This book will help students learn Colorado history by doing it.  As teachers, we know how challenging it can be to get students interested in history.  We also know that teachers with busy schedules would appreciate a tool to help them to address social studies.  State and national standards for social studies emphasize interpretive and critical thinking skills, even for younger students.  Yet we found few examples of how to guide elementary students as they develop these.  When Todd was teaching high school history, he once got this question from a student: “Where does the history textbook get the official story of America’s past?  Is there a government vault somewhere like Fort Knox where the original version is kept?”  This question sparked a revealing conversation about just what it meant to reconstruct history from different kinds of evidence.

Unlike gold reserves to back a currency of old, America’s history, like Colorado’s, reflects the work of communities of scholars and story-tellers who ask similar questions, share common strategies, and follow rules of evidence and interpretation.  Historians and students ask similar questions.  How can I understand an event that happened long before anyone still alive could have witnessed it?  Which witnesses to an event should I trust if they disagreed about what happened?  How might I fill in gaps in the historical record to tell a story that is meaningful and persuasive?  How can I give voice to a group neglected in the histories I read?   All these questions and more guide the detective work of those who write history.  And this book offers even elementary students a chance to participate in asking and answering these exciting questions.

This all may sound fine for secondary or college students.  But don’t younger students just need to read a textbook and memorize a few basics?  When did the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush begin? When did Colorado become a state?  Can they list five pioneers?  Aren’t fourth and fifth graders just learning basic literacy?  Reading a few pages in a textbook or a few websites online and then committing some names and dates to memory does not help students get a real sense of Colorado history. Students can easily forget their Colorado facts.  Even more, they would miss out on a chance to begin developing skills they will need for the rest of their lives.

What is Historical Literacy?

Learning Colorado history with this book will mean starting with questions rather than answers.  Life is full of questions and decision points.  History is too.  Yet often we teachers package history answers neatly and without ambiguity for our students.  Textbooks, as secondary sources, do this quite well.  Their authors read widely from a range of sources and synthesize important details for student readers.  Textbooks tend to explain away or avoid controversy or uncertainty about the past.  This reader is different.  Here students can explore questions that will engage their curiosity and guide them to develop answers based on primary source evidence.  Primary sources are the basic materials needed to reconstruct history.  They include letters, diaries, newspaper stories, photographs, and material artifacts that were created or present in a specific historical moment.  To connect with that moment, historians need to interact with those primary resources.  They allow writers to see or hear or read about an experience from a firsthand participant.  Each chapter in this book begins with an interpretive question that invites student thinking and reflection.  Then students will encounter a range of primary source evidence to help them develop answers to these questions without requiring a lot of additional research.

Here is where the excitement of doing history begins.  Students can develop historical literacy strategies that will aid them the rest of their lives.  First, they will practice asking and answering questions about single primary documents through a process called sourcing.  Colorado history includes many different people who left behind many different kinds of original sources about their lives.  The chapters in this book include a range of primary sources from written text to oral histories and images.  Elementary and middle school students can learn to read non-fiction sources like detectives by asking about the creator of the source, its perspective, and reliability.  This sourcing work takes practice but pays enormous benefits.  Given the extensive website reading and video watching that will engage 21st century students, teachers can prepare them as critical readers and viewers with practice doing history.

Another historical literacy skill students of this book can develop is an ability to compare different sources of evidence, or corroboration.  History is full of stories from different perspectives: Gold rush prospectors and Cheyenne Indians, men and women, and government officials and homesteaders, for example.  The sources in this collection will engage students with different points of view.  Rather than a simple textbook account which minimizes multiple perspectives and erases debates about interpretation, this book offers students a chance to dive in and reconstruct the past in ways that acknowledge diverse opinions.  How else can students of history make sense of competing voices?  With this book they will learn to consider bias and motives among the different witnesses.  This too will be a skill yielding life-long benefits.  Ultimately, students can practice reconstructing the past by comparing incomplete fragments and multiple perspectives.

