Children’s Lives in the Frontier Era

DURATION: 90 minutes (two sessions)

MATERIALS:One or more sessions to conduct research, one session to write journal entries, and one session to contrast frontier life with that of today
  • Internet access or printouts of information from the TN4Me website
  • Art supplies for mural
Note: To print out copies of images in “slideshows”, follow these steps:

1.  Go to the section of the website where the image occurs.
2.  When the slide shows up, click on the upper right corner to stop the slide show.
3.  Right click on the image and select Print.
4.  To print in grayscale, select Grayscale under the Color tab under Preferences.


(Source: here and here)       

Education on the frontier was erratic. Some children learned the alphabet and numbers from their mothers. Others went to make-shift schools a few months a year. Here they learned basic reading and writing skills. Most of the life skills children needed they learned at home.

Household Jobs:
The most important job for the pioneer wife was taking care of the household.   Even though she might expect to receive help from her children, it was considered her duty to ensure that the house was in order.  This task was a large one.  The woman had to make sure that the family was properly clothed, food was prepared, the house was clean, and children were cared for, among other tasks. Taking care of the home included making items for use within the home. Brooms, candles, soap, linens, bedding, and clothing were all made by hand.  

In addition, food preparation was a slow and ongoing process. Butter had to be churned using a wooden churn, beans had to be snapped by hand, and corn might have to be ground using a log pestle and mortar.   Cooking went on all day long since several meals had to be prepared. Also, the fire, which was a source of heat and light, had to be kept going. Food had to be preserved to be saved for winter use. Peas, beans, corn, and meats were often dried for that purpose.  

Children’s Chores:
Some of the homemaker’s duties were parceled out to children. Even small children could sweep the floor or help snap beans. Children as young as three or four were expected to help by gathering kindling, collecting eggs, emptying chamber pots, fetching water, and removing ashes from the fireplace.  Young children also tended the babies, calling for their mother if she was needed.  By age 12, children did such adult chores as grinding grain, sewing, hunting small animals, milking cows, helping with crops, and chopping wood. Older children also brought in firewood, gathered kindling, carried water inside, swept the floor, and ran errands.

Daughters were encouraged to learn from their mothers for the purpose of someday becoming homemakers themselves. Susannah Brooks later recalled her life on the frontier in the 1790s:
Most of my education was obtained at home. Here I learned to card, spin, and weave. I know all about milking, making butter, and cheese, washing, ironing, and bleaching. In short…all the labors that pertained to early life in the west.

Sons were not exempt from domestic work. A young son might have to help with milking or clothes washing. Daniel Drake, who grew up during the frontier time, later wrote he would help with milking, but his mother didn’t want the neighbors to see since milking was “a girlish job.”  By the time he was eight, Daniel was riding on the plow horse to guide it while his father plowed behind him. Drake, who grew up on the frontier in the 1790s, also chopped wood and hauled it to the house. By the time he was 11, he had his own gun with which to hunt and scare away pests from the fields. At 13, he split rails and built fences and was given the sickle to swing at harvest.

Other children were also given great responsibility at a young age. Ten-year-old Susan Blount went to keep house for a week when their neighbors traveled from home. She looked after twin girls and an elderly man. She cooked meals, cleaned, and got the girls ready for school each day.

Children’s Play:
Life wasn’t all work during this time. Children, much like those today, liked to play. They played tag, or blind man’s bluff. Boys pitched horseshoes, shot marbles, or whipped spinning tops. Girls had dolls. Stores sold dolls with cloth bodies and ceramic heads, feet, and hands. Others made do with cornhusk or rag dolls.

Guiding Questions: 

  • What was a child’s daily life like during the Frontier Era?

Objectives:  Students will 

  1. Research and imagine the daily life of children during the Frontier Era.
  2. Contrast their daily life with that during the Frontier Era.


  1. Students will create a journal entry to be shared with a partner in their group or with the class as a whole.
  2. Students will also participate in creating a classroom mural that depicts aspects of frontier life.
  3. Students’ journals and mural will be assessed by their use of specific examples of children’s frontier life based off information discussed in class and photographs analyzed in groups.


Ahead of Time:
If desired, print out copies of the pictures and the Picture Credits in the Everyday Life and How They Worked sections of the Frontier Era on the Tn4Me website. Attach the Picture Credits to the backs of the pictures and laminate them for durability.

Session 1: Chores

  1. Ask students whether they have chores to do at home.
  2. Have students share the chores they do and to describe the tools they use to do them (vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, etc.).
  3. Organize students into teams.
  4. Pass out copies of the pictures and Picture Credits from the TN4Me website and have teams list the kinds of chores children probably helped with during frontier times
Information on children’s chores on the frontier and pictures can be found at:
  1. Have teams briefly report their observations. Share out: Are these chores similar or very different than the chores that students do today?
  2. Have students use the information to complete a chart comparing the jobs done by women and daughters to those done by men and sons. Share out: Does gender control the chores they or their parents do at home today?

Session 2: Frontier Journal

  1. After a short reintroduction to the ideas discussed in Session I, use the information on the website (whether through having students research on their own computer or through a handout) about children’s leisure time, chores and education.
Specifically, introduce Susannah Brooks quote recalling her life on the frontier as a basis for the students’ mock journal entries:
Most of my education was obtained at home. Here I learned to card, spin, and weave. I know all about milking, making butter, and cheese, washing, ironing, and bleaching. In short…all the labors that pertained to early life in the west.
  • Explanations and photographs detailing daily life for children on the Frontier available at:
Chores and Everyday Life-
  1. Then, provide time for students to write mock journal entries using the information to write about daily life from a frontier child’s point of view. Allow time for students to share with a partner or with the class.

Session 3: Now and Then

  1. Using photographs and information from the website:
discuss of how pioneer life differed from life today and identify reasons for the differences. (Electricity, labor-saving devices, manufactured goods.) 
  1. Have students break into groups and analyze a picture from frontier life. Have them make a list of the differences between the frontier and today based on what they see in their photograph.
  2. With this list, each group will draw a picture (to be added to a class mural) of the difference they would find the most difficult. Example: If students would miss electricity, they would draw a picture of a man on the frontier using a candle.
  3. Each group will select one member to add their picture (s) to a large group mural located on the wall or board in the class.
  4. Each group will select someone to explain to the class why they chose this specific aspect of frontier life.

Extensions:Have students

  • Have students research the lives of children in other parts of the world today where electricity, labor-saving devices, and manufactured goods are still not available.


Daniel Drake’s letter describing chores he did as a child -     


  • Tennessee Social Studies Standards:
    Grade 4 Social Studies:
    4.5.spi.4. Determine the hardships faced by early Tennessee settlers in the late 1700's (i.e., security, isolated communities, lack of access to goods, natural geography).
    4.5.tpi.6. Write a journal entry describing the hardships of early American history.


            National History Standards:
Standard 3C: The student understands the various other groups from regions throughout the world who came into his or her own state or region over the long-ago and recent past.
Grade Level
Therefore, the student is able to
Examine photographs and pictures of people from the various racial and ethnic groups of varying socioeconomic status who lived in the state 100-200 years ago in order to hypothesize about their lives, feelings, plans, and dreams, and to compare ways in which their experiences were similar and different. [Formulate historical questions]