This post was authored by Public History student Zoe Olesker.
As the public programming intern at the Michigan Maritime Museum, much of my time is focused on education for our younger attendees. In public history, education is all about making history important and meaningful to kids through application at the site and beyond.
Why is place-based history education so crucial at the Michigan Maritime Museum? I’m glad you asked.
1. The Importance of Local History
During the second week of my internship, I observed and assisted with a field trip education program for local 3rd-5th graders at our museum. We taught a two-part lesson with one section in our learning center covering the fur trade in the early 19th-century Great Lakes region and the other section learning from the captain and crew about our replica top sail merchant sloop, Friends Good Will, which was sunk during the War of 1812. Kids were exposed to maps, furs, politics, and sailing, which ignited their interest in history through interaction with history. This dipped my toes into museum education, but more than that, it taught me why teaching kids about maritime history on the Great Lakes matters.
This program on the fur trade and Friends Good Will focused first on the importance of water to the region. An 1812 map of the Great Lakes region by Thomas Kensett, which we studied in the first portion, includes highly detailed and fairly accurate mapping of the Great Lakes and surrounding waterways. Students are asked why the water is so detailed and accurate while the land is misshapen in areas. (The Upper Peninsula is almost unrecognizable, and the Michigan mitten looks more like a sock.) They arrive to the conclusion that the water was the road. In the untamed Great Lakes region, water was how people, merchant goods, war supplies, and religion moved. Merchants, soldiers, and missionaries relied on the Great Lakes to get them inland and their subsequent rivers to traverse even farther. It was impossible to travel between Lakes Ontario and Erie until the creation of the Erie and Welland Canals, which skirted around the impassable Niagra Falls. After this, people flooded into Michigan for its resources, including land, timber, and fur. Many groups wanted control of the Great Lakes region, sure, but not just that: the group that controlled the Great Lakes had access and control of the Western territories, still unexplored and unsettled by Europeans. All these groups were vying for this territory, but this land was already occupied…
2. Exposure to Indigenous History
We ask our children in this program who was fighting for this land during the War of 1812. Kids emphatically and consistently list the British who were back again after the Revolutionary War trying to claim their parcels in what would become Canada and hoping for more of what would become the United States. They know Native Americans were in this land. With some prompting, they remember the French, also in soon-to-be Canada but more present around the Great Lakes as soldiers, fur traders, and missionaries. They often forget Americans, which earns a class-wide laugh upon realization. With so much focus on European settlers, Native American tribes are too quickly forgotten in the teaching of the War of 1812. History and victories are often uglier than we like to remember and speak about.
Michigan is unique in that indigenous history is required in social studies standards beginning in the third grade with special emphasis in fifth through seventh grade. Our field trips included third through fifth graders, meaning our inclusion of Native American history in this iteration is introductory to be developmentally and intellectually appropriate for children. We teach that Native American tribes were prominent groups on this land during the War of 1812. So important, in fact, that tribes are listed on Kensett’s 1812 map of the region. Native Americans were already residents here when Europeans and Americans came to “discover” and “settle” the land for themselves. We teach that they were active in the fur trade and taught early European traders (especially the French, who initially arrived in small numbers) traditional practices for trapping, stretching, and drying furs as well as birchbark canoe-building. Finally, we state that through the settlement of Europeans and Americans in the region, indigenous populations were displaced.
When it comes to teaching kids about tough topics in American history, such as war, displacement, and erasure around the Great Lakes, we must find a balance between our honesty and their readiness. Indigenous history is fundamental to telling American history, and we have the responsibility and opportunity as public historians to tell the whole story. Place-based learning with indigenous history helps students gain foundational knowledge and make connections for future understanding and advocacy. Beginning the process of critical thinking and inquiry is perhaps the most important aspect of teaching young students.
3. Care for the World Around Them
In addition to teaching kids about the history and people of the Great Lakes, maritime history also teaches kids how to love their lakes and other natural resources. History and environment often overlap, especially in a place-based field like public history. The water is just twenty feet beyond the learning center, after all. Interpreting maritime history for young audiences fosters their inborn care for the world around them. This includes people, certainly, as demonstrated by children whispering about how unfair it was to remove Native American inhabitants during the fur trade lesson. Care for the community also extends, naturally, to the environment around children.
In the fur trade lesson, The Lorax came up multiple times as a cautionary tale of exploiting our natural resources. Kids looked at our table full of pelts – fox, coyote, raccoon, beaver, rabbit, and ermine, to name a few – and asked, in multiple sessions, how we gained our collection of pelts. We explained that a local trapper harvested them ethically and that today there are many regulations on the number of hunters and hunted animals there can be each season. We also demonstrate how to interact with the pelts properly so we can keep them for a long time and replace them less often. We talk about the depletion of animal populations and fur farms in our presentation, using the example of Michigan skunk farming in the early 20th century. Fur farms became a substitute, but eventually became obsolete with modern concern for animal welfare.
Another example of fostering care for the environment is a story walk I participated in at another historical organization. The Bailey Museum and Gardens hosts a summer program where one organization each week selects a book and accompanying activity for the community’s children. The book we selected was The Day the Great Lakes Drained Away, a children’s book on what would happen if too many people took a little too much from the Great Lakes. The book includes illustrations of the former Great Lakes with deep, dry valleys full of ships, discarded and lost objects, and new forms of transportation and tourism.
I lead an accompanying “Will it sink or float?” activity in which I taught the children about what buoyancy is and why it matters for boats, using our Friends Good Will as an example for the weight distribution of cargo to remain buoyant. The book prompted the kids to think not only about buoyancy and sunken objects but also about caring for our natural environment. The kids (and their parents and grandparents) were challenged to think about how they interact with the water and how we ought to interact with the water.
Maritime history doesn’t shy away from tough topics like war, erasure, and environmental stewardship. It fosters young students’ understanding and care for the history and world around them. Teaching history in place-based museums like the Michigan Maritime Museums helps students to understand and see the role of people in the places around them, both in the past and present, to help them move into the future as knowledgeable and compassionate citizens of their community and world.