Research from Start to Finish: Using The Archives in a Scaffolded Research Project
Research from Start to Finish: Using The Archives in a Scaffolded Research Project

Students examine suites of primary sources related to various topics in early American history and produce a final research paper.

Students examine suites of primary sources related to various topics in early American history and produce a final research paper.

Introduction

This semester-long research project requires students to conduct archival research on an aspect of early American history. This scaffolded model allows students to choose their topics as well as their sources, but still allows beginning students to benefit from a structured and guided experience.

Students complete a series of steps that lead to a final research paper:

  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Archives Visit #1
  • Short Document Analysis Essay
  • Archives Visit #2
  • Final Research Paper

At the beginning of the semester, students rank and are assigned one of five possible topics:

  • First Nations
  • Dutch Settlement and Early American Agriculture
  • Slavery and African American Life
  • The Revolutionary War
  • City Services

These were determined by the collections available at our local historical society, by the content objectives of the course, and by my own research interests. During the archives visits, students work in topic-based groups which creates an opportunity for dialogue and collaboration. However, they complete each assignment individually.

When I first designed this project, I wanted to bring my students to the archives primarily to acquire data for the research paper. But I quickly found that the visits also serve as valuable opportunities for metacognition, or examining what we know about thinking and learning. The visit allows students to produce new knowledge by analyzing primary sources and to reflect on the experience of creating, not just consuming, history.

Objectives

Students should be able to:

  • Make observations about and to analyze primary sources studied in the archives
  • Refine initial analysis to craft an argumentative thesis statement about one document
  • Synthesize secondary source research and archival analysis into a final research paper
  • Recognize that the creation of historical knowledge is interpretive, and to reflect on their experience creating knowledge through this project

Context

Students initiate the research project by compiling an annotated bibliography of at least 5 secondary sources related to their topic. This step provides the necessary context for subsequent research in the archives. See instructions here.

Because of the timing of the visits to the archives (about five and ten weeks into the semester, respectively), not all of the topics will have already been covered in class. The annotated bibliography is therefore very important to all students, but especially to groups whose topics fall later in the chronology of the course.

Visits

Number of Visits: 2
Duration of Visits: 1 hour 45 minutes each

The first visit occurs after each student has put together an annotated bibliography. The class visits the archives again after each student has completed a short document analysis essay. In this second visit, students reevaluate their documents or look at new ones in preparation for the final research paper.

Visit 1 Agenda

15 minutes


1 hour 15 minutes
Document analysis


15 minutes
Wrap up


Groups of three to five students examine several pre-selected documents related to their topic (see Archival Materials Used below). Students are free to look at all or some of the documentations at their station in any order they choose.

I provide each group with a set of document-specific questions related to the items at their station. The handouts help model analysis and, in the case of longer documents, points students to particularly interesting passages:

Group 1 handout
Group 2 handout
Group 3 handout
Group 4 handout
Group 5 handout

Wrap Up

Students reconvene to reflect on their findings. I ask pointed questions to push students to connect their experience in the archives back to the overarching thesis of my class, that “history is an argument.” (See an article I wrote on this subject here).

In Between Visits: Short Document Analysis Essay

Students write an essay that interprets one of the documents they analyzed at the archives. The essay must contain an argumentative thesis statement. See the instructions here.

Visit 2 Agenda

5 minutes


10 minutes
Research paper overview


1 hour 15 minutes
Document analysis


15 minutes
Wrap up


The second visit to the archives lets students re-examine their sources or conduct further research. At the start of the visit, the professor ties the archives visit to the final research paper.

Most students have a sense of what their final argument will be, so they should have more pointed goals for their research during this visit. This might include filling particular knowledge gaps, taking transcriptions or photographs, or consulting additional primary sources.

Wrap Up

Students reconvene and share how they plan to use the documents they examined as evidence for their research papers.

End Products

Final Research Paper

Students complete a six-page research paper blending research from the archives with secondary materials. See instructions here.

