Forgotten Stories of the Oregon Trail: Capturing the Details

Creating Pictures with Words

What do you do if you see an interesting, colorful object but don’t know what it is? Today, you can take a photo of it and show it around. You can also research the object on the internet. Within minutes, you may find lots of information about it. In the 1800s, however, the internet did not exist. Cameras were a new invention—and they only took photos in black and white. Back then, many people used words as the only way to capture new and unfamiliar objects. They wrote about these objects in great detail.

In 1853, Rebecca Ketcham traveled west from Ithaca, New York. She paid $150 (about $5,000 today) to join a wagon train making the journey on the Oregon Trail. Ketcham wanted to see all the sights along the way. She was determined to learn, explore, and discover as much as she could. Ketcham kept a detailed diary during the trip. She noted that she wrote it for "friends who may be interested." In one entry, Ketcham used more than 200 words to describe a single purple flower that she could not identify by name.

Wildflowers grow near Mount Hood, the highest mountain in the state of Oregon.

Ketcham’s diary entries show that she had a talent for writing and for describing things. This talent came in handy when she arrived in Oregon and became a teacher. Ketcham’s writings have helped people understand what it was like to travel on the Oregon Trail and visualize the interesting things she saw during her adventure.

Describe an Object

Teachers for Grades 1–5: Share this information with your students and then have them observe an object and describe it in detail.

Begin by explaining that people can use their senses to observe and record the properties of an object. Then encourage your students to think about which of their senses they would most likely use to examine and describe with accuracy the object in front of them. Help students understand the importance of capturing details and how those details help us gain understanding of things that are unknown to us.

With this activity, students will learn how to make clear, thorough observations. They will record their observations with enough detail that the objects can be identified through the students’ descriptions.

Download the teacher and student versions of the activity below.