Discovering History -- An Introduction
History is full of stories. The characters, settings, and plots from real life are as exciting and interesting (sometimes more!) as the ones you'll find in a book of fiction. The job of a historian is to use evidence to discover the true story. It is just like being a detective. You look for clues. You create theories. You test the theories. You hope to find the truth.
There are all kinds of historical evidence--from artifacts (man-made objects) to documents (written evidence) to eye witness accounts to pictures. The farther back in time you go, the more complicated the evidence is to understand. For example, in researching the Salem Witch trails, historians try to understand why a group of girls accused so many people of witchcraft using different pieces of evidence like transcripts of the trails and written documentation.
There is often very little evidence on a particular person or event so other evidence from the times is used to help create a complete story. Since some educated guesswork is involved, not all historians will agree on any one interpretation of history. You don't have to agree either! That is the fun part of history. You can take a look at the evidence and create your own interpretation.
One great way to learn about historical stories is to read a historical fiction book. These books are based on history (usually an event, person, or place in the book is real), but also have characters and stories that are made up by the author. The authors of these books spend many, many hours researching the history they will include in their book. It is very important to them that the details are just right. The facts that authors learn are used in creating a story that is not true (thus the fiction part), but that gives a realistic idea of the time period, people and events.
Historical fiction books should make you think...Did this really happen? Was this character real? What was he/she like in real life? Did the event really happen the way the author described? Was life really like this in the time period?
You can answer questions like these by looking at the evidence. Read nonfiction articles about the topic. Look for eye witness accounts. Read old newspaper articles. Visit museums. Collect the evidence and create a theory. Now you too have become a historian.
Discovering History News
Stories From History
In 1859, 429 black slaves were sold at the largest slave auction in American history. The owner, Pierce Butler, made over $300,000. Some slaves were "lucky" and their family was sold together. Many were not. It rained torrentially for the two days of the auction so it is known by historians as "The Weeping Time." Who were these 429 people who were sold as property? How must have they felt? What was their new life?
From 1914 to 1918, World War I raged across Europe. It is estimated that 9.7 million soldiers died in the war. Three hundred of the soldiers were "executed, shot at dawn, for cowardice or desertion...two for sleeping at their posts." (Morpurgo, 2003) Is it cowardly to fall asleep at your post after having fought for weeks in flooded, rat-infested trenches? Should your own government execute you for that?
In 1929 the drinking of alcohol was illegal. This was a time period known as Prohibition. Although the laws on the books said no one should drink, the government had a hard time enforcing it. Illegal trade of alcohol made many men rich. This same illegal trade also lead to many deaths. Four men smuggling alcohol off the coast of Rhode Island in a small boat called the Black Duck were gunned down by the U.S. Coast Guard on Dec. 30, 1929. Who were these men? Did their crime justify their death?