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Studying History Through Objects

created Feb 25, 2016 01:58 PM

by Daniel Lynch, Daniel Diaz, and Emma Hipolito, UCLA Public History Initiative & History-Geography Project

The settlement of the American West is rarely taught in the context of the Civil War era. Typically, US history textbooks and teachers follow a Manifest-Destiny, Civil War-Reconstruction, industrialization chronology that addresses the West in terms of the Mexican-American War and Gold Rush but then largely ignores the region until the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. Historians have recently challenged this traditional approach by pointing out the powerful ways in which the stories of US westward expansion and the Civil War intertwine. The debate over slavery in the West put the North and South on a collision course and, following the South’s defeat, the Union war machine redirected its attention to consolidating US power in the West. The diverse people of the West also played important roles during the war itself, supporting the Union or Confederacy or taking advantage of the chaos of the conflict to shore-up their own autonomy.

The West was placed front and center in “Teaching the Civil War and the American West,” hosted by the Huntington Library and co-managed by Daniel Diaz, the Associate Director of the UCLA History-Geography Project, and Daniel Lynch, the UCLA Public History Initiative K-12 Outreach Coordinator. Middle and high school social studies teachers who participated in this summer program were presented with eight core objects featured in the Autry National Center’s exhibit, “Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West.” The list includes objects traditionally associated with the Civil War West, such as a breech-loading “Beecher’s Bible” rifle used by free-soil fighters in Bleeding Kansas, to more unconventional objects that can help us understand the war’s relevance to the diverse peoples of the West, like a US-flag textile woven by the wife of a Navajo chief who had endured forced relocation by Union forces. Participants toured the exhibit, experienced model curriculum, designed lessons that addressed Common Core and California content standards as well as the new AP US History framework, and interacted with historians who discussed the provenance and significance of the objects.

Yale Professor John Mack Faragher’s, presentation on the Frémont expedition flag is an example of the type of content shared in the summer program. Jesse Benton Frémont hand-stitched this flag that her husband, John C. Frémont, took across the continental divide in the early 1840s. The eagle on the flag holds a peace pipe in one claw and a set of arrows in the other, a mixed message to western Native Americans that implied the possibility of liberty as well as the threat of empire. The Frémonts also embodied the contradictions of empire and liberty during the Civil War by pushing for the use of force to liberate southern slaves long before President Lincoln got behind the idea.

While planning this program, we grappled with a pedagogical question: How do we encourage students to analyze objects in ways that will enhance their understanding of the past? While political cartoons and other more traditional visual sources are often created with clear messages in mind, objects such as a slave receipt or a saber need to be contextualized in order for students to begin to grasp their significance. In an effort to support the use of objects as sources in the classroom, we developed a tool that we called “Analyzing Historical Objects” As with traditional approaches to textual analysis, our analysis tool first asks when and by whom was the object created. It then asks students to consider the object’s historical context, what purpose the object most likely served, and finally, how was the object made. By exploring objects in this way, students can gain a nuanced understanding of a particular subject, such as the intertwined histories of the Civil War and the West. 

Analyzing Historical Objects


  • Object name?
  • Who made the object?
  • Where and when was the object made?
  • What important historical events were going on when the object was made?
  • How was the object made?
  • What material(s) is the object made from?


  • Evaluate the Object: Describe the Object’s appearance. What stands out to you in terms of style, design, decoration, symbols, etc.? How do you think the object would compare to similar objects from the same time period?
  • Consider the Purpose: Who might have used the object? In what ways could they have used it?
  • Assess the Significance: How does the object help us better understand the history of the time? Why should we care about this object? Can you name an item that serves a similar purpose today?

To support teachers’ lesson development, Teacher Leader Margie Billings of Rosemont Middle School, modeled a lesson that focused on objects related to the experiences of Chinese immigrants who helped build the first transcontinental railroad. One of our participants, Monique Garcia from El Sereno Middle School, developed a lesson that asks “Why did Native Americans choose to fight in the Civil War?” Students analyze the Bowie Knife of the Cherokee Confederate Stand Watie (one of the eight core objects) alongside more traditional sources such as letters written by the pro-Union Cherokee leader John Ross.

Core Objects from “Teaching the Civil War and the American West”

  • “Beecher’s Bible” (a breech-loading rifle)
  • A Texas slave receipt
  • “The Frémont expedition Flag”
  • Stand Waite’s Bowie Knife 
  • A saber belonging to Juan de la Guerra of the Union Native California Cavalry
  • US-flag textile woven by Juanita Manuelito, the wife of a Navajo chief
  • Electric steer horn lamp engraved with images of US troops fighting Confederates as well as western Indians
  • American Progress, by John Gast

Unfortunately, the exhibit at the Autry has already closed; however, you can pick up the exhibit catalog Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and West to learn more about this important period in the history of the United States. The stories behind these core objects are truly fascinating and would be of high interest to students.

Image: Frémont expedition flag, c. 1841-42. Image courtesy of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian Collection, Autry National Center, Los Angeles, Photo 81.G.5A. Click here to watch institute co-manager Daniel Lynch describe the Frémont flag’s links to the themes of empire and liberty.

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