Once students get practice sourcing evidence and comparing documents, they can begin to create context.  This is a third historical literacy skill.  Context refers to what else was going at the time and place when and where the evidence was created.  The collections in this book are already grouped by theme and an essential question to guide students.  Working through these chapters, students will begin to realize that historical context does not simply exist in a government vault waiting for them to memorize it.  Rather the historical work of reconstructing what happens always involves creating a context.  The final products of elementary-aged or middle school students may be preliminary and incomplete, especially when compared to experienced adult researchers.  But the goal here is to help students learn HOW to do this work.  It involves collecting relevant, reliable primary sources and deciding how to balance competing voices.  To create a context, students must also organize events chronologically to explain change over time.  They will not simply memorize details from a textbook or another secondary source, but begin to create their own secondary sources based on evidence.  They can become authors of historical accounts.[1]

The idea of developing historical literacy with elementary or middle school students can at first appear daunting. Yet it is doable.  Some students will be reading below grade level or just learning English as a new language.  Can they too learn Colorado history by doing it?  Yes!  We tried in this book to address these concerns in several ways.  The primary sources in each chapter are short and focused to help students read closely and make connections to the essential question.  We have edited the original text sources to delete extraneous information while still preserving the key aspects.   There is a Word Bank to help with challenging vocabulary.  Students will typically mix visual with written text sources of evidence in order to answer the essential questions.  With these supports, elementary students will be developing non-fiction literacy skills that apply well beyond their social studies lessons.

We should note again that this is not another history textbook.  We make no claims to encyclopedic inclusion.  Instead, this collection of primary sources offers a starting point for historical investigation.  A teacher could easily use any Colorado history textbook in conjunction with this reader.  Then students will gradually realize that their textbook is just another secondary source, also based on primary sources and the historical literacy skills noted above.  In fact, students can learn to compare secondary, textbook accounts with the primary sources in this collection.  Some of our chapters specifically guide students in this work.   We hope that students using this book will become young authors of Colorado history, not just passive consumers of other people’s stories.

How is this book organized?

The chapters in this book are organized both chronologically and thematically.  Each one opens with an essential question:  What stories do maps tell?  How did gold and silver change Colorado?  What makes a cowboy?  Who fought for equality in Colorado?  These kinds of essential questions organize the source collections and typically focus on aspects of Colorado’s past where even experts have disagreed.  There is more possibility here for students to debate or disagree as well, based on their interpretation of primary sources.

We then include a background essay for teachers on each subject to help them develop some expertise in case that proves helpful.  Those teachers who have tried doing history with students have quickly recognized that evidence fragments do not, by themselves, tell a satisfying story of the past.  Students will have questions about individual sources and need support from a knowledgeable teacher.  Our background essays are designed to offer the basic information needed.  We also suggest additional resources for those teachers who may have time and interest to dig deeper.  Textbooks obviously offer some help here too.  But we offer a review of basic chronology and key interpretive issues that will enable teachers to guide students in their work with primary sources.

Next, we include a range of primary source documents for students.  These are numbered in rough chronological order of their creation.  Before each source, we include some introductory comments for students about each along with a citation.  We provide links to online versions of the maps and images, which will be much easier to study up close than images in a book.  There are impressive map-viewing software tools available at several of these websites.  Finding and collecting these primary sources, we realize, takes much time, and many elementary and secondary teachers just don’t have that kind of time easily available.   We then grouped these document fragments around the essential questions.  Students can first practice exploring them individually with the help of our document questions.  These are just meant as a starting point for the exploration of the sources.

Last, each chapter includes suggestions to teachers on how to use the sources.  We realize that elementary and even middle school teachers may not have a regular hour available each day for weeks on end to practice doing Colorado history.  So we offer lesson suggestions ranging from strategies for analyzing just one of the primary sources in the chapter to a longer comparison of different sources.  We even offer guidelines for lessons that might conclude with student-created histories to address the essential questions.  Chapters could be taught in a different sequence than we propose here.  Or a teacher might have time to teach only one or two chapters.

