History Detectives: Piecing Together the “Truth”

Students will be analyzing primary and secondary illustrations of Indian life as well as maps of early Maryland and Virginia. First students will be introduced to the terms primary and secondary source. After students understand the differences between the two terms they will discuss what an archeologist does. This will lead into setting up time for students to play history detectives with the John White and Theodore De Bry illustrations. Students will use magnifying lens to carefully look at the pictures and try to determine what exactly they are seeing. In the follow up activity students will be given various olden maps of Maryland to see what they can find out using their new found history detective skills.

Lesson Objective

After discussing and analyzing primary and secondary sources, students will be able to articulate the importance of knowing whom created a historical work and what can be learned through careful archeology. Upon completion of the activity, students will complete an exit card capturing the essence of the lesson.



  1. Start the lesson by having a student leave the classroom to wait outside while, the teacher draws or pulls up an obscure picture with multiple parts. Have the class in the room stare at the picture for a minute and try to memorize what they are seeing.
  2. Have a student who actually saw the picture go into the hallway and explain what they saw to that student.
  3. Have the student who left the room try their best to explain the picture that was shown to the rest of the class and draw exactly what the student says.
  4. Have the students who actually saw the picture help alter the “secondary source” student’s picture.
  5. Show the actual first picture and see who was closer, the students who were there, or the student who was in the hall
  6. Ask why the class did better than the one student in the hall.
  7. Display the definitions of primary and secondary sources to students.
  8. Tell the class that today they will need to be archeologists, History Detectives. Explain that an archeologist is a person who finds artifacts from the past and tries to determine the “truth” about what life used to be like. They need to be careful to look at things carefully.
  9. Show the class the History Detective Sheet where they will be taking notes about what they see in the historical documents that they will be looking at today. Tell them that their goal will be able to determine how the Native Americans really lived and who they really were and what Maryland was really like 400 years ago.
  10. Have students work in 5 separate groups analyzing 5 different sets of documents. 4 of them will be De Bry and a Smith picture cut up and placed in white envelopes. The 5th document will be a John Smith map.
  11. Students will have to piece together each picture and sort out the pieces of the Smith and De Bry pictures (the Smith pictures are black and white and the De Bry pictures are colored) Once they have reconstructed the two pictures of the same object, they will note what they see and the differences they see in the pictures.
  12. Next, students will regroup into groups that have one student from each Detective group to share their findings. They will add to their note sheets on the back to try to clarify who the Native Americans were.
  13. Have students head back to their regular seats and share out as a whole class.
  14. Lastly, share the historical facts about each illustrator and make sure the students understand that Smith was a primary source and De Bry was a secondary source, so he was never even in Maryland.


Pass out the exit card for the lesson about why it’s important for an archeologist to understand the artifacts they are looking at and why a primary source is better than a secondary source.


Curriculum and Outreach, Sultana Projects: Preservation through Education, http://www.sultanaprojects.org/outreach.htm