The Romance of the Clipper Ship

The Romance of the Clipper Ship
Abigail Fillmore: Economics, Discovery and Daily Life

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: May take from one class period to a whole semester


Although the steam ship came into use during Abigail Fillmore’s lifetime, it was the Clipper Ship—those ships we now call “Tall Ships”—that carried most of the cargo and certainly captured the imagination of the population.  Travel to Europe, around the horn (Cape Horn, before the Panama Canal was built) to California, to the south seas—all was done on the large and beautiful sailing ships, called Clipper Ships because they were so fast.


Students who participate in this activity will learn about Clipper ships, about the history of the 19th century transportation, a bit about shipbuilding, and much about how economic forces influenced transportation in the 19th century.  They will also, hopefully, acquire some sense of the beauty of the large sailing ships, and—perhaps—become interested in the movement to save and restore some of America’s great sailing ships.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; books and materials on tall ships, Clipper ships, or the history of transportation (particularly sail) in the 19th century


1.  There are a wide variety of projects, studies, reports, etc. that suggest themselves from an exploration of the web sites below. They all have much information, so it is probably best approached in pieces.  Several projects may be suggested to get you started.
2.  First, a central character in the story of Clipper ships is Donald McKay.  Students could choose to research the highlights of his life, showing the evolution of the Clipper ship during his lifetime.
3.  The web sites also have much information about American shipyards, about the Erie Canal, about the impact of the War of 1812 on shipbuilding, about the California gold rush, and about many particular, famous sailing ships such as the Sea Witch, the Flying Cloud, and the Glory of the Seas.  Any of these topics could provide projects for students studying the history of Clipper ships.
4.  Similarly, a number of projects suggest themselves.  For instance, have students write reports, prepare newspaper articles, posters, or assume the roles of some of the people described on the web site, and write letters home, or to other people telling of adventures.  Other possibilities include staging a Maritime Conference or creating a Maritime Museum in the classroom.
5.  As part of any projects selected, students should consider the difference between sail power and steam engine power:  what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?  Why did the great sailing ships fade from use?  Was it a good thing that they did?

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended in many ways; one way might be to involve students in a study of the new, computer-assisted sailing ships, with a view toward learning about alternative energy sources and the ecology of the planet.

Sources & Resources:


The History of Clipper Ships

The Clipper Ship Era

Clipper Ship Information 
The Illustrious Era of Clipper Ships 

Clipper Ships: Greyhounds of the Sea 

Donald McKay, Master Shipbuilder 
Computer Assisted Sailing Ships 

Windstar Cruises 

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.