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Tomorrow, my AP US History students will engage in their first work as young historians.  They will be analyzing the historiography and changing interpretations of the infamous conquistador: Hernando de Soto.  This lesson was inspired by a Teaching American History grant trip to Washington, D.C. several summers ago, in which our cohort had the opportunity to tour the U.S. Capitol building.

As we entered the rotunda and gazed at the larger-than-life portraits, I was drawn to the painting entitled “Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto” by William H. Powell.  I was in the process of analyzing the painting when I noticed a strange sign off to the side that said, “This Painting Does Not Verify History.”  Although all of the paintings that appear in the rotunda attempt to romanticize historical events, this was the only painting of the group that had a qualifying sign situated next to it.  Obviously, the sign set off a firestorm of questions and sent me off on a historical pursuit.

What I discovered is that the story of De Soto’s expedition has changed drastically over time.  I wanted my students to participate in the same historical adventure that I went on so I designed a historical inquiry lesson in which students review a selection of secondary textbook accounts of the De Soto expedition.

Importance of Historiography
Using historiography as a teaching tool fosters the development of students’ ability to conduct historical analysis and research.  Compiling a chronological selection of textbook accounts over the past two centuries can help students understand how written history evolved over time.  History textbooks represent our collective memory and are among the most widely read versions of history. As students compare textbooks from different time periods, they can begin to see the elements of our collective memory over time. Perspectives become more apparent, stories evolve, and some events fade and lose their significance.

Anticipatory Set
I begin the lesson by projecting a chronological image set of Batman and asking students, “How has Batman changed over time?”  Students usually note that Batman seems to have become more muscular, edgier, darker etc.  I then ask the class “Why has Batman changed?”  Typically, students will note that Batman is a reflection of society.  We like our superheroes to be more muscular, cutting edge and compelling than we did a half century ago.  I then transition by projecting the Powell painting of De Soto and setting the scene of the lesson.  I give the class a brief background about the painting, tell them about the sign, and provide students with the main inquiry question that will launch our investigation: “How has the story of Hernando de Soto’s expedition changed over time?”

Lesson Procedure
I typically divide the class into five groups and give each group one account to read.  After students have read their account, they answer some brief questions:

  • When do you think the account was written?
  • What does the account tell us about De Soto? What adjectives does the author use to describe the type of person De Soto was?
  • How does this account compare to the rotunda painting? Does it “verify” it?

Groups then report out to the entire class and I reveal the actual dates of each account. We chart how the story has changed over time, revealing that Hernando de Soto was once viewed as a chivalrous hero who stood up to incredible odds and made significant discoveries.  Today, De Soto receives criticism for his failed mission and brutal encounters with Native Americans and is overshadowed by the stories of Columbus, Pizarro and Cortés.

Big Ideas
One of the main points that I want to drive home is that textbooks, especially the American Pageant book that the AP students will be reading, are merely a representation of our current “collective memory.”  They are secondary sources and need to be critically analyzed and questioned as they are read. Stories tend to change over time and adapt to fit the current mood of a society.  This investigation promotes the notion that the history textbook is not the source of all knowledge, but rather just one link in a long chain of perspectives and interpretations.

Another main point that I try to drive home is that European colonization and exploration was not always successful.  De Soto had assembled the largest colonization force the New World had ever seen in 1839.  He landed in Florida with 600 well armed men, 200 horses, as well as an odd assortment of priests, pigs and greyhounds (used to run down slaves).  We tend to read the stories of Pizarro, Columbus and Cortés and marvel at the fact that a small group of Europeans with superior weapons and diseases wiped out vast civilizations of Native Americans.  The story of De Soto reminds us that many times, Native Americans fought back and destroyed European conquistadors.  Had disease not taken it’s toll on the Native American societies of North and South America, European settlement of the New World would have been nearly impossible.

The lesson provides a nice segway into our unit on exploration and colonization and also allows the students to critique their textbook from the start of class.  It allows young learners to take on the role of a historian and reach an enlarged understanding of a topic by critically investigating a sequence of sources.

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