Ken Burns Classroom

Dear Swipes

Ken Burns Film: Horatio’s Drive

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: Language Arts Social Studies

Grade Level: 7-12

Run Time: 1 class period


Students identify the historic value of personal letters by examining those Horatio Jackson’s sent to his wife, Bertha, as well as ones they compose, and then write letters from Bertha to Horatio that reflect her day-to-day life.


Have students discuss and list the range of letters they write and receive, from business to personal. Which types of letters do they least like to write and/or receive? Most enjoy writing and receiving? Many students will likely say personal letters. What type of personal correspondence do they maintain and with whom? What do they learn about their letter-writing partner and his or her world?

Point out that letters are valuable sources of historic information. Invite students to brainstorm what the future value of their letters might be. What might a historian gain from these accounts of their lives? What important information do they provide about the past?
Invite students to read and discuss selections from Horatio’s letters to Bertha. What information do they supply? On what situations did he report? What motivated the content of the letters? What can be learned about history from the letters (transportation, communication, etc.)?

While Horatio wrote 45 letters and telegrams (now documented) to Bertha, there is no record of those she wrote to him during his travels. Invite students to write letters to Horatio in Bertha’s voice. They can answer actual letters or create correspondence that reflects Bertha’s likely responses to her husband’s exploits, as well as what was occurring in her life. (Students might conduct some research on what life in San Francisco during 1903, the lifestyle of people in the Jacksons’ economic and social circles, and early 20th century trends and activities, all of which students can build into their letters.)

Alturas, “Nowhere”
3 miles back of sundown
Saturday morning …

My Darling Girl: —

We have crossed the mountains & don’t expect to come to anymore until we get into Idaho. … We have proven that my machine can do or go anywhere.

… How I wish you were with me, & that it was possible for you to take the trip – I feel confident we can make it.

With… a barrel full [of love], I am, as always, yours.

(Letter 4 from Horatio to Bertha, May 23, 1903)

Monday, June 1st.

Well Old Girl,

I am rather provoked over our delay… I have lost 5 1/2 days. This is a bad start for our first eleven days out. Just as soon as I can get decent tires we will make a record run. I feel more confident that I can make New York. Crocker is more interested than ever & is keeping the machine up in good shape.

… It is hotter than blazes today & I wish we were on the road. We are causing a great sensation along the road – it is the first machine that has ever gone over these mountains. Yesterday the farmers drove in for miles to see my machine & there has been a hundred people around the livery stable since our arrival. I have been offered all prices to take them for a ride. I have promised some of the cow punchers a ride if they will get me up a good round up. They are planning it for this afternoon & I expect to see a regular Wild West show.

(Letter 7 from Horatio to Bertha, June 1, 1903)

Hotel Burgoyne, Montpelier, Idaho. Wednesday

Darling Swipes —

Just a line to say that everything is alright with your wandering boy. I can’t write much, as we sleep, then work. We arrived here at 12 o’clock this noon with the running gear of one of the front wheels gone. We have it patched up & shall leave in the morning hoping that it will take us to Cheyenne.

When you hear that we have reached Rawlins, Wyoming, you will know that I can make the trip a go — so bet all the money you have got on it.

… Well old girlie, I can’t say any more — you know how I feel. I shall make up for lost time.

H. Nelson Jackson
(Letter 17 from Horatio to Bertha, June 17, 1903)

Extended activities

Students can:

  • Write letters in the voice of Horatio’s companion, Sewall K. Crocker or Bud, the duo’s adopted traveling bulldog.
  • Write modern-day letters from Horatio to Bertha, detailing the trip as it might take place in the 21st century.
  • Maintain a virtual correspondence with a friend while on a trip.


This activity addresses the following national content standards established by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL):

Historical Understanding

  • Understands the historical perspective

Language Arts

  • Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
  • Gathers and uses information for research purposes
  • Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

About The Authors

Michele Israel

From classroom instructor to an executive director, Michele Israel has been an educator for nearly 20 years. She has developed and managed innovative educational initiatives, taught in nontraditional settings in the US and overseas, developed curricula and educational materials, and designed and facilitated professional development for classroom and community educators. Currently operating Educational Consulting Group, Israel is involved with diverse projects, including strategic planning and product development.