By Courtney Johnson Thomas
Step aboard the time machine! Every Tuesday, via whatever form a time machine may take in your imagination—a vintage DeLorean, a computer console, teleportation—we’ll transport you across time so you and your kids can learn, see, and do history.
Teach Kids about Primary Sources
Since this is the first, or primary post, it seems fitting to introduce kids to the importance of primary sources. Don’t just tell them about history; let them go to the source and experience a firsthand account. Bring them face-to-face with what someone from the past actually said, wrote, created, or built.
Destination: Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770
Let’s start with a primary source from this very date in history. Set the controls back to March 5, 1770. It’s a cold, dark night in Boston. Outside the frosty window, a mob of men and boys are arguing with a British guard. In a matter of minutes, the scuffle will escalate into the Boston Massacre. Four men will die, and a fifth will follow a few days later. Crispus Attucks, a free black man, will be the first to fall (and the first African American to die for the cause of American freedom).
You’ve probably seen this famous picture of the Boston Massacre. It’s an engraving made by Paul Revere. Have your kids look closely to see what kind of story the picture tells of the event. Ask questions like, “How do you think Paul Revere wanted people to feel when they looked at his picture?”
According to British Captain Preston and others, this is not quite how it really happened that night. Here is what Captain Preston wrote about the Boston Massacre:
“The mob still increased and were more outrageous, striking their clubs . . . one against another, and calling out, come on you rascals, you bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels, fire if you dare, . . . we know you dare not, and much more such language was used. At this time I was between the soldiers and the mob, . . . endeavouring all in my power to persuade them to retire peaceably, but to no purpose. . . . On which some well behaved persons asked me if the guns were charged. I replied yes. They then asked me if I intended to order the men to fire. I answered no, by no means, . . . While I was thus speaking, one of the soldiers having received a severe blow with a stick, stepped a little on one side and instantly fired, on which turning to and asking him why he fired without orders, I was struck with a club on my arm, . . .
On this a general attack was made on the men by a great number of heavy clubs and snowballs being thrown at them, by which all our lives were in imminent danger, some persons at the same time from behind calling out, . . . why don’t you fire. Instantly three or four of the soldiers fired, one after another, and directly after three more in the same confusion and hurry. The mob then ran away, except three unhappy men who instantly expired, . . . one more is since dead, three others are dangerously, and four slightly wounded. The whole of this melancholy affair was transacted in almost 20 minutes. On my asking the soldiers why they fired without orders, they said they heard the word fire and supposed it came from me. This might be the case as many of the mob called out fire, fire, but I assured the men that I gave no such order; that my words were, don’t fire, stop your firing.”
Excerpted from the Boston Massacre Historical Society
The difference between these two accounts is good meat for discussion. It helps us to see that it’s important to look at many sources when you study history. You can find artifacts, diaries, letters, songs, photographs, and other primary sources to help make history come alive for your kids. Here are a few places to get you started:
- Library of Congress: Teachers
- National Archives: Teaching with Documents
- National Archives: Digital Vaults
- History Matters: Many Pasts
- History Matters: Making Sense of Evidence
Courtney Thomas has been writing about history for kids for a decade and a half. A senior editor for the Education Department of Gibbs Smith Books, she loves the challenges involved in taking the complexities of history and distilling them enough (but not too much!) for young readers, while still telling a story. As a “content junkie” and parent, she is often surprised and delighted by just how much you need to know about something before you can simplify it well.