Lesson One: Evaluating Primary Sources
In what year was Samuel Walker Houston born?
This lesson draws on the Samuel Walker Houston story, which is presented in the modules portion of this website. Here, teachers may find a collection of primary materials to use with students so that young people may draw their own conclusions about an interesting historical problem.
Background for Teachers
The date of Samuel Walker Houston's birth is unclear. His tombstone in Huntsville's Oakwood Cemetery provides a date of 1864, which historians Naomi Lede, Patricia Smith Prather, and Jane Clements Monday all support.
This date is controversial for a number of reasons. 1) Samuel Walker Houston was not listed with his family in the 1870 census. 2) When he was listed with the family in the 1880 census, Houston's family claimed that he was 11 years old. 3) Samuel Walker Houston listed his own date of birth as 1871 in Who's Who in Colored America for 1927. 4) In 1940, Houston signed an affidavit stating that he was born in 1874.
Historian Jeff Littlejohn argues that 1870-71 is the most likely date for Houston's birth. This would explain why he is not listed in the 1870 census; why he appears as 11 years-old in the 1880 census; and why he himself would claim the 1871 date at the height of his educational and social life. Furthermore, it seems to be supported by other facts. For instance, Houston enrolled as a pre-collegiate student at Atlanta University in 1887, and then entered as a freshman in 1888. This would make him seventeen or eighteen when he entered college as a freshman, which seems like the appropriate age given his family's background and educational connections.
Exercise for Students
1. Explain to the students that this is a brief exercise in which they will be responsible for evaluating and weighing contradictory primary sources about Samuel Walker Houston.
2. Place the students in groups of three and distribute the primary sources, which are available here a pdf file.
3. Ask the students to evaluate each source. When was it written? What is it? What does it tell you about Samuel Walker Houston? (Note: you may decide to remove one or more of the sources depending on the time you would like to devote to this exercise).
4. Ask the students if they find any contradictions in the sources?
5. Ask the students which sources they find most significant?
6. Finally, ask the students why the date of Samuel Walker Houston's birth would matter? Explain that if he was born in 1864, then that would place his birth one year after General Sam Houston's death, and one year before the end of the Civil War. If, however, he was born six years later, that would mean that he probably never attended Bishop Ward College, a school his father helped found, in Huntsville, Texas.
All primary sources for this exercise are available here a pdf file.