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Inventing America

Research Portfolio Topic Options and Virtual Archives

Topics organized by BB Learning Module numbers (which have more virtual archival material that you can use). 

This source has primary documents for almost all of the topics:

You may also suggest another option based on class material in either your UNIV or your HIST course.   Please feel free to discuss options but the research topic must be approved in writing by Dr. Gabbert.

LM4:   Jamestown and Virginia

About 100 colonists founded Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in Virginia, in 1607.  Due to unrealistic expectations and preparation, the colony struggled for survival for the first ten years.  Eventually a new crop, new systems of labor and government, and Indian wars led to an established English settlement. 

General Questions to consider:  How reliable are the writings of John Smith and others concerning early Virginia?  In what ways are descriptions of people and events dependent on the individual doing the describing?  What can we learn about the relationship between Native Americans and Jamestown settlers from the images of White and De Bry?  What was the condition of the colony of Jamestown during the first ten years of settlement?  What was the main problem?  What changed?  What accounted for the high death rate?  What was the cause of the first economic boom?  What systems of labor were used in Jamestown?  What do letters and newspaper advertisements tell us about masters, servants, and slaves?  

Eyewitness suggestions:  Using the sources at Virtual Jamestown, model your eyewitness on one of the early settlers (Gentlemen, laborers, indentured servants, slaves) in Jamestown.  What was a typical day like in Jamestown?  What was it like 1, 3 or 5 years later? 

LM 5:  European-Indian encounters – Stories of Captivity

Captivity narratives provide a fascinating (if often one-sided) view of the encounters between European settlers and Native Americans.  One of the earliest and best-known accounts is Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, published in the late seventeenth-century.  How did Rowlandson portray Native Americans?  What religious messages can be found in her account?  In which ways did her own cultural prejudices shape her narrative?  These are just a few questions that you might want to explore.

Her account is available from the Project Gutenberg at by searching for Mary Rowlandson under Title Word(s). 

Another well-known captivity narrative is about Mary Jemison.  It is available at

There are many secondary sources on other captives: Cynthia Ann Parker (captured 1836); Olive Oatman (captured 1851); Bianca Babb, and her brother Theodore (captured 1866). 

Some of the early explorers were also captured such as Cabeza de Vaca (1542) and Father Isaac Jogues (1647).  Their writings are linked below.

LM 06: Origins of Slavery

This overlaps with Jamestown but one could also look at English prisoners that were transported to the colonies as punishments for crimes.

LM 7:  Causes of the American Revolution – Focus on Boston

On March 5, 1770, violence erupted between Boston residents and British soldiers, resulting in the injury and death of several people.  Although the Patriots used the incident as a rallying point for the growing unrest in the colonies, John Adams defended the soldiers who were indicted for murder.  Use the conflicting information presented in engravings, newspapers, trial records, and other available primary sources to discuss the impact of the “Boston Massacre” on British and colonial relations. 

You could also explore:

Eyewitness suggestions:  Your character could be a witness to the Boston massacre.  What did they think of the event and the trial?  What was Boston and the area like 1, 3, or 5 years later?

LM 9:  Mothers and Daughters of the Revolution, 1750-1800  

The letters of Abigail and John Adams are available on line and in published collections in the UTEP library.  Using the letters, explore aspects of women’s lives during the time of the American Revolution, such as political rights, work, health, marriage, courtship, warfare, and the economy.  You could also explore the question of female citizenship from court records such as James Martin v The Commonwealth and William Bosson and Other Ter-tenants, 1805.

Call #s for the UTEP library:  E322 .A4 2007,  E322.1.A38 G44 1998,  E322.1 .A293 1975. 

Information about the experiences of women during this period can also be learned from The Way of Duty by Buel or A Midwife’s Tale by Ulrich.  Martha Ballard, a midwife who lived in Maine in the late in the seventeenth century, religiously kept a diary from 1785 to 1812.  The entries illuminate not only her life but her views on her family, her community, and the early American nation. On the “Do History” website, you will find excerpts of the diary organized by themes such as courtship and marriage, premarital pregnancy, epidemics and medicine, midwifery, rape, or textile production.

