Young Pioneers Learn The Trail

Jun 24, 2013

Young pioneers attend a historic one-room schoolhouse
Credit Courtesy Deadwood History, Inc.

It’s one thing reading a book or watching a film about the life of the pioneers as they made their way across the country’s vast expanses. It’s quite another matter trying to duplicate that experience in the new millennium – especially when you’re a middle-school student. Today we spend some time with a group of young “would-be” pioneers near Deadwood – where they learn about guns, gold-panning and getting grades “back in the day”.

Summertime – and the living is easy. Unless, of course, you’re a pioneer trudging your way across the prairie under a burning sun with all your worldly possessions in tow. That life was quite a bit harder than most of us are used to.

To offer insight into what it was like in those days of horse-drawn covered wagons, surviving the elements and strict education in a one-room schoolhouse, Deadwood History hosted a 3-day Pioneer Field School. Fourteen boys and girls in grades 7 thru 9 took part. Right now, we’re panning for gold.

“So, see how the…see how the dirt’s coming up now, you guys?” asks Chelsie Bauer. “They’d hold it down there and shift it around so that the dirt would come back up. You wanna’ have clear water”.

Arriving at camp a day late after mending a broken wheel on my “Conestoga”, “Wagon Master” and Deadwood History educator Chelsie Bauer, lets me know what I’ve missed.

“They’ve hauled wood, they’ve done dishes,” explains Bauer. “They’ve hauled water. They’ve packed up when I thought a rain storm was coming. I mean they’ve been great and they’ve all gotten along. We had a firearms lesson, so we shot lever-action twenty-twos. All of the campers, except one, shot…the girls included.”

The campers also shot a forty-five Colt and a 94 Winchester, as well as visiting a dugout sod house. As for that gold-panning…a bit more training might be in order.

Stepping back in time on the firing line
Credit Courtesy Deadwood History, Inc.

"They, apparently, found some samples,” says Chelsie Bauer, laughing. “They just didn’t know it was gold. When I was showing those samples around they said, ‘Oh, we found rocks like that.

What happened to that gold?

“They threw it back in the creek bed,” Bauer replies.

And there goes the start of Homestake Mine Number Two. But Chelsie Bauer says the goal isn’t about accurately recreating pioneer behavior as much as it is learning how life was in the past.

“The overall goal is to just basically acknowledge the history of Deadwood, and the hard times that people went through when they came here to find gold,” Bauer explains. “It’s a rough life and so it’s important for these kids to know that. I think it’s good…we didn’t allow electronics during this camp because I think kids nowadays just have way too much screen time. And so to get them out in the elements and get them doing chores and hard work is a huge deal. We had one boy here, I believe he’s eleven, and he’s never done dishes before.”

And now he has. Still, Pioneer Field School isn’t just hard work and panning for gold.

There’s pioneer games like rolling dice in “Three For Free”

Not to worry – they’re just playing for bragging rights…

There’s a gunny sack race that’s part of a pioneer relay competition.

Great food.

Warming up against the evening chill
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

And some singing round the campfire.

A violent storm forces the young pioneers to leave camp before the singing ends and take shelter in a nearby “stagecoach stop” called the Days of ’76 Museum.

But next day, they’re right back at it - this time seeing what school was like for pioneer children.

The students offer their teacher a polite “good morning”, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, practice spelling, reading, and math just as children did in the 1880s.

As their 3-day field school comes to an end, the new millennium pioneers agree that life is a lot easier now than it was “back then”, school is a lot better for students, and the girls are particularly pleased that bug spray is in their tent.

For more info on Deadwood History, Inc. summer camps:

To access "Summertime", by Julianna Richer Daily,  heard in audio version of this story:

To access "Shady Grove", by Jami Lynn, heard in audio version of this story:

To access "Oh, Shenandoah", by Gracenotes Chamber Music, heard in audio version of this story: