Today’s post comes to us from Jed Larsen who teaches at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento and was the Gilder Lehrman Teacher of the Year for California in 2011.
If music can be considered as the spaces between notes, then historical investigation can, at times, be the search for what’s missing in primary sources. In his book, Facing East from Indian Country, Daniel K. Richter attempts to reconstruct the history of colonial settlement in North America from the Native American point of view with, as he admits, a limited amount of authentic Native American primary sources that clearly express what the Native Americans thought. Thus follows an intriguing though conjectured history.
As a teacher of 5th graders, I don’t have the facility to attempt such a daunting task with my students (nor they the content knowledge needed to take part in the discussion), but I often find that examining primary sources for what they are missing, or how they challenge the common narrative of history, makes for a compelling investigation. Below are 3 such sources from the fantastic Marchand Image Collection:
1. European World Map of 1489 – by Henricus Martellus, influenced by Ptolemy; rediscovered in 1960. This intricate map of the world is one of 6 used to investigate the question, “Why weren’t the Americas discovered until 1492?” Wonderful for what it does show (detailed locations of coastal cities, the southern tip of Africa, a modestly accurate portrayal of Europe), its omissions hammer the point home: Europeans are unaware the Americas exist. Couple this with significant inaccuracies that make the map more symbolic than utilitarian, and it underscores why boats rarely left sight of the coast.
2. American prisoners of war on the British prison ship Jersey in New York Harbor, 1779-83.
The Battles of Yorktown, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga, as well as Washington’s crossing of the Delaware to ambush British soldiers, are famous for being turning points in the American Revolution. The lives of all American soldiers lost in these battles, and all other Revolutionary War battles combined, still amount to less than those lost on the British prisoner-of-war ship Jersey, a perfect storm of starvation, overcrowding, disease, and neglect. This illustration provides a somewhat antiseptic version of those conditions, as well as a path to investigating the dangers posed to soldiers during the war, challenging the assumed narrative that most soldiers who die in a war die from wounds sustained in battle.
3. The Boston Massacre, 1770
Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre, disseminated throughout the colonies, persuaded many to question the relationship between the colonies and Great Britain. The document’s relevance lies in its power of persuasion, not its accuracy. With a quote below the engraving describing the “guiltless Gore”, one could assume the massacre of innocents was just that. A trial of the soldiers and officer involved ended with seven acquittals and two manslaughter verdicts. This source allows students to weigh the credibility of primary sources and encourages further examination of other sources and perspectives to flesh history out.