A couple of years ago my 10-year-old daughter Hannah was reading a children's historical novel about the Amistad adventure, where a group of captured Africans rebelled against the captain of the slaveship transporting them around Cuba, took over the boat, and sailed back off to Africa - only to find themselves landing instead on Long Island by New York City. We never saw the movie, which had just come out that year, but hearing others talk about it got us interested in finding out more. As Hannah and I discussed the book, and she began wondering just what might be really true to the facts, and what the author just made up to help kids enjoy the story. It was Hannah's own suggestion to check out the Internet to see what she could find out. The next thing I knew she'd found a marvelous website, bursting with primary documents from the 1840's - excerpts from John Quincy Adams' diary where he discusses working for the Africans' defense before the Supreme Court, newspaper articles from the time, speeches and writings from anti-slavery groups, judges' decisions, and even actual essays written in English by the Africans after they had learned to understand our language and to read and write. It was very moving to read all of this material - and Hannah's eyes grew wide when she realized that we'd just come upon a document written by the young boy who was the main character in her novel - so he wasn't just an imaginative creation! He really existed, and here was his own story right before her.
Voices of the Past, On the Web of the Future
The Internet can be an astonishing tool in opening up the world of the past in all its vividness to homeschool students, and we have the time to use this resource at home, while many in regular schools just don't. Finding these original voices of the past can really help you feel connected in a unique way to what has gone before us.
I feel so grateful to the many historians, both amateur and professional, who have been so very generous in posting and maintaining superb websites to make the search for primary resources easy. Some of my favorite websites are shared at the end of this article so that you too can get started on your own Internet wanderings into United States history - and, as always with the Internet, you'll probably find many more fascinating sites just by happy accident.
What are some of the gems to be found browsing about? How about the entire text of Thomas Paine's inflammatory pamphlet Common Sense, which galvanized the colonists into action at the start of the Revolutionary War? No book I owned at home had the complete full text, but only short excerpts. Or check out the full text of George Washington's Farewell Address and see for yourself where he advocates real caution in entering into "entangling alliances" with other nations, and where he urges his countrymen to maintain a moral base to their lives. Or find Thomas Jefferson's controversial Notes on Virginia where he discusses his views on slavery, or his later writings where he realizes the issue will one day split our country apart. There are hundreds of sites with documents like these, helping you really understand the point of view of these key figures of our past, because you've not only read about the person and his ideas, you've read the full speech or pamphlet or treaty. When homeschoolers get to the junior-high and high-school level they should be doing this more and more - not just reading about the Monroe Doctrine, say, but reading the full text of this ultimatum themselves. And if you don't happen to have a thick book of documents that has the full original source, the Internet will be the fastest way to get transported back in time.
Magazines of the Past
But these types of official documents are not all the Internet has for the young historian. You can find out what the average person got to read in the media of the past. You can find websites with Godey's Ladies Book articles from the mid-19th century (this was a widely popular women's magazine), or Harper's Weekly, an illustrated newspaper. And you can locate full websites with political cartoons on the Civil War era, or President Andrew Johnson's impeachment, or the Spanish American War, or FDR. The New York Times now even hosts a website that features a different front page of the newspaper each day, including the full text of the lead article - a neat way to learn about important events firsthand.
And then there are the websites related to current history documentary videos, usually with plentiful links to original documents that help to tell the tale. I've read diaries of slaves, reflections by the last queen of Hawaii, firsthand descriptions of work on Hoover Dam, and personal letters and memoirs and autobiographies at these documentary sites. They also always include fascinating visuals - photos, maps, and artwork related to the time, and more.
History Sites Created by Students
There are even ways to find excellent history sites created by other students! One of the best resources here is ThinkQuest at www.thinkquest.com, a site shared with me by one of my on-line AP US History students. ThinkQuest runs an annual website development competition for students age 12-19 in all different subject areas, and the sites are then hosted by ThinkQuest. I checked it out, and for the next hour was hooked reading through the fascinating primary documents I found on one student website detailing the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s, one of those events I lived through but was too young to understand at all. Here I got to read through Kennedy's speech to the American public, browse through the Russians' response, see how the press responded to the crisis, and see the actual reconnaissance photos used to determine nuclear missiles were in place on the island, and much more. There were even brief audio clips of some of the speeches. Indeed, many history websites dealing with 20th-century issues have audio speeches, helping students really get to know history in a new way.
So, spark some lively interest in history by really reading the past, through the medium of the future.
Websites for History Primary Document Browsing
- http://www.thinkquest.com This is the main homepage for the ThinkQuest competition. You'll be able to link up to the many history sites in their library, as well as all of their thousands of other student-created sites. Maybe your kids will even be inspired to work with a small team of friends to develop their own entry in this annual competition.
- http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/ This is the site for a fabulous Hypertext on American History, which includes extensive documents from all eras in US history. Besides all the important official documents you'd expect, you'll even find such things as Geronimo's full autobiography - not an easy thing to find in bookstores!
- http://www.archives.gov This is the site from the National Archives and it has fascinating material in a format ready for students to use, including reporting and analysis forms for all different types of documents. They have a number of documents about the Amistad.
- http://www.thehistorynet.com This very professional site is full of a wide range of materials, including an extensive section of unique "eyewitness accounts." I read a letter that gave Robert E. Lee's opinion about using slaves within the Confederate Army at the end of the Civil War, and there were so many more that I could have stayed for hours.
- http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/ This is the NY Times website, with a special feature on "This Day in History," along with lots more.
- http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/avalon.htm One of the most comprehensive websites of well-organized documents I've seen.
- http://www.pbs.org/history/history_united.html The Public Broadcasting website section on American history documentaries. Lots of historical documents and info on each video program.
- http://www.webcorp.com/test/audioarchive.htm [No longer active] A comprehensive website with lots of important 20th-century speeches on audio.