Archival Materials Used

Group 1: First Nations
Gabriel Furman, Notes Geographical and Historical, Relating to the Town of Brooklyn, 1824; Gabriel Furman papers, ARC.190, box 6, folder 3; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Jaspar Danckaerts, [Image of a Native American Woman], 1679, M1979.23.1; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Mac Leod, William Christie, ed. The Indians of Brooklyn in the Days of the Dutch. New York: U.S. Work Projects Administration, 1941; Main collection F129.B747 I54 1941; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 2: Dutch Colonists and Early American Agriculture
Photograph of Bedford Corners, ca. 1832; St. Peter’s Church certificates of incorporation, 1974.150; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Image of Harbor], 1679. Jaspar Danckaerts, M1979.23.2; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Mac Leod, William Christie, ed. The Indians of Brooklyn in the Days of the Dutch. New York: U.S. Work Projects Administration, 1941; Main collection F129.B747 I54 1941; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Vanderbilt, Gertrude Lefferts. The Social History of Flatbush and Manners and Customs of the Dutch Settlers in Kings County. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881; Closed Stacks F129.B7 V36 1881; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Samuel Booth materials, 1835, 1864; Samuel Booth papers, 1974.155; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Plan of the town of Brooklyn and part of Long Island, circa 1850; Flat Maps B A-1766-1767 (185-?).Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Map of the Van Pelt Manor, circa 1800s; Flat Maps B P-[18-?]e.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 3: Slavery and African American Life
Henry Onderdonk Jr. Documents and Letters Intended to Illustrate the Revolutionary Incidents of Queens County, N.Y., 1884; Henry Onderdonk papers, ARC.045, box 1, folder 5; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Bills of sale, 1751 – 1793; Queens County, N.Y. slave bills of sale, 1978.010; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 4: Revolutionary War
Henry Onderdonk Jr. Documents and Letters Intended to Illustrate the Revolutionary Incidents of Queens County, N.Y., 1884; Henry Onderdonk papers, ARC.045, box 1, folder 5; Brooklyn Historical Society.

An inventory of stock taken from Benjamin Sands, September 16, 1776; Sands family papers, ARC.096, box 1, folder 5; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Plan of the Positions and Movements of the British and American Army, 1869; Flat Maps Rev. War-1776 [1869].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Manhattan Island at the close of the Revolution, 1909; Flat Maps Rev. War-1783 [1909].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 5: City Services
Section of sewer for the City of Brooklyn, circa 1850; Flat Maps B A-[185-?].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Map showing line of the Brooklyn Water Works; 1864; Flat Maps B A-1864.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Map of the City of Brooklyn, 1856; Flat Maps B A-1856.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Petition of the freeholders of the City of Brooklyn, 1841; Catherine and Main Street Ferry Company records, 1977.051, box 1; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Records relating to the purchase of loads of dirt, 1827; Catherine and Main Street Ferry Company records, 1977.051, box 1; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Further Reading

Group 1: First Nations
Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2003.

Lindeström, Peter Mårtensson. Geographia Americae: With an Account of the Delaware Indians, Based on Surveys and Notes Made in 1654-1656. Philadelphia: The Swedish Colonial Society, 1925.

Sanderson, Eric W. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York. New York: Abrams, 2009.

Strong, John A. Algonquian Peoples of Long Island From Earliest Times to 1700s. Interlaken, NY: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1997.

Weslager, C.A. The Delaware Indians: A History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Group 2: Dutch Colonists and Early American Agriculture
Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Cochrane, Willard W. The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Crawford, George. Early Dutch Settlers of Monmouth County, New Jersey. Freehold, NJ: Moreau Brothers, Publishers, 1901.

Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2002.

Jacobs, Jaap. The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Kulikoff, Allan. From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Linder, Marc and Lawrence S. Zacharias. Of Cabbages and Kings County: Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Shorto, Russell. The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America. New York: Vintage, 2005.

Steinberg, Ted. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Group 3: Slavery and African American Life
Harris, Leslie M. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hodges, Graham Russell. Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Wilder, Craig. A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Wilder, Craig. In The Company Of Black Men: The African Influence on African American Culture in New York City. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Group 4: Revolutionary War
Gallagher, John J. The Battle of Brooklyn, 1776. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Galowitz, Sam W. Revolutionary War, Battle of Brooklyn: Battle of Long Island. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2007.

McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. New York: Walker & Company, 2002.

Group 5: City Services
Ascher, Kate. The Works: Anatomy of a City. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.

Goldman, Joanne Abel. Building New York’s Sewers: The Evolution of Mechanisms of Urban Development. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1997

Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: A History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Melosi, Martin V. Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America’s Cities. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 2011.

Melosi, Martin V. The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 2008.

Monkkonen, Eric H. America Becomes Urban: The Development of U.S. Cities and Towns, 1780-1980. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.

Stiles, Henry. A History of the City of Brooklyn. 3 volumes. Brooklyn, NY: Privately Printed, 1870.

This comprehensive history of Brooklyn, written in the nineteenth century, addresses many aspects of city development, including Brooklyn’s sewer system. It is available as a free and searchable ebook on Google books.

Tarr, Joel A. Search for the Ultimate Sink. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 1996.


To cite this page:
Geoff D. Zylstra, “Research from Start to Finish: Using The Archives in a Scaffolded Research Project,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/exercises/scaffolded-research/.

Authors

Geoff D. Zylstra
Assistant Professor of History
City Tech (CUNY)
view author bio >

Used In

History 1110: Early American History

A survey course examining society and culture in the United States up to 1877. Fulfills general education requirements.

Adaptability

Guided by course content and available collections, an educator can adapt this exercise to other time periods and topics. It is well suited for a high school or college survey course.

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