Learning About Pioneer Life with American Girl Kirsten Part 1: Immigrating to America

Kirsten Larson was a young girl who lived in Ryd, Sweden in 1854. Her family decided to come to America to make a better life for themselves. In America, there was plenty of land and the lots of possibilities. So the Larsons sold their home, their animals, and almost everything else that they owned, packed a trunk with their most important possessions, a few bundles of supplies for the journey, and boarded a ship to cross the atlantic.

Immigrate to America!

We pretended to immigrate to America with our dolls. I hung flags from the wall of the three countries that represented most European immigrants to America during Kirsten’s time: Germany, Sweden, and Ireland. I had each of the girls draw a card with two names and a country on it (one name for them and one for their doll). The names were actual German, Swedish, and Irish names from Kirsten’s time period. You can find names like this on ancestry.com or familysearch.org. I then had each girl stand by the flag of the country they were pretending to leave. We talked about why so many people were leaving these countries and immigrating to America.


For the Swedish, it was mostly because Sweden had become very crowded and there wasn’t enough land for people to farm. The king had divided each farm in half to try to make more land available for people who had no land, but this made the problem worse because families could not grow enough food to feed themselves. One poor crop could be a disaster for a family. Many Swedish families were struggling to survive. The United States government was wanting people to settle its territories because it believed it would help the country become stronger. The government offered people land at very little cost to encourage them to settle the western parts of the country. The promise of inexpensive land to settle prompted many Swedish people to leave their home country to start a new life.


Many people were leaving Germany because of war. There had been years of political unrest and war in Germany, as well as famine and extreme poverty. Many people were leaving Germany to escape famine and war, or to escape punishment for political action.


The Irish had been suffering from famine for many years because of a disease that killed potatoes, which was their staple food source. Many Irish were starving to death and many others fled to America.

Note: There were also many immigrants from China during this time, but they immigrated to California and had a very different story than Kirsten’s family, so I did not include them in our activities.

Cross the Atlantic

Once the girls had a country and a name, we “boarded a boat” and crossed the Atlantic. I happen to have a small kayak and so we used that as a boat, just so they could get the idea that the journey to America was crowded and uncomfortable. We pushed our boat down the hall to America!

It would have taken Kirsten’s family at least six weeks to cross the Atlantic. They and most other immigrants would have traveled in the steerage compartment which was crowded, dirty, foul-smelling, and dark. Because of the unsanitary conditions, many people became sick and even died on the journey. They also usually had to provide their own food, which sometimes ran out or spoiled before the journey was over. They drank from a shared water barrel which contributed to the spread of illness. You can imagine how happy they were to arrive in America at last!

When Kirsten’s family arrived in America, they landed in New York City, but she wouldn’t have seen the Statue of Liberty like later immigrants, and she wouldn’t have gone through an immigration station. The first immigration station in America was opened a year later. It was called Castle Garden. Decades later it was closed when Ellis Island opened. A health inspector would have boarded the boat that Kirsten had traveled on and checked the passengers for disease. If the inspector had found sick passengers the boat would have been quarantined for up to a few weeks, or even sent back to Europe. If everyone seemed healthy, the passengers would have been allowed to enter New York and proceed on their journeys.

Some of the immigrants would have stayed in New York, but others, like the Larsons would have had farther to travel. They would have arrived in New York and had to arrange travel by train or boat to their final destination. In the Larson’s case, they traveled to Chicago by train, then by steamboat on the Mississippi River, then finally they walked to their final destination in Minnesota. Other immigrants would have traveled farther west by covered wagon on the Oregon Trail. Whatever the form of transportation they used, most immigrants did not speak English, and had to arrange it while communicating in a foreign language. They also had to find work, food, and lodging without being able to speak easily with those around them. Sounds pretty challenging doesn’t it!

Immigrant Charades

To get a feel for how hard it would have been to try to navigate life in a new country where you don’t speak the language, we played immigrant charades. We had to try to get the group to guess the following phrases without using words:

I need food.

I need a job.

I need a place to sleep.

I need to buy a train ticket.

My baby is sick, I need a doctor.

I need water.

How do I get to the river?

Map it!

When the Larsons arrived in America, the American flag had 31 stars for the 31 states that were part of the United States at that time. They settled in Minnesota, which was then part of the Minnesota Territory. We put sticky notes on a United States map to get a visual on which states were not yet states.

We then mapped the Larson family’s journey by train to Chicago and their steamboat trip up the Mississippi River to Minnesota. We also drew the Oregon Trail onto the map so we could see the route that other immigrants and pioneers took west to settle the Oregon Territory.

Make an America Chest for Kirsten

Most immigrant families had to pack all the belongings that they brought with them to America in just one wooden chest, which the immigrants called their America chest. Anything that wouldn’t fit they had to carry in their arms or leave behind. What would you pack in your “America chest”? You can make an America chest for Kirsten!

You can find a little wooden chest like this at a craft store or on Amazon. Give it a coat of paint, and then you can trace a Swedish folk print on it, like this one.

Color it in with paint and then you are finished!

Now Kirsten can pack her America chest!

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