Americans Then and Now

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12115

You are probably familiar with the first Americans. Maybe you've seen them on TV or in movies, being chased by cowboys, or remember them from the first Thanksgiving. Learn about early life in America!


People and Their Environment, United States

Social Studies
learning style
Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Primary (K-2)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Who were the first Americans?
  • Who was here before there was a United States of America?

Water for Camp, painting by Charles M. Russell

Image by Charles M. Russell, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

The first people to live in the Americas were not pilgrims.

The first Americans were Native Americans. It is not known exactly when the Native Americans arrived in America, but it was estimated they arrived more than 7,000 years ago. That’s thousands of years before the pilgrims!

There were hundreds of Native American tribes (groups of people living together) scattered across what is now the United States. Each tribe had its own unique customs and ways of going about everyday life, but every tribe lived very differently from how we live today.

  • When your family needs food, where do they go to get it?

Most likely, you go to the supermarket to get your food. You may even go to a farmer or farmer's market to get your fruits and vegetables.

Thousands of years ago, supermarkets and large farms did not exist. The Native Americans lived off what could be found in nature.

For example, they hunted and fished for meat. They also picked wild berries and plants. Some Native American tribes were the first farmers. While they did not have large farms like we have today, they did grow vegetables like corn, beans, and squash.

  • How does the way your family gets food compare to the early Native Americans?

Today, you probably live in a home with four walls and a roof. It likely has running water, a heating system, and a kitchen with appliances such as a refrigerator and dishwasher.

The early Native Americans would have thought your home was huge and luxurious! Most of the things you have in your home did not exist thousands of years ago.

The types of homes the Native Americans lived in depended on the tribe. Some early Native American tribes were nomadic. This means they were constantly moving to follow their food source, the buffalo.

Since nomadic tribes were constantly moving, they needed homes that could move with them. These tribes lived in tipis. Tipis could be quickly taken down, moved, and assembled again.

Tipis were made out of animal skins and long sticks or branches. The skins were then wrapped around the sticks or branches to make a temporary home, like a tent.

Shoshone encampment in 1870

Image by W.H. Jackson, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Tribes that were not nomadic lived in different types of homes, such as wigwams and longhouses. Wigwams and longhouses were built out of similar materials, such as reeds, tall grasses, and cattails. These materials were stretched and attached to sticks and branches using mud and other tall grasses.

Look at the images below:

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  • What is the difference between the wigwam and the longhouse?

Each structure was built from similar materials, but they have very different shapes. Wigwams were small and rounded, while longhouses were long, rectangular structures.

Typically, only one family would live in a wigwam, while several families would live in a longhouse.

  • How does your home compare to the three different early Native American homes you looked at?
  • If you need a new coat, where do you go to get one?

You most likely go to a store or the mall when you need a new coat. Stores and malls did not exist thousands of years ago. The early Native Americans got their food and the materials to build their homes from nature.

Clothing was no different. The early Native Americans made their clothing from animal skins.

You have probably noticed that your life is very different from how the first Americans lived.

  • What are three ways your life is different from the early Native Americans?
  • Would you have wanted to live like the early Native Americans? Why or why not?

When you are ready, move on to the Got It? section to continue comparing American life then and now.

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