Expansion’s Impact on the Environment


Social Studies American History Civil War Through 1900 Expansion’s Impact on the Environment
Students analyze a political cartoon about the transcontinental railroad. Then they learn about ways that westward expansion modified the environment, focusing on the negative impact. Next they examine how settlers adapted their homes to the new environments. Finally, students reflect on their own interactions with the environment.

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Overview

In this experience, students analyze a political cartoon about the transcontinental railroad. Then they learn about ways that westward expansion modified the environment, focusing on the negative impact. Next they examine how settlers adapted their homes to the new environments. Finally, students reflect on their own interactions with the environment.

Estimated duration: 35-45 minutes

Vocabulary words:

  • modification
  • habitat
  • revere
  • boomtown
  • silt
  • atmosphere
  • mercury
  • erosion
  • desertification
  • adaptation

Objectives

  • Describe the settlers’ use of natural resources.
  • Evaluate the environmental effects of expansion.


As people moved westward, they turned to the environment to meet their basic needs—shelter, food, and need for energy sources. They used natural resources such as gold, wood, and grazing land for economic development. In this experience, you will learn some of the ways that the settlers adapted to the environment and modified it as they settled the frontier.

Objectives
  • Describe the settlers’ use of natural resources.
  • Evaluate the environmental effects of expansion.


a cartoon showing a train traveling westward marked New York and a train traveling eastward marked San Francisco, with people cheering and shaking hand; in the foreground Indians and buffalo are running away from the trains

Cartoon Caption: Does not SUCH a meeting make amends? (1869)


Look at the political cartoon above, published in 1869 after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The cartoonist is using a picture to express an opinion about the benefits and costs of the railroad.


Identify one positive effect and one negative effect of the railroad, according to the cartoon.



If students struggle to answer the question, have them turn to elbow partners to discuss the cartoon.

Sample answers:

  • Positive effect: easy means of transportation and shipping between the eastern and western United States, as indicated by the train engines
  • Negative effect: the buffalo and American Indians lost their grazing/hunting land. The buffalo neared extinction and the Plains Indians were moved to reservations.

 

Point out to students that human “progress” often comes at a price for the natural environment. If there are any local examples relevant to the school’s location—e.g., new neighborhoods built on wetlands, destruction of a forest for reuse of the land, a dam that has led to flooding in other areas, a new highway that destroyed rare animal habitat, a factory that provides employment but pollutes the local water supply—discuss them with the class.


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