In an Appendix we also discuss standards.  Elementary and middle school standards in History focus on developing an understanding of chronology, cause and effect, and comparing points of view.  Learning to interpret primary sources, students can work toward each of these as they build historical context.  Readers can also use this source collection to explore Geography standards which include spatial understanding and seeing connections between places.  Additionally English Language Arts standards play a role here too.  While working as historical detectives, readers will need to make inferences, identify conflict, listen for tone, and re-create setting for the range of past voices they encounter.  Our Appendix aligns the chapter projects with standards for History, Civics, Economic, Geography, and Language Arts.

Teachers will also want to model many aspects of this historical literacy work while utilizing these chapters.  The history skills of sourcing, close reading, corroboration, and creating context will need a skilled teacher’s guidance.  One helpful strategy for the close reading of sources, for example, is a Think Aloud.  Teachers might want to begin the chapter work with students by reading aloud one of primary sources we include.  Along with simply reading the text, the teacher can model her thinking and questioning aloud for students.  In this way students can begin to learn the work of Sourcing.  A Think Aloud could sound something like this as a teacher reads aloud from a letter by William Bent in the chapter about Sand Creek:

“Here is a letter from a man named William Bent who was an Indian agent for the American government.  I’m guessing that means he was a go-between for the government and tribes.  I see in the note above the source that he had married an Indian woman too, and he was respected by them.  So that means I can likely trust that he offers a view from the Indian perspective, even though he was white.  And let’s see . . . this is 1859.  At that time it sounds like Indians were “pressed upon” by lots of different white settlers and visitors.  The Indians must have felt pressure from so many new whites coming to this area.  He mentions Texans, gold seekers, Kansas settlers all coming in.  Bent says Indians were “compressed into a small circle of territory.”  That probably created frustrations, since I know that Plains Indians were otherwise nomadic and moved around a lot.  He ends by expressing a worry about possible war.  He uses the word “inevitable” which I know means cannot be avoided.  This letter makes me worried and sad about a possible conflict between the Indians and all these white settlers.  I wonder if a war did happen?  And it’s written in 1859, just as the Gold Rush in Colorado is starting.”

After learning from teacher modeling like this, students can begin to develop this skill on their own.  We often begin each source collection with an image or map which could be discussed easily by the class with the teacher posing a series of Sourcing questions.

Here is short list of sourcing questions that could be used in whole or in part with each primary document in this book:



1. AUTHOR:  What can I learn about the author or creator of the source?

2. DATE and LOCATION:  When was it created?  Where did this source appear?

3. AUDIENCE:  For whom was this source made?  Who might have seen or read it?

4. MAIN IDEA:  What is the basic message or idea?  Where do I find that in the source?

5. BIAS or PERSPECTIVE:  Whose point of view is this?

6. RELIABILITY:  Can I trust this source?  Where could I find other sources to confirm this one?

7. COMPARE:  What other sources are similar to this one? Which sources disagree with this one?

We offer many more guiding questions for this work in the chapters ahead.

As elementary teacher/scholar Bruce VanSledright has noted, “Children can do history if you show them how.”[2]  We hope this collection of sources will enable teachers to engage students in the doing of Colorado history.  The collection offers an exciting opportunity to guide students in reconstructing the past as they prepare to move beyond the textbook.

  1. For more detailed descriptions of these historical literacy skills see Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano, Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, 2011) .  Wineburg and his colleagues and students have also created a website with many sample lessons modeling this approach at the “Stanford History Education Group”
  2. In his book In Search of America’s Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002) Bruce VanSledright describes his own challenges and successes while trying to teach historical literacy to diverse fifth graders.


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Colorado History Detectives Copyright © 2019 by R. Todd Laugen and Meg Frisbee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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