This past year, our history and geography studies took us on the Santa Fe Trail and and over two hundred years of history.
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The story begins.

We studied the history that occurred around a lone cottonwood tree in southern Kansas. The book that guided our study, Tree in the Trail, was written by Holling C. Hollings in 1942. The story begins with the young sapling being protected by a ring of stones, built by a Kanza Native American boy. He hoped to protect the tree from the herds of buffalo that roamed the plains back in the early 1600s. The story takes place over a time span of 200 years and includes warring American Indian tribes, Spanish conquistadors, buffalo stampedes, French trappers and voyagers, and eventually the trains of Conestoga wagons that rolled back and forth on the Santa Fe trail.

Story brought to life.

My children often pulled out our Playmobil play sets to act out the story as we read. The play set was a hand me down from my husband’s childhood and I am so glad that we have it. Each week we read a new chapter and discussed the events in the story, sometimes acting them out, sometimes delving farther into studying tree growth, or arrow construction, or the mechanics of the massive wagons that brought supplies from Missouri to Santa Fe.  We colored and drew all over our map, adding to it each chapter as we slowly traveled through time and place. These living history books are my favorite way to teach my children and I believe that they would say it’s their favorite way to learn. We can take each chapter as it is or we can delve deep into topic study. Geography, history, biology, geology, and even cooking and baking experiments can be created by expanding on the story.

Our favorite chapter.

Perhaps our favorite chapter of the book was the chapter about the arrowheads lodged in the tree. Curiosity led us down a trail of our own and we found ourselves spending the day studying arrowhead and arrow construction. Was that the intent for the day? Certainly not. Was it still a day well spent? Absolutely. By allowing my children to chase those curiosity sparks where they lead, we are enriching our education in a way that I could not recreate on my own. My son gathered materials from our nature collection while my daughter searched her room for the errant arrowheads I knew she had pilfered. I slit a goose feather to use on the back of a straight stick my kids gathered from our backyard. Together we created, learned, and tucked away treasured memories.

Taking the story on the road.

As with our precious years’ history and geography study, I had plans to take our learning on the road. With family in Arizona, it was the perfect opportunity to trace part of the path of the Santa Fe trail. I had taken my children to Santa Fe several times before, but never to explore the rich history of the area. Tree in the Trail ends with the wagon train parading through the Santa Fe square, with the ox yoke made from the cottonwood tree at the very front. Due to time constraints, our living history field trip would be limited to Santa Fe and the area directly around it. However, if you are able to take an extended trip there is a great Junior Ranger program available to discover the Santa Fe trail in its entirety.

A morning in the square.

We made it to Santa Fe with a massive driving day (nearly 13 hours). But it’s always worth it. There are some great stops along the way but more on that in another post. We left our hotel early to beat traffic and went to the historic Santa Fe square for breakfast. Our breakfast at La Plazuela at La Fonda was phenomenal, vegetarian friendly, and had great coffee. I had hoped to explore the Palace of the Governors after breakfast however we were there so early that nothing was open yet.  Instead we wandered around the historic square, deep in conversation about what it must have been like to see the wagons rolling around the old streets. In truth, it was a bit disheartening to see the beautiful old square so full of rather high end tourist shops, but we enjoyed our morning nonetheless. By nine in the morning the beautiful Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi was opened to the public, and we walked over to take in the old church. The massive doors opened into a uniquely beautiful interior. Though it was very different to what my children are used to, it was a very neat experience to read about the role the church played in the history of Santa Fe.

On to Pecos.

In doing my research on the Santa Fe area I found Pecos National Historic Site.  The site is significant for many reasons and is most well known for being a rich archaeology site. The Pecos pueblo is where the idea of “layer cake” excavation (stratigraphy) was put into action by Alfred Vincent Kidder from 1914 to 1929.  He was the first archaeologist to focus on the southwest United States and many of his techniques and practices are still in use today. We were completely enthralled as we followed the trails and read the guide to Pecos, caught up in conversation about the history that transpired in that exact spot.

An unexpected encounter.

