Lessons in American History Using Primary Sources
A Series of Webquests
By Laura Thompson
Historical Context – As more and more immigrants made their home in America. The US government faced challenges in housing, citizen rights, poverty, and other things. Industry and labor increased its influence on laws. New cultural groups were challenged to assimilate while at the same time preserving their cultural heritage.
Driving Question: How did the social, political and economic goals in the era prior to WWI affect the American people’s way of life?
The following documents present information about the progressive era threats to American independence in the decades following the American Revolution. Examine each document carefully. In the space provided, answer the question or questions that follow each document.
Document 1 - The tremendous growth of industry in the second half of the nineteenth century made the United States a rich country. It also created hardships for thousands of workers. Then, as now, people did not agree about the rights and responsibilities of business and workers.
Competition is responsible for ruining businesses and putting people out of work.
Competition is essential to the free enterprise system and to a healthy social and political climate.
Labor unions should never strike to achieve their goals.
Workers must sometimes resort to strikes to achieve their goals.
Each statement above expresses a point of view about events and issues of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Use facts and examples from your textbook to defend each position.
Document 2 - Marcus Eli Ravage, An American in the Making, the Life Story of an Immigrant, (reprint) Harper & Brothers, 1917. Marcus Ravage immigrated to the United States from Romania. In his book An American in the Making, he wrote about the changes in customs and behavior that immigrants experienced. Read the passage below and answer the questions that follow.
This distressing [change], I discovered before long, went very much deeper than [work] and fashion. Good manners and good conduct, reverence and religion, had all gone by the board, and the reason was that these things were not American. A grossness of behavior, a loudness of speech, a certain [unpleasant] “American” smartness in [business] were thought necessary, if one did not want to be taken for a greenhorn or a boor The younger folk, in particular, had undergone [a major change]. As they succeeded in picking up English more speedily than their elders, they assumed a defiant attitude toward their parents, which the [parents] found themselves [unable] to restrain and, in too many cases, secretly approved as a step toward the [growing independence] of their [children]. Parents, indeed, were [completely] helpless under the domination of their own children. There prevailed a superstition that the laws of America gave the father no power over the son, and that the police stood ready to interfere on behalf of the youngsters.
According to Ravage, what were some of the cultural differences between the United States and the countries from which the immigrants came? Why was it often easier for children to become assimilated than it was for older people?
Document 3 - Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. Visual Education Corporation, 1990. The quote below describes how immigrants adjusted to a new life in America.
The economic [roles] filled by immigrants in small businesses are not predictable based on what immigrants did in the old country. Few if any emigrating Greeks ran restaurants in Greece, just as few Italians ran barbershops in Italy, and no Chinese ran laundries in China. Yet, early Greek, Italian, and Chinese immigrants established such businesses and hired fellow immigrants who learned the ropes and went into business for themselves. All three of these businesses had common [traits]. None required large amounts of [money], each was labor intensive, and each provided services to the general low-income public.
What impact did these changes have on the immigrant people and their new community?
Document 4 - The Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader, ed. by Jay Martin and Gossie H. Hudson, Dodd-Mead, 1975. Paul Laurence Dunbar, who grew up in Ohio, was the son of former slaves. After his second book of poems was well received by critics, he made his living as a writer. Dunbar used realistic speech patterns as he wrote about African American life. He also wrote in a more formal style, as in the poem reproduced here. As you read, think about the questions below.
A hush is over all the teeming lists,
And there is pause, a breath-space in the strife;
A spirit brave has passed beyond the mists
And vapors that obscure the sun of life.
And Ethiopia 1 , with bosom torn,
Laments the passing of her noblest born.
She weeps for him a mother’s burning tears--
She loved him with a mother’s deepest love.
He was her champion thro’ direful 2 years,
And held her weal 3 all other ends above.
When Bondage held her bleeding in the dust,
He raised her up and whispered, “Hope and Trust.”
1 Ethiopia is a poetic symbol for all African Americans.
What event caused Dunbar to write this poem to Douglass? Do you think it is a fitting tribute? What words does Dunbar use to describe Douglass?
Document 5 - Mari Sandoz, These Were the Sioux, McIntosh and Otis, Inc., 1964. The Sioux, or Lakota, were one of the Plains people whose way of life was threatened and eventually destroyed by white settlers in the late 1800s. In These Were the Sioux, Mari Sandoz (1901 – 1966) describes the customs and beliefs of the Sioux. Sandoz grew up on the Nebraska frontier, where she heard stories about the past from trappers, cattlemen, and Indians.
As the boy grew he ran with his village kind as young antelope run together. He imitated the warriors and ran their errands, hoping to be asked out on a raid, as was done for promising boys. Except in a few tribal struggles for hunting grounds, Plains Indian fights were scarcely more dangerous than a hard-fought football game. The first-class coup—striking an enemy with the hand, the bow or the coup stick without harming him—was the highest war achievement, more important than any scalp. Occasionally the boy was taken out on night guard of the village and the horse herds, or to scout the region for unauthorized war parties trying to slip away, endangering themselves and perhaps the village with avenging attacks.
Understanding of the regular ceremonials and rituals came gradually to the young Sioux. The Sioux camp of any size was always set in a circle because all sacred things were round—the sun, the moon, the earth horizon, as one could plainly see. Even the tipis were round, and their openings as well as that of the whole camp always faced the east, to welcome and honor the light that brought the day and the springtime. But the simplest and perhaps the most profound ritual that the young Sioux saw was the most common. The first puff of the pipe at a smoking and the first morsel of food at a meal were always offered to the Great Powers—the earth, the sky and the four directions, which included everything that lay within their arms. All things were a part of these Powers, brothers in them, and anyone could understand what a brother was.
What training did young Sioux boys receive for later life? How would you describe the training of the young American child today? How is it similar to or different from that of the young Sioux?
Document 6 - American Folklore, ed. by Peter Poulakis, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969. In the late 1800s, railroad building employed tens of thousands of Americans. Around the railroads grew new legends—such as that of John Henry, a black worker who hammered steel drills into rock. Henry worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. In this ballad, John Henry represents all workers whose jobs are being threatened by machines.
John Henry was a lil baby,
Sittin’ on his mama’s knee,
Said: “The Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O. road
Gonna cause the death of me,
Lawd, Lawd, gonna cause the death of me.”
Cap’n says to John Henry,
“Gonna bring me a steam drill ’round,
Gonna take that steam drill out on job,
Gonna whop that steel on down,
Lawd, Lawd, gonna whop that steel on down.”
John Henry tol’ his cap’n,
Lightnin’ was in his eye:
“Cap’n, bet yo’ las’ red cent on me,
Fo’ I’ll beat it to the bottom or I’ll die,
Lawd, Lawd, I’ll beat it to the bottom or I’ll die.”
The hammer that John Henry swung,
It weighed over nine pound;
He broke a rib in his lef ’-han’ side
an’ his intrels fell on the groun’,
Lawd, Lawd, an’ his intrels fell on the groun’.
Dey took John Henry to the graveyard,
An’ they buried him in the san’,
An’ every locomotive come roarin’ by,
Says, “There lays a steel-drivin’ man,
Lawd, Lawd, there lays a steel-drivin’ man.”
What contest does the poem describe? How is “John Henry” a tribute to all the unknown people who worked on the railroads?
How did the social, political and economic goals in the era prior to WWI affect the American people’s way of life?