Eyewitness suggestions:  Your character could be a female living during the years of the revolution.  What was her life like?  Did she participate in patriot activities such as boycotts?  Did her life change in the following year?

LM 10: Westward Exploration

Explore the ramifications of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Corps of Discovery (Lewis and Clark expedition).

Eyewitness suggestions:  a member of the expedition or a member of one of the native groups that they encounter.

LM 12:  Pedestal, Loom and Auction Block  – Lowell Mills

The opening of Slater’s Mill, a textile factory, in 1790 began the Industrial revolution in the US.  To compete with British textile mills, American manufacturers, such as Boston Manufacturing Company which built a textile plant in Waltham MA on the Charles River, improved upon British technology and lowered the cost of labor.  Their system of labor became known as the Waltham Plan. The company recruited thousands of farm girls and women as textile workers. Letters written by the mill girls give a glimpse into their life at Lowell Mills and the changing role of women during the period, while the publication, The Offering, demonstrates evolving labor issues.  Questions to be considered:  What are the reasons for women wanting to work at the Mill?  Does their relationship with their family change and why?  What is their life like at the Mill?  What are the working and labor conditions?  Other options for this topic suggested under Inventing America Technological Innovations. 

Eyewitness suggestions:  Your character could be a young woman leaving the farm to work at the mills?  What are her motivations?  Would her letters to her father be different than letters to a friend?  What would she be doing 1, 3, or 5 years later?

LM 13:  Indian Removal and the Experience of the Amerindian

Competing for land and convinced of the superiority of their culture, many white Americans on the early nineteenth-century frontier viewed Native Americans as obstacles standing in the way of “progress” and “civilization.”  Despite signed treaties with the U.S. government which guaranteed Native American ownership of tribal lands, President Andrew Jackson pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress in 1830, which resulted in the forced migration of Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi.  Was Indian Removal a success or a failure?  Why was such a morally indefensible policy adopted toward Native Americans?  What do Andrew Jackson’s actions say about his view of the power of the executive versus the judicial branch?  Was Indian Removal constitutional?  How does one view the Trail of Tears in light of the benevolent promises of America’s Manifest Destiny?  Was the policy of Indian assimilation short-sighted?  What was the basis for the Supreme Court case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia 1831? 

Eyewitness suggestions:  Your character could be a Native American who is forced on the Trail of Tears, a Native American from one of the other tribal groups that were removed, or one of the reformers against the action.   

LM14  Pedestal, Loom and Auction Block – Women and Slavery

Slave Narratives:  Slave narratives are the autobiographical stories of individuals’ lives under slavery and their eventual release from it.  Most of the slave narratives from the nineteenth century were written by males but there are few significant ones by females, such as Harriett Jacobs or Sojourner Truth.  During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration interviewed over 2300 former slaves and their stories are also available. 

Questions to consider:  What is the purpose of a slave narrative and who was the target audience?  What do the narratives say about the relationships between slaves and white owners?  Do you see differences in the treatment of male and female slaves?  Do males and females depict their lives under slavery different?  What do the narratives reveal about the relationships between men and women in nineteenth-century America?  Are black women treated differently than white women?  What do the narratives say about family relationships or the role of religion within slavery?

This source has primary resources on the Making of the African American Identity (1500-1865

This source has letters from a single plantation.

Eyewitness suggestions:  Your character could be a slave, a slave owner, or an abolitionist.    What is his/her life like?  How does it change over time?  When looking at the narratives as time passes, consider a discussion of how a former slave affected by changes to the constitution (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments).  How would Dred Scott v. Sandford 1857 affect your eyewitness? 

