A River Trip to Nashville

A River Trip to Nashville
Rachel Jackson: Economics, Discovery and Daily Life

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: 3-4 class days

Required Documents
Constructed Response John Donelson Journ
Graphic Organizer John Donelson Journal


Just before Christmas on December 22, 1779, twelve year old Rachel Donelson the future wife of the seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, began an adventure with her family that proved to be a long and perilous journey. Their trip began at Fort Patrick Henry on the Holston River and ended four months later at the French Salt Springs on the Cumberland River, the rough location of present day Nashville, Tennessee. This journey was accomplished entirely by water beginning on the Holston River and ending on the Cumberland River. Along the way they encountered attacks by Native Americans, rapids, boat wrecks, illness, childbirth, hunger, exhaustion, and death. This journey was chronicled by John Donelson, Rachel’s father who kept a journal of all that happened.


The students will use primary source documents to learn about a specific historical event, provide a written response to questions and provide evidence from primary historical sources to support their positions, and write an informational response using correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Materials Required:

PDF Journal of John Donalson; Graphic Organizer; Constructed Response Assignment Work Sheet; Computer with internet access; Projector and screen or interactive board (optional)


1.      The first step of this lesson is optional but will give the students a good visual idea of what a trip down the Cumberland River would be like. There is a link to a YouTube video (below) that shows a man traveling forty miles down the Cumberland River in a motor boat. It shows the river and more importantly the geography along its banks. The video is a little over 14 minutes long and should be used to begin a discussion about river travel today vs. river travel in 1779. It is not necessary to show the entire video, but it is an excellent introductory activity. At minimum the teacher should discuss the fact that the trip down the river was a journey through unknown and dangerous land.

 2.      The students will read the journal of John Donelson. This is a PDF that is included with this lesson plan. It is 16 pages long but the pages are not completely filled with text. It is actually a much shorter read. Prior to this activity the teacher will tell the students that as they read they should keep in mind the following question. Was this trip an easy or difficult journey from Fort Patrick Henry to French Salt Springs on the Cumberland River? This is the essential question for the lesson.

 3.      The reading process will vary according to teacher preference. Since the content was written in 1779 it can be hard to read for many children especially in younger grades so one suggestion is for the teacher to project the text and also have the students have a copy at their desk. This way the class can work through it together and take notes along the way. This can be done as a whole class, by reading groups, in partners, or individually. If the teacher guides the reading and discusses it throughout the process this lesson will be much more effective.

 4.      Throughout the reading process, the children should look for evidence of whether the journey was difficult or easy. They should write this evidence down in a journal, or in any other way the teacher sees fit. The goal is that the students compile a list of the hardships faces by these pioneers traveling down these unknown rivers. The process of reading and note taking may take several days depending on how much time is allotted per day.

 5.      The students will then complete a prewriting graphic organizer. This graphic organizer is included with this lesson plan and provides the student the opportunity to map out their ideas by including a place for the student to list their evidence and also provide their thoughts on how the evidence supports their thesis.

 6.      Once the graphic organizer is complete the students will use it to create their final response to the essential question. This final component of this lesson will serve as the assessment and can be completed on Constructed Response Assignment Work Sheet. 

Extending the Lesson:

One way to extend this lesson is to use journals of other historical figures that are available online to recreate this assignment and study other historical eras. The teacher would need to create an essential question and look for other primary source journals online, but could use this lesson as a basic template to do so. Some historical figures that have journals online are Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.

Sources & Resources:


Contemporary Trip Down the Cumberland River

John Donelson's Trip Down the Cumberland to Nashville

Donelson's Journal (primary source)

The Donelson Family

Donelson's Voyage



This lesson was developed by Robert McClelland, Cleveland Metropolitan School District.