Damming the Nation

Image: Albert Bierstadt: "Hetch Hetchy Valley from Road", oil, undated c.1870. Link Here.
Image: Albert Bierstadt: “Hetch Hetchy Valley from Road”, oil, undated c.1870. Link Here.

A Historical Assessment Lesson by Erik Nelson
Adapted from SHEG’s Beyond the Bubble assessments site.

Historical Content: Hetch Hetchy Dam Controversy: 1908-1914
Historical Skills: Corroboration, Sourcing

Image Credit: John Muir. Photographer unknown. Library of Congress. Link Here.
Image Credit: John Muir. Photographer unknown. Library of Congress. Link Here.

Intended Grades: 9-12
Directions: Use the excerpt to answer the questions that follow.

Source Background: In 1906 a massive earthquake and subsequent fires devastated the city of San Francisco. Debate arose between political and business leaders who called for a dam to be built to supply water to the city and the environmental advocates. In his book The Yosemite (1912), John Muir joined the debate.

Source Text: “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Question 1: Explain why a historian might not believe that Muir’s view alone provides enough evidence to understand the debate surrounding the dam.

Question 2: Three documents are described below. Explain whether each document could be used to support John Muir’s view, or why the document could not be used to support his position.

Image: pg. 489 of “Review of reviews and world’s work (1890). Link Here.
Image: pg. 489 of “Review of reviews and world’s work (1890). Link Here.
  1. Testimony before the House Committee on Public Lands by former San Francisco Mayor James Phelan about the utilitarian needs of San Francisco’s citizens.
  2. A letter from Robert Underwood Johnson to the Chairman of the House Committee on the Public Lands explaining the need of the country “to uphold its best ideals and its truest welfare against shortsighted opportunism and purely commercial and local interests.”
  3. A letter from the San Francisco Fire Department Widows and Orphans and Mutual Aid Associations, Inc, asking for the right to use the much needed water that would be supplied by the dam.

About the Assessment: This assessment asks students to source and corroborate a document. Students evaluate an excerpt of a 1912 book arguing against damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley in the Sierra. Question 1 asks students to evaluate whether the excerpt provides enough evidence to draw conclusions about the dam debate as a whole. To answer this question, students must source the document to determine whether the account can be thought of as conclusive evidence. Question 2 asks students to evaluate whether additional documents could be used to corroborate the argument.

Source Credits:

John Muir. The Yosemite. From the Sierra Club Web archive. Link Here.

Phelan Testimony and Johnson Letter: From American Social History Production, Inc. Link Here.

San Francisco Fire Department Letter: From the US National Archives Online. Link Here.

Lesson Reflection: As an aspiring architect of social studies classes that engage students in activities to promote historical thinking, it is often hard to brainstorm lessons or activities that address specific ways of thinking as a historian. I relied heavily (entirely) on the model created by Stanford History Education Group to build this lesson. It was very helpful to reverse engineer their assessment model, and I am grateful for the horizons they have opened for me in terms of assessment possibilities. I am also grateful to my Ed. Methods classmates for their help in editing this lesson. Their guidance again helped me to see that my first draft in crafting questions for high school students is never fully comprehensible. Our group worked collaboratively through Google Slides to build these lessons, which was a first big step in content generation. I also realize that reading my questions aloud, and having them read back to me in person, helped me to consider this lesson from a potential student’s point of view. Heavy revision and redirection was needed for clarity.

We Found a Lot of Naked People

Central Historical Question: What were the European perceptions of the natives in the New World?

Historical Skills: Corroborating

Topic: Colonization of the New World

Grade Level: 8th


Have students read the two diary entries from Christopher Columbus and decide whether they think it is enough evidence for for historians to understand European perceptions of natives. Then, have them read the two additional documents from Amerigo Vespucci and the London Company and decide whether they corroborate Columbus and why.


Question A: Explain why a historian might or might not believe that the excerpts from Columbus’ diary provide enough evidence to understand European perceptions of Native Americans.

Diary of Christopher Columbus. 1492

Thursday, 11 October.

