Unit Title: Interpreting the Past – The Case of the “Bloody Massacre” Designed by: Fran O’Malley Director, Delaware Social Studies Education Project

– This web illustrates the relationship between perspective, questions, and conclusions and provides a valid example. 1

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2 – This web illustrates the relationship between perspective, questions, and conclusions and provides a valid example.

1 – This web illustrates the relationship between perspective, questions, and conclusions but fails to offer a valid example.

Strategy 6: Application
Construct a Timeline

This shows students how a single source might be used to generate different interpretations.

Arrange students in small groups and ask them to use the “Statement of the Case,” Appendix 1, and the “Event Strips” on Appendix 2 to create a chronology of events leading up to the “massacre.” Distribute the Appendix with the event strips and scissors. Ask the students to cut out individual strips and lay them out chronologically on their desks/tables. Have them place events that suggest the British were to blame on the top of the timeline. Place the events that suggest the colonists were to blame on the bottom of the timeline (see illustration below).

Events damaging to British

Earlier -------------------------------------------------------------------------------Later

Events damaging to Colonists

After students complete their timelines, ask:

  1. Based on the limited number of events provided on the sentence strips, who appeared to be more to blame for the casualties?

  2. How does this activity illustrate the point that the manner in which a person uses sources (e.g., a timeline) can explain why historians sometimes arrive at different conclusions?

Mapping the Scene

Distribute copies of Appendix 3 and ask students to draw their mental maps of King Street at the moment when a British soldier fired the very first shot. Tell the students to limit what they put on their maps to (using the key below):

  • P = Captain Preston (noting his position relative to the soldiers and colonists)

  • S = Soldiers (noting their position, e.g., straight line, 2 rows, semi-circle, as well as how many. One “S” for each soldier.)

  • C = Colonists (noting how many and their location. One “C” for each colonist.)

Emphasize that their maps must be as accurate as possible with particular emphasis on numbers and locations (how many were there and where were they standing). Also, emphasize that their maps must represent the scene at the very moment the first shot was fired.

Give students time to complete their maps. Walk around the room in search of students who arrive at different interpretations (e.g., soldiers were in a straight line versus soldiers were in 2 rows; Preston stood to the side of his soldiers versus in front of them). When students complete their maps, ask 3 students who produced different “accounts” to come up and draw their map on the board. Have them label their maps Interpretation 1, 2, and 3.

Raise the following questions to the entire class:

  • Are the 3 interpretations the same or different?

  • In what ways are the interpretations different?

  • Why might there be different interpretations given that the 3 students all relied on the same source of information, i.e., the Statement of the Case? (Again, for purposes of the benchmark, emphasize that they used the same source—Statement of the Case—differently and may have asked different questions, e.g., where would I stand, or would it have been possible for the soldiers to maintain a disciplined formation?)

Check for Understanding

Error Check

Two historians using the same source of information will arrive at the same conclusion about the past. Agree or disagree with this statement and explain why.


2 – This response recognizes the error with an accurate and relevant explanation.

1 – This response fails to recognize the error or provides an inaccurate, irrelevant, or no explanation.

Lesson Two

Essential Question

  • Why might historians disagree about the same historical event?

  • How might the sources that an investigator relies on influence the interpretations at which he or she arrives?

Instructional Strategies

Strategy 1: Gathering Information
Analyze Eyewitness Accounts to Learn Roles

The main activity in this lesson is a mock trial. See Appendix 5, Prosecution Team Packet, and Appendix 6, Defense Team Packet, for a list of witnesses who might testify at the trial and witness depositions. The depositions were taken in the hours and days following the “massacre” and will serve as the witness statements.

Divide the class into prosecution and defense teams, assign roles (e.g., attorneys, witnesses, jurors, bailiff) and distribute the primary sources’ depositions or witness statements to the appropriate students. There are enough roles so that you can conduct a “bench trial” where the judge determines the verdict and everyone can play a witness or attorney. This eliminates the challenge of keeping jurors engaged while the other students prepare their roles. Alternatively, you might invite a colleague’s students to serve as jurors.

Recommended Attorney-Witness Groupings

  • Attorney 1a – receives witness statement. Prepares questions and responses with witness. Conducts direct examination of witness.

  • Witness 1 – receives same witness statement. Prepares questions and responses with Attorney 1.

  • Attorney 1b – receives same witness statement to develop cross-examination questions but does not get to prepare with Witness 1.

You will also need to select attorneys to give the opening (1 prosecution, 1 defense) and closing (1 prosecution, 1 defense) statements.

A teacher or other knowledgeable authority figure should serve as the judge. You might also recruit an actual judge.

Provide an overview of the case so that everyone understands the purpose of the trial. Consider reading the “Jury Instructions” (Appendix 7) and “Stipulated Facts” (Appendix 10). Briefly, Captain Preston has been charged with the crime of manslaughter on the assumption that he gave his men an illegal order to fire on a crowd of civilians on the night of March 5, 1770. Under the law at the time, it was illegal to give such an order unless:

  1. A civilian authority (e.g., the governor) gave him permission.

  2. He or his men were threatened with death or serious bodily injury.

If the prosecution cannot convince the judge (or jury) that Captain Preston did not order his men to fire or that he either had permission from a civilian authority or he or his men were threatened with death or serious bodily injury, Preston must be found guilty.

So, the central question that students must address is: did Captain Preston give an illegal order to fire their weapons into a crowd of civilians?

Give “friendly” attorneys time with their witnesses to prepare and rehearse their questions and responses. The “friendly” attorneys should coach their witnesses by asking questions in advance. Those “adversaries” (attorneys) who are assigned the role of cross-examining witnesses should receive the witness statement of the person they will cross examine so that they can prepare their cases but should not be given the opportunity to work with the witness prior to the trial.

The “Simplified Steps in a Mock Trial” (Appendix 9) offer a nice overview of trial procedures. Take time to review these with the students. Appendix 11 (optional) offers Tips for Students as they prepare their varied roles.

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