Engaging Students in North Carolina’s Coastal History

[This blog post was written by Samantha Crisp, Director of the Outer Banks History Center.]

On November 14th, the Outer Banks History Center (OBHC) was invited to have a staff member present at a meeting of the PATH OBX homeschool support group to help the group’s students learn about local history. This session served as preparation for a presentation that each student gave at the end of the month on a local history topic of their choice. PATH offers the opportunity for homeschool students in the Outer Banks to gather once a week for a full class session with their peers, during which time students socialize, complete assignments, participate in lessons, and hear from local speakers. Classes are broken into four groups: kindergartners, 1st-3rd graders, 4th-6th graders, and 7th-12th graders.


PATH students create postcards to send to friends and relatives.

I planned a unique session for each group designed to help the students learn about working with primary sources and to introduce them to the OBHC’s holdings, which include manuscripts, archival materials, and published resources documenting the history of the North Carolina coast. I opened each session by asking the students if they’d ever been to an archives or met an archivist. All four groups indicated that they hadn’t, so I followed up by asking them to talk about museums or libraries they had been to. Every student had either been to a library or a museum (or both), so we discussed the ways in which archives are related to—and different from—museums and libraries.

I then passed around several examples of material from our collection to demonstrate the kinds of sources they could encounter if they visited the OBHC. First was an “old” book—an 1856 edition of Joseph Esquemeling’s History of the Buccaneers of America. We talked about how we could tell it was old (worn bindings, browning pages, foxing, and historical typefaces). Then we looked at a letter written by a local man in 1867. I asked the students how they could tell it was a letter, and several of them noted distinct physical features (an address at the top and on the back, opening with “Dear…”, and creases indicating that it had been folded up). I also asked them if they could read it, and most of them stated that they couldn’t, but they did recognize that it was written in cursive. We discussed what it would have been like to live in an isolated community like the Outer Banks during a time when the only real means of communication would have been writing letters. I then showed them a roughly 100-year-old photograph of a group of local children gathered around a horse and cart. We talked about how a researcher could date the photograph, and several of them pointed out the children’s clothing, hairstyles, and the fact that we don’t typically use horses for transportation. Finally, we looked at an 18th-century map of the Carolina coast and talked about some of the interesting things they noticed (such as a lack of roads, fewer town names, disproportionate geography, and the fact that nothing beyond the Appalachians was mapped). Older students also looked at a current map of the same area and discussed similarities and differences between the two maps.

Carolina Newly Described by John Seller, 1682. MC_150_1682s.

Each group then participated in a project related to a specific local history topic. The kindergartners learned about pirates. We read a pirate story written by a local author, and then I passed around a famous illustration of Blackbeard from A General History of Pyrates (1724) by Capt. Charles Johnson (likely a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe). I asked them to point to things in the picture that indicated we were looking at a pirate, such as his ships, a sword, guns, and clothing. We talked about who Blackbeard was, and ended by using an online pirate name generator to make nametags with our “pirate names.”

The 1st-3rd graders learned about the Wright Brothers. We talked about the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, and several students shared things they’d learned when visiting the memorial. I told them about the Wright Brothers’ childhood and their famous first flight in 1903. We then looked at a picture of the Wright Flyer beside a picture of a modern airplane and talked about the similarities and differences. At the end of the class, each student was tasked with “engineering” a paper airplane, and we held a paper airplane contest. I asked those students whose planes didn’t fly very far to think about how the Wright Brothers might have felt when their early designs failed, and how they might have dealt with those problems.

Wright Flyer during the first flight, 1903.

The 4th-6th graders talked in detail about the process of sending letters. I asked if any of them had ever gotten a letter, and most of them responded that they had received Christmas cards and birthday cards. We talked about how communication has changed over time from being done entirely through the mail to being done on computers, social media, and telephones, reserving letters for special occasions. We talked about postcards, and I passed out vintage Outer Banks postcards (duplicates from our collection), which they filled out and addressed to a friend or relative to drop in the mail after class.

The older students talked in more detail about the local history topics they were interested in researching and the relevant materials that might be available at the OBHC for them to use. We then worked as a group to analyze a primary source document—a government memo related to “Project Nutmeg,” a military operation designed to determine whether the Outer Banks was a suitable location for nuclear tests in the 1940s. We talked about how to evaluate and interpret the document, where to look for more information on Project Nutmeg, and how the students would have felt if they had lived on the Outer Banks in the 1940s and learned that it was being considered as a nuclear test site.

Overall, it was a great experience for the students, their parents, and myself. Several students and parents indicated they’d like to come to the OBHC to work on their projects, and the older students asked for more information on how they could submit their projects to this year’s National History Day competition. Several students also approached me after class to tell me about their topics and ask me questions about the OBHC. In the weeks that followed, about a dozen students visited the OBHC to conduct research using our collections.

This session was a reminder that repositories like the OBHC are uniquely situated to serve as laboratories for young people to engage with historical inquiry, research, and hands-on work with unique pieces of documentary evidence of their ancestors’ lived experiences. Engaging with primary sources helps students become more emotionally connected to their personal history and creates a stronger sense of belonging and identification with the communities in which they grow up. I hope to work with many more students like these in the future.