Historical Comprehension: Supplementing the History Text with Personal Perspectives
The letters and photographs of the Prairie Settlement collection are inherently interesting because they tell the stories of ordinary people with whom students can easily empathize. The Oblingers were plain folk trying to make the best of the situations in which they found themselves. By reading this family's letters, the reader comes to respect and truly like them and thereby gain a greater understanding of what life was like on the Great Plains over a century ago.
Failing to bring real people to life is one of the shortcomings of most history textbooks. Imagine that the publisher of your history textbook has asked you to help create a six-page supplement to the text. The supplement will include primary sources to help students understand the experiences of people who homesteaded on the Great Plains in the late 1800s. First, read your textbook coverage of homesteading. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative in the textbook? Next, based on your familiarity with the sources in Prairie Settlement, decide what you want the primary sources in the supplement to convey. Find sources that will help students understand the experiences of everyday people and use them to create a mock-up of the supplement.
You may want to search other collections in American Memory to determine whether the Oblingers' experiences were typical of the homesteading experiences of other ordinary folks. For example, a search of the American Life Histories Collection (using the keyword homestead) will result in 177 hits. Some of these stories also deal with the experiences of Nebraska homesteaders, but there are also many that tell the stories of homesteaders in other places and at other times (New Mexico, Missouri, and Florida, among others). Pioneering the Upper Midwest is another collection that can expand your comprehension of this phenomenon. If you use the keyword homestead to search this collection, you will get 404 hits. How similar and different to the Oblingers' experiences were the stories told by other homesteaders? How do you account for the differences? Should you include sources from other collections in the supplement to provide balance, or do your selections from Prairie Settlement achieve your purpose?