Immigration: Packing a Traveler's Trunk | Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Immigration: Packing a Traveler's Trunk

Immigration: Packing a Traveler's Trunk | Wisconsin Historical Society

Grade level: Elementary

Duration: More than one class period

EnlargeImmigrants buying tickets at Ellis Island.

Buying Tickets at Ellis Island

Ellis Island, New York. View the original source document: WHI 2134

Students learn about the experience of being an immigrant, which requires the traveler to plan for the journey, to pack, and to make difficult decisions. People from many cultures have created trunks or others containers to hold their belongings while they travel. The size of the carrying device limits the number of personal possessions, mementos, and material goods brought from home to begin a new life.


Students will:

  • Personalize the immigrant experience for each student
  • Create opportunities for family communication
  • Present the choices facing an immigrant that require problem-solving skills on the part of the student
  • Investigate materials that tell about the past, creating a concrete expression for the abstract concept of "the immigration experience"


Whether migratory American Indians, nineteenth-century Yankees and Canadians, early twentieth-century Eastern Europeans, or most recently Asians, immigrants (or migrants) have come to the Chippewa Valley. Many immigrants gave up everything from their original homes to come to this country. In the 19th century, passengers brought very little with them because the shipping lines charged them for every parcel brought on board. Emmigration Guidebooks offered suggestions for necessities, and immigrants used them to determine which items to bring. Immigrants often bought or made trunks in which to pack their belongings. When Hmong refugees came to the United States in the 1970s, they left their homeland with only those things they could carry in the homemade baskets and baby carriers they wore on their backs.


  • Evaluate students' current knowledge of immigration. Ask if they know the difference between an immigrant and a refugee. Discuss whether immigrants and refugees still come to the Chippewa Valley, or any other area in Wisconsin.
  • Brainstorm about the contents of an immigrant's trunk, then discuss what individuals today would pack if they were moving and had limited space. Consider the following reasons for bringing certain items:
    • to remind someone of home to remind someone of family
    • to entertain someone on a trip
    • to be useful
    • to tell other people about who someone is.
  • Ask students to discuss with family members the items that each would take if the family moved. If any students and their families have moved recently, have them share the difficult decisions their family made.
  • Using the school's media center or local public library, have students research pictures of immigrants from any era. Ask students to list the items that immigrants brought and the containers in which they brought them. The Chippewa Valley Museum, like many others, has a collection of letters from people describing their voyages, the advice they received, and descriptions of the things they brought with them.
  • Have students create a personal trunk. This activity could be done as individuals, in pairs of students, or as teams. Pick a standard size box (26 by 18 by 16 inches high) for the trunk, or allow students to create a carrier that reflects a different culture, such as a basket.
  • Decide the items to place in it: clothes, blankets, toys, kitchen utensils, books, photos, keepsakes, food, and others. Use real things when possible, but simulate those that are too difficult to use. Decide to make the box look old or new. Have students decorate the box as a trunk.
  • Display the trunks, and instruct students to explain their choices, either during a presentation or as part of the display.


  • See if the local museum is willing to display the trunks for a period of time. If your local museum or historical society has an immigration collection, visit it to view immigrant trunks and their contents. Read copies of original immigrant letters.
  • Interview an older friend or relative about choices they have made about moving to different places. Have students compare those choices with their own.
  • Visit the Chippewa Valley Museum.


Freeman, Samuel. The Emigrant's Hand Book, and Guide to Wisconsin: comprising information respecting agricultural and manufacturing employment, wages, climate, population and sketch of Milwaukee ... (Milwaukee: Sentinel and Gazette power press print, 1851).


This teacher-submitted, elementary-level lesson plan appeared in Badger History Bulletin. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs.

Author: Susan Glenz, Chippewa Valley Museum, Eau Claire.