A Teacher’s Guide for
Land of the Buffalo Bones
The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers,
An English Girl in Minnesota
By Marion Dane Bauer
About the Book:
Land of the Buffalo Bones is the diary of Mary Rodgers, known as Polly. Promising religious freedom and fertile land, Polly's father, Dr. Rodgers, moves their Baptist community from England to the Minnesota prairie. After a treacherous journey across the sea and across this country, Polly finds their new home to be no paradise at all. Written with incredible heart and compassion, insight and sensitivity, Marion Dane Bauer has created one of the most sophisticated and courageous characters DEAR AMERICA has seen.
“Accompanied by photos of the Rodgers family and scenes of the settlement, this is an engrossing look at the hardships faced by many pioneers.” – Booklist
What do you know of life on the American frontier in the 1870’s? How was it different in these aspects: communication, transportation, daily living, and medicine? Do you think it would be exciting to go on a journey to a new land? What would you lose? What might you gain?
- Explain why the Rodgers family moved to Minnesota.
- List the tragedies and adversities the new immigrants face on their journey.
- Describe, in your own words, what the settlers found when they finally reached their destination.
- Retell the major events that happened to the Rodgers’ family once they arrived in Minnesota.
- What were the major events in Polly’s best friend’s life, Jane Thompson?
- The Rodgers move to America to express their religious freedom. How did this desire for religious freedom guide Dr. Rodgers’ choices in the new land? What other reasons do people have to emigrate? What reasons would be important enough for you to face the challenges that Polly and her family did?
- We often take for granted the luxuries of living in a modern age. Discuss the hardscrabble existence that pioneers endured when they settled the west. What do you think would be the most difficult aspect of settling a new town? What would you miss most about your home if you left it?
- Dr. Rodgers endured most of the blame for the new settlement’s tragedies. Was this a justifiable response or was he simply the scapegoat for poor planning? After all, most of the settlers had never done the kind of work they were expected to do either. How would you feel if your family was the target of people’s anger and blame for their hardships?
- Polly refers to Native Americans in typical phrases of the time such as “heathen savages” and “red-Indians.” What does she learn about the meaning of the word savage as she gets to know Ozawamukwah? What savage things have whites done to the original occupants of the land and to the upper Midwest itself? Discuss what Jane says to Polly at the end of the story. “There are many savages on this earth, Polly. Perhaps there may be some, too, in the Ojibwa nation, but I have not yet known them.” (p.181)
- The faith of many would be tested by the trials that the Rodgers and other families faced while settling in Minnesota. How do you think their faith helped sustain them? Do you think Dr. Rodgers ever questioned his plans and regretted the decision to move the family? Polly remains ever faithful to her father despite his impracticality. Would you be so loyal in her position?
- What was the most interesting fact you learned while reading Land of the Buffalo Bones? Do you think historical fiction is a good way to learn about a particular place and time? What are the advantages of reading about history in this way compared to a traditional non-fiction text? Are there any disadvantages? Will you seek out other books that are historical fiction? Why or why not?
- Polly played a major role in helping to raise her younger siblings. Once the girl hired to help (Nellie) leaves, her chores increase even more. What do you think of the work that was required of children during this time? How was life different in every aspect compared to childhood of today? What do you think those children would think of your lifestyle?
- Polly tries to get Jane to tell her “all that is important to each of our lives” (p. 145) but settles instead for an oath that if either needs the other’s help she will ask for it. They pounded a nail in a tree to “stand as an iron symbol of our vow to each other until such as one of us should draw it out again.”(p.146) What can you already assume about Jane that she was not willing to agree on the first vow? What do you think of this custom? Would you be willing to make either of these vows? Which one? With whom?
- Polly takes great pains to use her limited art supplies in the best way and so is dashed when Laura carelessly destroys them. Do you think the outcome would have been different if Polly had only shared with her sister in the beginning? Should she be expected to share what little she has to call her own? What can we learn about her painstaking process and the subjects she chose for her work?
- This book is different from other books in the Dear America series because it is based on the family history of the author, Marion Dane Bauer. What do you think it would be like to bring some of your ancestors to life in this manner? Do you know the stories of how any of the people in your family came to America? Whose story and what time period would you be most interested in exploring? Why?
Polly paints two pictures to help her remember her home in England. Create a picture that you would like to make of your own home if you had to leave it forever. Remember what Polly chose to paint. Her choice may inspire your own work.
In small groups, research one of the following topics from Land of the Buffalo Bones and create a poster about what you learned. Share your finding in a brief presentation to your classmates. Topics:
Immigration to America in the 1870’s
Sea voyages for immigrants
Daily pioneer life
Typical clothing of the period
Northern Pacific Railroad (or other rail companies of the period)
Create a family tree for Polly or for your own family as far back as you can find credible information. Add dates where possible.
Keep a journal, as Polly did, for at least a couple of weeks. You don’t have to write in it each day but see how it changes your perspective on your own life. You do not have to share your entries, of course, but write a brief paragraph explaining what you learned from the process.
Or, write journal entries for Jane Thompson. Write at least five that show her challenges and how she faces them.