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Tip of the Week: Using Artifacts to Teach Social Studies

I spent part of the past week in Topeka and Kansas City – not sure what was my favorite. On Wednesday, I climbed to the top of the Kansas State Capitol Building. It’s one of the few capitol domes that still allow folks to visit the very top. And it’s been since I was 13, on the traditional 8th grade field trip to Topeka, that I last climbed to the top.

For the record? Above the inner dome? With just that spindly looking set of stairs? Yeah. Still very spooky.

But the highlight was probably the chance to visit the Steamboat Arabia museum in downtown KC. Most of you probably won’t be able to make that trip but if you can, it’s a keeper. Quick overview – the Missouri River has changed course multiple times over the last 150 years. Until the Army Corps of Engineers worked to contain and control the river, hundreds of steamboats sank on snags and sand bars. In 1856, the Great White Arabia sank just north of Kansas City – fully loaded with 200 tons of goods destined for general stores in Nebraska and Iowa.

Over time, the river shifted. Farmers hauled in more soil. And the Steamboat Arabia ended by buried 45 feet beneath a Kansas cornfield. In the late 1980s, the local Hawley family decided to dig it up. And so, after three years of research and planning, they did. The original plan was to sell whatever artifacts they discovered but as more and more of the cargo was uncovered, the family decided instead to display the artifacts. It’s a very cool story.

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Thousands of gallons of water had to be pumped from the dig site every minute

And because the Arabia had not yet delivered any of its cargo, there were literally thousands of artifacts uncovered and readied for display. The diversity of artifacts is truly amazing. Crates of frontier merchandise held both the necessities and the luxuries available in 1856: castor oil and cognac, needles and spices, windowpanes and wedding bands, eyeglasses and earrings, as well as long underwear, umbrellas and weapons. The Hawley family even found jars of pickles, pie filling, and bottles of champagne – all still sealed.

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Also discovered in the cargo hold were a few boxes containing the belongings of several passengers. These boxes held the personal treasures they chose to take with them on their trip. Carpenter’s tools and porcelain figurines, patched trousers and marbles, these items tell a story of the people heading West.

This is the part that captured my attention. The story.

Who ordered what merchandise? What happened to the small towns that were waiting on these recovered artifacts? How did people use these tools? What was life like on the western frontier in 1856? Was it hard navigating the river?

As we work harder to include primary sources into our instruction, I think we often forget that artifacts are also primary sources. So today, a few ideas of how you might be able to use artifacts in your class:

Have fun!

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