Excerpt: The US American West is often referred to as “the geography of hope.” Many people came to the Great Plains looking toward a better future for themselves and their children. Among these was a thirteen-year-old boy named John Talcott Norton, who moved from Mason City, Illinois, to Larned, Kansas, in 1877. Much can be learned from the insights he shared about the past. He provided a firsthand account of his journey from Illinois to Kansas and of his day-to-day experience living on the frontier. To one reading the words of this young man today, it is remarkable how many of the themes that emerge from his diary connect to contemporary life on the Plains, and, ultimately, to how topics such as social studies are best taught in schools today. Few other topics in today’s curriculum can be more important than social studies, since it draws on so many areas of inquiry, for example, anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, and on various aspects of the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. This article takes the view that connecting the accounts from the writings of young people such as John Norton will significantly enhance the teaching of the story of westward settlement. Our pedagogy can be improved and our students can experience a life that is both very different from, yet remarkably similar to, their own. In other words, there really is much that can be learned from a teenager.
To encourage western settlement, the federal government passed both the Homestead Act, in 1862, and the Timber Culture Act, in 1873. The Homestead Act gave a settler 160 acres of land if he or she lived there for five years and improved the land by cultivating it. The Timber Culture Act gave a settler 160 acres of land if he or she planted trees, and for ten years maintained them.
It was the Timber Culture Act that inspired John Talcott Norton’s family to leave Illinois for Kansas in 1877. Fortunately for the sake of posterity, he was motivated to capture in his diary what he did, what he saw, and what he was thinking while growing up on the prairie in the 1870s.