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[Detail] Discovery of the Mississippi: By Ferdinand De Soto

Historical Research Capabilities: Framing Questions for Research

Asking questions is an important step in conducting historical research. Historian David Hackett Fischer has called questions “the engines of intellect, the cerebral machines which convert energy to motion, and curiosity to controlled inquiry” (Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, New York: Harper and Rowe, 1970). Historians derive their questions in a number of ways, including reading secondary accounts to assess what is known about a topic or event.

Choose an essay from one of the themes listed on the opening page of Parallel Histories. For example, you might pick the essay on “The California Missions”. In this essay, you would read information about the missions, including the following:

During the 1760s and 1770s, the Spanish concentrated on finding overland routes from Arizona to California and founding missions and settlements there. Gaspar de Portolá (1723-1784), a Spanish military officer, and Father Junípero Serra (1713-1784), a Franciscan friar, founded the first of nine Franciscan missions in present-day San Diego in 1769. Portolá also established a fort at Monterey in 1770. Father Serra founded Misión San Gabriel on the Pacific coast in 1771, which came to be used frequently as a stopping off point for Spanish soldiers and settlers on their way to other locations. Juan Bautista de Anza and his group, for example, rested there briefly on their way to the presidio in Tubac, Arizona, on their return from their first march to Monterey in 1774.

Under Serra’s direction, the Franciscans provided religious instruction and taught European agricultural techniques to the local Native Americans. Indigenous tribes often celebrated religious worship and special occasions through dance, with or without masks. European clergy frequently misunderstood such rituals as demonic and banned them from mission life. This presented difficulties for Indians who came to the missions looking for a steady source of food, but who found the loss of their culture too hard to bear. Some, such as the Cochimí Indian Sebastián Tarabal (fl. 1770s), escaped from the San Gabriel mission and walked to the Spanish presidio of Tubac, Arizona. Tarabal was instrumental in helping Juan Bautista de Anza and this group find a land route from Tubac to Monterey, California.

From “The California Missions/Las Misiones de California”

The illustration and text might raise such questions as:

  • Why was it important for the Spanish to find overland routes between Arizona and California?
  • What did dance and masks signify in the religion of the Native Americans?
  • How did the Spanish communicate with Native Americans to teach them about agriculture and religion? Why did they not use the same methods of communication to learn about the religious ceremonies of the Native Americans?
  • What had Native Americans eaten before the arrival of the Spanish? Why were they experiencing food shortages in the 1700s?
  • Who and what are at the feet of Father Serra in the illustration? What is their significance?

Choose another essay and examine it and the accompanying illustrations. What questions do you have about the information presented in the essay? If time allows, look for answers to your questions in the Parallel Histories collection and other sources.