Intro to Primary Sources -Boston Massacre Activity


July 31, 2022

After explaining what primary and secondary sources are, I show students how to read and follow these sources. This means keeping an open mind and allowing the evidence in front of you to guide your conclusions.

I give students the following instructions:

You’ve arrived at the scene after the events of March 5, 1770, which came to be known as the Boston Massacre. Here are the facts you are sure of:  
  • A fire alarm was sounded, leading men and boys to grab leather fire buckets and try to help.  
  • Several grenadiers, British soldiers trained in throwing grenades, were present along with their Captain Thomas Preston.  
  • The soldiers had come to help the British sentinel guarding the Boston Customs House.  
  • Four victims were dead of gunshot wounds and a fifth was lingering but in fatal condition. Six others were wounded.  
  • One of the deceased was the runaway slave, Crispus Attucks.  
More than 90 people witnessed what came to be known as the Boston Massacre.

During the soldiers’ trial, many of these eyewitnesses testified as to what they saw.
Use the selection of their eyewitness accounts as reported to the trial court on your handout to answer the questions on the slide.

Primary Source Questions
Then I pass out one sheet of paper to each student. They don't know it yet, but there are two different sets of sources. Each student receives one. 
After several minutes with students reading and me encouraging them to highlight or underline evidence, I call time.

I ask students the first question and call on volunteers. I walk them thru all three questions asking for evidence as they give their answers.

After calling on several student volunteers, I ask "how many students believe the British soldiers were to blame for the massacre?" We note how many hands go up.
I then ask, "how many students believe the American colonists were to blame for the massacre?" We note how many hands go up.

Then I explain that half of the class has eyewitness accounts blaming the British soldiers, and the other half have eyewitness accounts blaming the American colonists. I point out that if we were keeping an open mind and following the sources, then we should be evenly split between those who think the soldiers and colonists were to blame. Any discrepancy suggests we weren't being as open minded as we thought. 
Why are the stories so different? Different vantage points​. Different opinions on colonial politics​.
Questions after revealing that there were two different sets of sources.
As a class, we discuss how people's vantage points, politics, experiences, and the human mind's ability to comprehend traumatic events might lead to witnesses having major differences in their testimony. 
We gather all the sources we can. ​ Historians regularly disagree.  ​ History changes as more sources are found, old ones are reexamined, & new theories suggest new interpretive frameworks.
This is what Historians do
"This is what historians do." We have to keep an open mind, but we also have to look at all the sources. Historians have to make sense of the both sets of sources we looked at today.

Historians disagree, and that is okay. Two people can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions. Their facts will be the same, but how they interpret them may be different.

History changes when new sources are found. What if we only had the sources blaming the colonists, and then we found the sources blaming the soldiers? How would that change how we tell the story?

Finally, we discuss how students have to think like historians when reading the assigned primary sources in class. Some of those sources will disagree with each other. Sometimes you may read a source and think it means one thing, but then you'll read a secondary source about it that changes you mind. That is okay.

We want to change our minds as the evidence changes.

Follow the sources.