At Pecos, just a few minutes’ walk down the trail, there is a reconstructed kiva that you can climb down into. A kiva is an earthen room, constructued in a hole dug into the earth that you enter through a trap door and a ladder. The Native Americans at Pecos Pueblo used the rooms to perform sacred rituals and heal the sick or injured. My kids worked together to tug the trap door open with a rope and my son was the first to climb down the ladder. However, just moments later he resurfaced, yelling that there was a snake down beneath. So naturally, I went down to investigate. I could tell by the shape of the head and lack of rattle that the snake was nonvenomous, however we alerted a ranger to it and the snake was humanely removed from the structure. Though, that was certainly a highlight of our day.

Visiting National Parks to enrich homeschool.

In our family, visiting our national parks has always been important. But that importance took on a new angle when we began to homeschool our children. One of our nation’s greatest treasures, they are also a great supplier of knowledge and education. Almost all of the parks, historic sites, and monuments in our national park system have a Junior Ranger program or some sort of program available for children and adults alike to learn about the place you are visiting. I always make a point to stop at a visitor center first to find out about those programs and to collect our stamps. Along with the educational programs, almost all sites have a rubber stamp cancellation that you can collect (for free!) Both of my children have a National Parks Passport book that they a stamp cancellation at every park.

A guided walk through history.

Many of the parks offer guided hikes and ranger led programs. However for our visit to Pecos we decided to walk it on our own. The trail has an excellent printed guide that you pick up from the visitor center and explains in detail what is found at every point along the trail. As we walked my children enjoyed crossing off items on their scavenger hunt page of the Junior Ranger books. Another one of our traditions is to read every interpretive sign. Tedious? Yes. A great way to learn? Also yes. At each sign post we paused and cooperatively read what it said and I did my best to tie in some aspect of the history and geography that we studied in Tree in the Trail.  The walking path at Pecos National historic site is level and fairly easy. The views along the trail of the surrounding valley and mountains beyond are incredible!

The end of the trail.

The end of the trail at Pecos National Historic Site takes you to the ruins of the old mission. It’s worth every minute to stop and read the signs. After we read the signs and the guidebook, it opened up some important dialogue about exploration and the treatment of Native Americans during westward expansion. In all of our travels, it is important to me to be mindful of all cultures and to be open minded to learn to things I may not have, which is why continuous conversation is important. I am always learning just as my children are always learning. That process should not stop once we reach adulthood.


Junior Ranger oath.

The Junior Ranger oath is one of my favorite things. No matter how many times my children recite it, it always brings me to tears. When we finished our hike, we went back to the visitor center to finish the junior ranger books. At some parks, as was the case at Pecos, children may earn a badge and a patch by completing additional pages in their books. Both of my kids wanted to earn both so they completed seven of the age appropriate pages. After showing their work to a park ranger, they recited the oath as I recorded and probably cried in the background. It’s such a special thing and I know that one day they will appreciate all of the badges and patches and the memories surrounding them.

Closing out our study through story.

Our day in Santa Fe was the perfect way to wrap up our study through story of the Santa Fe trail. I know that there are many things we will revisit to learn in greater detail when they are a bit older. I picked up a few books at the visitor center gift shop to help deepen my knowledge about the southwest and the Santa Fe trail. And the kids picked out some stuffed animals. I said yes. Because there is such a small window of time when a stuffed animal can bring such absolute joy. And back at home they can name every park their stuffed animals came from.

For homeschoolers and traditional schoolers alike.

Whether you homeschool or are looking for a fun way to enrich your summer with your children, I highly recommend the geography studies from Beautiful Feet Books. You can move at your own pace and dive as deep as you prefer. It has been such an amazing journey for us over the last two years to explore the places we have studied through story over our academic year. I’m not sure how I’ll pull off our next geography study, but luckily I have the next school year to figure it out. Thank you for following along and I can’t wait to hear about your adventures through literature and beyond.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post. I hope that our literary, and literal, adventures inspire you to dive deep in whatever you are studying. Happy reading and safe travels!