Here follow the precise words of the Admiral: “As I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us. Afterwards they came swimming to the boats, bringing parrots, balls of cotton thread, javelins, and many other things which they exchanged for articles we gave them, such as glass beads, and hawk’s bells; which trade was carried on with the utmost good will. But they seemed on the whole to me, to be a very poor people. They all go completely naked, even the women, though I saw but one girl. All whom I saw were young, not above thirty years of age, well made, with fine shapes and faces; their hair short, and coarse like that of a horse’s tail, combed toward the forehead, except a small portion which they suffer to hang down behind, and never cut. Some paint themselves with black, which makes them appear like those of the Canaries, neither black nor white; others with white, others with red, and others with such colors as they can find. Some paint the face, and some the whole body; others only the eyes, and others the nose. Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them, for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their javelins being without it, and nothing more than sticks, though some have fish-bones or other things at the ends. They are all of a good size and stature, and handsomely formed. I saw some with scars of wounds upon their bodies, and demanded by signs the of them; they answered me in the same way, that there came people from the other islands in the neighborhood who endeavored to make prisoners of them, and they defended themselves. I thought then, and still believe, that these were from the continent. It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language. I saw no beasts in the island, nor any sort of animals except parrots.” These are the words of the Admiral.

Saturday, October 13

This is a large and level island, with trees extremely flourishing, and streams of water; there is a large lake in the middle of the island, but no mountains: the whole is completely covered with verdure and delightful to behold. The natives are an inoffensive people, and so desirous to possess any thing they saw with us, that they kept swimming off to the ships with whatever they could find, and readily bartered for any article we saw fit to give them in return, even such as broken platters and fragments of glass.

Source: Fordham University

Question B: Read the additional documents from Amerigo Vespucci and Virginia Company. Does each document support the diary excerpts from Columbus? If they cannot be used to support Columbus’ claims, explain why not.

Letter by Amerigo Vespucci, 1503

We found a lot of naked people. they have no laws, and no religion. They just live by nature. They own nothing, and share every thing. They have no country, borders or king. It seems that everyone is his own master.

They live together in huts, built without any metal. What a surprise, I have seen houses 220 feet long, and 30 feet wide that can hold 500 people. They sleep in hammocks of cotton; they sit on the ground and eat the roots of herbs, or fruits and fish.

They are cruel people, but I don’t understand why they go to war. They don’t fight for power or to take things from their enemies. When we asked them about this, they said they fought as payback for the murder of their families.

Source: Peter Pappas

Virginia Company of London, 1622

It will be easier to conquer them, than civilize them. They are a rude, barbarous, naked people, scattered in small villages. This would help us to defeat them. It would also make it tough to civilize them. We can conquer them all at once. Civilizing them is slow and will take much more effort.

We can have victory over them many ways– by force, surprise, and famine.We can burn their corn, boats, canoes, houses and fishing equipment. We can disrupt their hunting. That’s how they get most of their winter food. We can chase them with our horses and bloodhounds, and our big mastiff dogs will tear them apart.

Source: Peter Pappas

About the Assessment:

Students should be able to use the sources to figure out whether or not the sources are enough to make a judgement and whether or not they support one another and why.

Question A:

Students should note that while the source is very detailed, it is the account of only one man who was also known for bending the truth to achieve his aims. The account is, on the other hand, reliable in that it is written in the time period it describes by someone who experienced it first hand before anyone else, so his response is not marred by the bias of others before him. Regardless, what Columbus say may not be representative of all Europeans.

Question B:

Student should see that the two additional accounts support European perceptions of natives as backward and savage peoples though they are written years apart. They should also be able to cite specific similarities in the accounts, such as seemingly simple lifestyles and modest housing.


What I really enjoyed about creating this lesson using the SHEG model was how it genuinely encouraged students to think like historians through emphasis on sourcing, contextualizing, and corroborating. Students are given concrete ways to look at the sources and practice these skills in a way that is not intimidating, but that still allows them to use primary sources. It’s fantastic to see so many lessons that get students to engage with the material directly and make their own arguments instead of being told what to think from a textbook. I look forward to implementing some of these lesson plans and seeing how students feel about them as well.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Not Being Able to Correctly Identify These Speeches (and Fear Itself)


Photo Credit: Tony Fischer

Target: 8th or 11th grade (caliber of questions can be tailored based upon grade)

Historic Skills: Contextualization

For Students: The following two excerpts are both from inaugural speeches given by FDR. Based upon what you know about the time during which FDR served as president, respond to the following prompts:

  1. Which speech do you think came first? Why?
  2. Out of the four inaugural addresses that FDR gave, which do you think these two are? Explain your rationale.
  3. What common themes do you see in these speeches?

