Ken Burns Classroom

Diary of a Driver

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 explore and document the historic elements of Horatio’s journey by creating a fictitious journal in Jackson’s voice.


Ask students whether they keep a journal or diary. If so, what do they tend to record? Every day occurrences? Ideas? Thoughts on specific events? Why do they keep these journals/diaries? Do they think others may read them in the future? If they did, what might they learn about them and their lives? What insight might these journals provide in the future? Discuss with students the importance of journals as primary documents. Have students read several published journal entries to understand their historic relevance and value.

Explain to students that while there is much documentation about Horatio’s road trip, including letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles, there has not emerged a personal log of this travels. Based on the story line of the film Horatio’s Drive, Jackson’s letters to his wife, other correspondence to associates and the car manufacturer, and related resources, invite students to write a daily log in Horatio’s voice about his road trip. Encourage students to write detailed entries that not only reflect his personal thoughts, but also include information on the places he has visited, descriptions of his automobile, people he has met…any details that give insight into life around the country in the early 20th century. Have students assume the roles of historians who use the journals to write a biography about Jackson and the times in which he lived.

Extended activities

Students can:

  • Write journal entries in the voice of Jackson’s wife, Bertha, Sewall Crocker, Horatio’s companion, or Bud, the bulldog.
  • Take on the role of a reporter who follows the driving team on their journey and writes, in journalistic fashion, a weekly log of the duo’s adventures for a daily newspaper.

“From Sea to Sea in a Horseless Carriage”
San Francisco Examiner

“Dr. H.N. Jackson and S.K. Crocker Will Start this Morning on Automobile Trip They Hope Will End in New York”

An automobile trip across the continent that will be watched with a great deal of interest will start from this city this morning. It will be undertaken by Dr. H. Nelson Jackson of Vermont and S.K. Crocker of Seattle, both of whom are at the Palace ready for the journey. All attempts heretofore to go overland in an automobile have come to grief either through the machines breaking down or because long stretches of sand were encountered through which the horseless carriages could make no headway.

Dr. Jackson is a man of wealth, who is very fond of automobiling. Mr. Crocker is a devotee of the new machines and expert as a chauffeur. He is also very handy at repairing, a faculty that may prove of value. Dr. Nelson has provided the very latest kind of gasoline machine, large and commodious and 20-horsepower. Enough gasoline can be carried to run the machine 250 miles.

Speaking last evening of the contemplated trip of himself and Mr. Crocker, Dr. Jackson said: “…we will sleep on matting under the automobile at night and carry ample food and cooking utensils. No one has ever crossed the continent in an automobile and we are anxious to succeed. The great trouble in the past has been that automobile parties trying to cross overland have struck sandy wastes through which a machine cannot be driven. We will take our own time and are satisfied we will get to NY, ourselves and machine a little bit the worse for wear. In a general way we will follow the route of the Oregon Short Line and then country roads and wild stretches of country along and adjacent to the line of the Union Pacific.”

“I made the first cross-country trip”
The American Weekly

North of Sacramento, we were lost.

We met a red-haired young woman riding along on a white horse.

“Which way to Marysville?” I asked her.

“Right down that road,” she said and pointed. We took that road for about 50 miles and then it came to a dead end at an isolated farmhouse. The family all turned out to stare at us and told us we’d have to go back. We went back, and met the red-haired young woman again.

“Why did you send us way down there?” I asked her.

“I wanted paw and maw and my husband to see you,” she said. “They’ve never seen an automobile.”

Western Union Telegraph Co.
Pocatello, Idaho
(Letter 15 from Horatio to Bertha)

To: Mrs. H Nelson Jackson

Arrive this evening — all well — bum roads — rainy — hungry as a bear — Love H. Nelson Jackson

Western Union Telegraph Co.
Rawlins, Wyoming
(Letter 21 from Horatio to Bertha)

To: Mrs. H. Nelson Jackson, Burlington, Vermont

Arrived last night — Will be here several days for repairs
H. Nelson Jackson

“Dr. Jackson Arrives”
The Motor World, New York

“This [rain] prevented our following the railroad, as we had intended doing; for the roads running parallel to it sloped toward the tracks and the water had banked up there until it was impossible to drive a vehicle through it. Then we had a dilemma. We use of cross roads wherever any favoring us were to be found; and whether they were not we took to the field or prairie and zigzagged as best we could. Sometimes we went north instead of east; at others we even went northwest, only to retrace our steps when the opportunity presented. Where the railroad went one mile we would frequently go five. This was kept up nearly all the way across Wyoming; and when we crossed Nebraska it became worse instead of better.”


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.