the Oblinger family to their friends and family. Mattie Oblinger was the first wife of Uriah and choosing a letter from her to the Thomas family talks about much-needed rain for vines and cucumbers. Adding the weather information to their journals, students will have a table similar to the one below:


In summary:
  • The "Prairie Settlement" icon will take students to four options: "search by key word," browse by "subjects," "correspondents," or "letters by date."
  • Clicking on "correspondents" will bring them to a list of letters mailed from the Oblinger family to their friends and family. Letters there talked about weather conditions, crops that were grown, and market prices.
  • "Letters by date" helps students check weather conditions and crop conditions by the season of the year. Some students may select to supplement their data analysis with a time line at this point.
  • "Search by subject" allows students to pick any topic for investigation. Clicking on "grasshoppers," for instance, will take students to several letters and pictures showing grasshopper infestation and the resulting hardships.
  • "About the letters" gives students an overview of Uriah's marriages, death of a wife and son in childbirth, and eventual resettlement.
Final Concept map:
Once the students have viewed the historical documents by performing a search by date, correspondence or topic; they will be able to add information to their table and concept map. Click here or on the map below to see an example of a final concept map (larger version of the map below). To view the actual sources of information you may click on the hyperlinks contained within the example final concept map.

concept map


No result is meaningful unless communicated appropriately. Discussion of findings should be supported. There may or may not be definitive answers to the questions students raised.

Concept Map: Every group will be expected to elaborate upon their initial concept maps answering as many questions as possible and exploring answers to new questions provoked by the investigation process. The final concept map could include all areas the students investigated and may look something like the final concept map included in the Analysis section.

Timeline: In addition, students may want to put together time lines, especially for weather conditions and hardships that may correspond to specific times of year.

Diary with RAFTS: Students can be a member of the Oblinger family during this process and keep a diary of the experience. RAFTS encourage students to take on a Role, address a particular Audience, write in the Format of a diary, and write on the Topic of living as a settler from 1862 through 1912.

Possible New Questions

Answers often lead to new questions, starting the inquiry cycle over again.

Here are some sample follow up questions students might have and wish to investigate at a later time.

  • Did children go to school? If so, where?
  • What was a teenager's day like?
  • What type of transportation was used in these times?