For Teachers: Students should have enough knowledge about FDR’s presidency that they will be able to identify what issues he was addressing in each speech, and be able to put them into context. They will be able to pick up on the fact that he was far more verbose in the first speech given than the second, indicating that this was his first, or at least an earlier speech. By the time he gave the second, he was used to doing this, and the people were used to hearing from him, thus he felt less of a need to be so wordy. They will also notice the repeated calls to be courageous during this time.

Note: The dates attached to the speeches would not be provided, but are included for the reader’s knowledge.


 Speech #1

“I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

FDR’s First Inaugural Address. March 4, 1933


Speech #2

“Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, my friends, you will understand and, I believe, agree with my wish that the form of this inauguration be simple and its words brief.

We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage—of our resolve—of our wisdom—our essential democracy.

If we meet that test—successfully and honorably—we shall perform a service of historic importance which men and women and children will honor throughout all time.

As I stand here today, having taken the solemn oath of office in the presence of my fellow countrymen—in the presence of our God—I know that it is America’s purpose that we shall not fail.”

FDR’s Fourth Inaugural Address. January 20, 1945.


Reflection: As usual, I felt that the class review process went smoothly. I have used Google Docs to work on projects with people before, so I was already fairly comfortable using the comments option. It was a fun experience being able to incorporate that into a class. While working on these lessons was fun, I still strongly believe that these SHEG inspired activities are still best suited for being used as a warm-up, or part of a review session. An entire lesson could not be taught on this. Perhaps by combining a few slightly different formats of this activity, you could teach an entire lesson on thinking like a historian and examining documents. Beyond that though, this is just a quick exercise.

Who Are We? A Mini-Lesson on Assimilation through Education

Chiricahua_Apaches_as_they_arrived_at_Carlisle_from_Fort_Marion_Florida(1) Chiricahua_Apaches_four_months_after_arriving_at_Carlisle(1)

 A lesson in corroboration for 8th grade students

by Christy Thomas

In this lesson, students compare two John Choate photographs from 1886, Chiricahua Apaches as they arrive at Carlisle from Fort Marion, Florida & Chiricahua Apaches four months after arriving at Carlisle. Using the quotations from Sitting Bull and Henry Ward Beecher, students are asked to examine two contrasting pieces of information to learn how Native Americans and the Euro-Americans disagreed on assimilation through education.

“If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans; in my heart he put other and different desires. Each man is good in the sight of the Great Spirit. It is not necessary, that eagles should be crows.”

–Sitting Bull (Teton Sioux)

“The common schools are the stomachs of the country in which all people that come to us are assimilated within a generation. When a lion eats an ox, the lion does not become an ox but the ox becomes a lion.”

–Henry Ward Beecher

Background Information: From the 1879 to 1918, the Carlisle School trained Native American children in academics and trade skills. The school operated on a deserted military base in Central Pennsylvania.

Question 1: As you compare the children in these photographs, what are some of the major changes that took place?

Question 2:  Do you believe Sitting Bull and Henry Ward Beecher felt similarly about assimilation? What factors would have caused Sitting Bull and Henry Ward Beecher to view assimilation differently? How do the two messages differ?

Creating a mini-lesson based on historical thinking skills was a great exercise in thinking outside the box. I found it challenging to adjust my thinking from simple recall to more analytical questions. In this lesson, I hope to step outside of a lecture mode and let students take ownership of their learning process. I see emphasizing historical thinking skills as a great way to help students connect the past to the present lives.

I enjoyed working with my classmates to fine tune the mini-lessons. It was nice to work together to improve our final products and discuss the best way to engage students.


Images from the Library of Congress Primary Source sets: http://1.usa.gov/1msgsaM

Quotations taken from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School history: http://bit.ly/1msheVi