LM 15 The Antebellum Women’s Movement 1820-1860

Begin by reading the Declaration of Sentiments drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others at the first American women's rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.  Why is this document modeled on the Declaration of Independence? To what extent does it aim to challenge its authority or to cloak itself in its authority?  What does the Seneca Falls "Declaration of Sentiments" seek to achieve? Is it a declaration of independence for women? a demand for equality? a call to revolt against the tyranny of men? Explore the degree to which each of these motives finds expression in the argument.  Who is the intended audience for the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments? How would men of the time be likely to react to it? women? opponents of women's suffrage (the right to the vote)?  How did the Antislavery Movement Contribute to the Emergence of the Woman's Rights Movement?  What were the issues behind the temperance movement?   For added perspective on the evolving role of women in American life, you can compare statements by Sojourner Truth, an African American woman who was as a leader in the suffrage movement, to statements by white women in the movement. 

Eyewitness suggestions:  Your character could feminine activist either for the vote, abolition, or alcohol reform.

LM 16   U.S. War with Mexico and Manifest Destiny

The U.S. declared war upon Mexico in 1846 after a brief battle in a disputed border region in Texas. Over the next three years, the war bitterly divided American public opinion with many arguing that it was part of a plot by Southern slave owners intent on acquiring more slave states.  In the end, the U.S. claimed victory in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which both greatly expanded the nation’s borders and initiated a legacy of conquest throughout the Southwest.  Who is responsible for provoking this war?  Who in the United States protested the war with Mexico and why?  What was the “All Mexico” movement and why did it fail?  How did Anglo Americans justify the conquering of northern Mexico?  How did the war against Mexico exacerbate sectional strife in the United States?  Was this war inevitable?  How did sanitary and health conditions affect the soldiers and the war?  Explore the Texas Independence movement and war from the side of either the Tejanos or the Anglo settlers. 

Eyewitness suggestions:  Your character could be a Tejanos, Californios, Nuevo Mexicanos, or Anglo settler.  They could join a regiment for the war, or be one of the many who were against the war.  What did he/she think of the events occurring around them?  What changed or stayed the same in the years afterwards?

One could also explore the experience of westward expansion on the lives of women by reading one or two of the many women’s travel narratives written during the colonial period, the New Republic, and during the time before the Civil War.   

For examples:

Susan Magoffin (1846-47)

Sarah Kemble Knight (1704)

LM 18: Experiencing the Civil War

You could chose to examine some aspect of life during the late 1850s-early 1860s to see what life for various groups during the Civil War era.  What was it like for women during the Civil War?  How was life different in the North and in the South?  What was the experience of slaves in the south and in the north and for free Blacks in the north and in the south?  What occupations did people have?  What were the causes of illness and death?  What role did technology play during the era? 

One archive that would help you with this topic is The Valley of the Shadow, which documents the lives of people in a county in Virginia and in a county in Pennsylvania during the era of the Civil War.   Another archive focuses on the original writings of women during that era. (has links to numerous other primary source sites)

Eyewitness suggestions:  Your eyewitness could be a member of almost any group living in the United States during this era.

LM 20: Inventing America – Technological Innovations

Technological innovations are evident in all of American History.  You could look at technological systems; social history of technology and inventions; the effect of technology on a period of time.

For example:

Exchange of technology between Natives and Europeans during the early colonization period

New England ship building

Invention of the Cotton Gin and its effect on spread of slavery

Manufacturing in the colonies and Early Republic

  • American system of Manufacturing – Springfield Armory


Industrial Revolution

Lowell Mills (see above); Your character could be one of the hand weavers losing their livelihood to the mills; part of the communities that are losing farmlands to the land purchase for the canal system near the mills; or be one of the workers fighting technological change (Winnipisiogee Lake Company v. Worster).


Transportation Revolution

Communication Revolution

Civil War Technology

LM 21: Inventing America – Health Conditions in America

This topic could be approached on its own or as part of one of the previously listed suggestions:

  • Columbian Exchange and depopulation of the Americas
  • Role of disease in Virginia, slavery, indentured servitude, etc.

Smallpox inoculation during colonial period or American Revolution

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