PRIMARY DOCUMENTS: THE 1906 SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE
Background, Activities and Critical Analysis
Doug DuBrin, an English and history teacher as well as an editor and writer
Time: 2-3 class periods, plus extended activities
Overview: Through this lesson, the student will come to understand
the significance of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake through the study
of primary documents. The student will also apply his/her research skills
to the study of primary documents from various other key historical events.
these lesson plans better
to National Standards
2. Links to first-hand accounts
3. Procedures (provided below)
4. Extension activity links and explanations (provided below)
The 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire is
April 18. The quake and the resulting fires were one of the most devastating
natural disasters in United States history. Recent estimates place the
death toll from the quake at close to 3,000, far more than the original
tally of around 300. The physical devastation to the city itself was immeasurable,
in great part due to the lack of structural reinforcements that we take
for granted today. Yet, like most events of sweeping adversity (such as
Hurricane Katrina or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001), the people
of San Francisco galvanized support for each other and from the outside
and found ways to rebuild one of the country's most beloved cities.
1. In order
to gain a thorough understanding of the scope and impact of the disaster,
have the students prior to the lesson carefully read the background articles
2. Copy and randomly distribute to each member of the class a different
firsthand account (there are 32 provided in the link above).
3. Divide the class into groups of 3-4 students each.
4. Have each student read an account out loud to the other group members,
while attempting to capture the mood and tone of the piece as it was written.
For example, if the narrative is describing the horrible destruction of
the quake and resulting fire, insist that the tone of the reading reflects
it (i.e., the student should not be laughing while reading, but rather
projecting a somber mood).
5. Once each student has completed reading the narratives aloud, have
the groups critically examine the texts by answering the following:
- What commonalties
did you find in the content of the narratives? In other words, what
are the shared memories of the experience?
- Why might
certain memories stand out more than others? What might cause a person
to vividly remember the color of a lamp shattered by the quake when
he/she would not ordinarily recall such a detail?
- How might
you identify the mood of the narratives? Are they all necessarily dark?
Could there be a sense of relief due to the simple fact of having survived?
When recounting separate parts of the disaster, does the mood change
within the individual narrative itself? If so, why might that be?
as a class to discuss the overall role and value of firsthand historical
accounts. To guide the discussion, you may wish to ask the following:
- In what
ways do personal narratives enrich our study of history? What do they
provide that objective, analytical accounts of historical events do
- In what
ways are personal narratives limiting in their view of history? What
do they lack as far as enriching our understanding of historical events?
- How trustworthy
are the firsthand accounts of historical events? What individual biases
or external influences could get in the way of "truthful"
- How does
the age, gender or social status of the eyewitness influence the way
in which he/she views the disaster?
- Does the
media today rely on firsthand accounts of events to report the news?
Are reporters themselves discouraged from expressing their own opinions?
In what ways does the news coverage of major events differ between television
reporting and print media?
Activity I: Analyzing other primary documents
For a follow-up
activity, the procedures above can be applied to the study of firsthand
accounts of other seminal events (besides the 1906 San Francisco earthquake)
in American history. Included below are useful links to various other
Activity II: Creating an eyewitness account of history
students imagine they are witness to, or taking part in, a major historical
event from the past -- a natural disaster, a revolution, a major election,
a significant sporting event, a military operation, etc. Then have them
compose a firsthand account of the event, one that attempts to truthfully
capture the detail that is often lost in "objective" historical
writings. The following question should be helpful:
- What significant
historical event am I witnessing?
am I specifically and what exactly am I doing at this point?
- Am I an
outside observer to the event or am I directly involved in it?
- With whom
am I interacting and in what situations?
- What are
my specific feelings about the event I am witnessing?
- What thoughts
do I have about the importance of the event as I witness it? Is there
anything I am noticing that would foretell its significance?
- What details
stand out? What normally inconsequential occurrences have now become
significant? In other words, what are my senses telling me to remember?
- What was
the experience like as a whole? What conclusions might I draw based
on my observations of the events as they unfolded? What would I want
future readers of my account to know?
to National Standards
For detailed explanations, please consult
2: Time, Continuity and Change
Standard 3: People, Places and Environments
Standard 4: Individual Development and Identity
Standard 5: Individuals, Groups and Institutions
Standard 10: Civic Ideals and Practices
Standard 3: Civics and Government
Doug DuBrin teaches and writes outside of Chicago.
find out more about opportunities to contribute to this site, contact
Leah Clapman at firstname.lastname@example.org.