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Exhibit Lesson/Activity Ideas: Science and the Natural World

Lesson Plans and Activities that support the Pioneer History Exhibit

Science and the Natural World

Pioneer Plants

Pioneer Plants

 The early settlers in Ohio encountered many new species of plants in their new home. The following are a few plants that the pioneers used to survive in the Ohio wilderness. Please do not attempt to eat or use these plants without consulting a professional first. All images from Wikimedia Commons.


Black Walnut

The nuts of this tree ripen and fall to the ground in the fall. Cracking and removing the nut meat is a time consuming, difficult job, and was probably left to young girls. Walnuts could be eaten, and the pigment  produced by the hull could be used as a stain for fabric and woodwork.




Paw Paw Tree

The fruit of the pawpaw tree is sweet and has a banana-like taste. The bark was used by Native Americans to deter lice. Eating paw paws and nuts saved the Lewis & Clark expedition from starvation in 1806. Chilled pawpaw is also alleged to have been George Washington’s favorite dessert.

 "Early in autumn, parties of the young folks visited the island, on which several families resided, for the purpose of gathering grapes, papaws, nuts, &c.”- Samuel Hildreth, “Pioneer History”




The sassafras tree has three different shaped leaves: one with one lobe, one with two, and one with three lobes. Native Americans used sassafras medicinally to treat a wide range of conditions including diarrhea, fever, and as poultices on cuts and wounds. Pioneers used sassafras roots to make tea and to flavor and thicken soups and scent soap.

“Spice-bush and sassafras afforded an alimentary drink, in place of tea and coffee.”- Samuel Hildreth, Pioneer History




Native Americans used ginseng to treat a variety of ailments including headaches, digestive issues, fevers, and earaches. American frontier settlers also dug ginseng, and some, like Daniel Boone, supplemented their income harvesting and trading the plant. Ginseng was a highly sought after commodity, especially in Asia, and the sale of the plant even helped pay off the government’s Revolutionary War debts to France.

 “[September] 22d. Left our camp at sunrise, and moved about five miles to the west, and encamped about half a mile to the east of the dividing ridge, between the waters of Muskingum and Short creek. Here we dug ginseng until Thursday, 27th. It grew here in great abundance. Men accustomed to work could dig from forty to sixty pounds a day.”- journal of John Mathews, a surveyor hired by the Ohio Company, 1786.




Famous for its painful sting, Native Americans used the nettle (or stinging nettle) as a tea or tonic to aid childbirth. Early settlers cooked nettles and used them in soups or as a cooked green. Be aware that touching nettles with the bare skin produces a burning or stinging sensation, so use with caution.

 “Nettle tops, and the tender shoots of pigeon-berry, or phytolacca decandria (pokeweed), as soon as they appeared, were gathered up and boiled with a little flour, or meal, and salt, and eaten by many persons.”- Samuel Hildreth, Pioneer History.




A common garden weed, purslane (or purslain to the settlers) was eaten raw or cooked and is said to taste like watercress or spinach. Its high vitamin C content was used to ward off scurvy, and was used medicinally to bring down fevers and heal wounds.

“When boiled with a small piece of venison and a little salt, it furnished the principal food of the inhabitants (of Belpre) for six or eight weeks, although many lived on it without any meat for many a day.”- Samuel Hildreth, Pioneer History






Native Americans used spicebush as a tea to treat colds, fevers, and coughs, and used the berries to treat arthritis, rashes, and itching. American settlers used its bark as a substitute for cinnamon and as a tea.

 “The matrons of the colony, in a little sober ‘chit-chat’  over a cup of spice-bush tea, without any sugar and very little milk, concluded if they ever lived again to enjoy a  supply of wholesome food for their children and selves, they

would never complain of their fare, be it ever so coarse and homely.” (during the “Famine of 1790”), Samuel Hildreth, Pioneer History

Image by Cody Hough 

Pioneer Plants Worksheet

Ohio’s pioneers used native plants to help them survive. Sort each plant in the correct column according to how the plant was used.

Food Source First Aid/Medicine Other Uses



Pioneer Plants: Find Your Own

Research 3 additional plants that Native Americans or settlers in the Northwest Territory used. Include the following information:

  • Is the plant native? If not, where was it brought from?
  • How was it used? (Food, medicine, or other uses)
  • If both Native Americans and settlers used the same plant, were there differences in the ways that it was used? How?
  • Is it still in use now? How?
  • Include a picture of the plant.

Pressed Plants Portfolio

Have students collect 10-20 tree leaves or wildflowers (or each student can bring in one leaf or flower to create a class portfolio).

To press and dry:

  1. Lay the leaf/flower between two sheets of printer paper or coffee filters (to absorb moisture).
  2. Layer heavy books or one book with bricks/other heavy objects on top.
  3. Leave for 10-14 days to dry (or more, depending on the moisture content of the flower).

When dried, students can carefully glue their leaves/flowers onto cardstock, or into photo album sleeves. If this is a larger project, students can make an album of their plant collections.

They can research:    

- The plant's common name

-Scientific name

- If the plant is native or non-native

   White Oak                               - Uses of the tree/flower (historic/modern day uses)

   Quercus alba                                  


Other Resources:

Ohio Department of Natural Resources:

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

To make this an assignment, here are some ideas for rubrics: