Think Like a Historian: A Viewing Guide

Essential Question

How do historians investigate a historical event?
What can we learn from a detective’s investigations about the research process?


Use this lesson to help students deconstruct an episode of “History Detectives: Special Investigations.” The “Viewing Guide” allows students to map out the steps that the History Detectives follow to investigate a particular historical event, then examine what it can teach them about their own research process.

Note: This is a model lesson that focuses on “History Detectives Special Investigations: Civil War Sabotage,” but educators can use these materials with any of the HDSI episodes.

Suggested Grade Level

This lesson is written for grades 9-12, but can be adapted for use in grades 6-8, as well. For middle school grades, the “Viewing Guide” reproducible can be adapted by reducing the number of clues students analyze in detail and/or writing in the Detective, Question, Resource Name and any other fields to reduce the information students are responsible for filling out.


Estimated Time Required

2 class periods

Related Episode: History Detectives Special Investigations: Civil War Sabotage?

 Students watch an HDSI episode about the worst maritime disaster in United States history, the explosion of the Sultana steamboat in 1865.

Episode Summary

It was April of 1865. The Civil War was newly ended, and steamboats were regularly traveling up the Mississippi River to take soldiers back to their homes. Many prisoners traveled home by way of the Mississippi River, on large steamboats. The Sultana was one such steamboat. It set on its course through a country ravaged by years of war and a populace tense and fatigued from years of fighting. The Sultana, left Vicksburg on April 24 to carry soldiers up to Cairo, Illinois. Tragically, just three days later, the boat caught fire and more than 2000 passengers had an impossible choice to make: burn to death on the boat or jump overboard and risk drowning. More than 1800 people died that day, but to this day, no one knows conclusively what caused the explosion. Was it an accident? Or was it an act of sabotage, one final blow struck by the Confederacy against the Union? History Detectives Wes Cowan, Tukufu Zuberi, and Kaiama Glover set out to solve the mystery.

Set Up

  • Make photocopies of the “History Detectives Special Investigations: Viewing Guide” reproducible.
  • Make additional copies of the “Conducting the Investigation” graphic organizers (in the viewing guide) as needed. These graphic organizers were designed so you can customize the extent of the note-taking you want your class to do. Make one copy so students focus in detail on a few clues. Or make multiple copies so students follow the broad path of the entire investigation. The decision is up to you.


Ask students to discuss in small groups or do a free-write in response to the question: How do you solve a mystery?  

Then lead a whole-class discussion about how to solve a mystery: Investigators have a question that they would like to answer. They also have some observations and some preliminary evidence. With that in hand, they go in search of evidence and start collecting clues. They then use each piece of evidence to find other clues, ultimately following a string of individual bits of information to solve the mystery. Explain to students that historians investigate the events of history in a similar manner: they collect evidence, make observations and inferences, and arrive at conclusions which are the best possible answers that they can about an event in question.

Activate Prior Knowledge

Explain to the class that they will be watching an episode of “History Detectives Special Investigations” in order to dissect how historians investigate a historical mystery. They will be completing a Viewing Guide for the episode to unpack how the History Detectives approached the investigation process.

Before watching the episode, activate prior knowledge about the topic at hand. In the case of the Sultana episode, lead a discussion about the Civil War:

  • What was the Civil War?  (War between Northern states, which were in favor of abolition and federalism, and Southern states, which were in favor of slavery and states’ rights; lasted from 1861-1865; the North was known as the Union and the South was known as the Confederacy)
  • Who were the major figures in the Civil War? (President Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States and fighting to keep the country united; Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy and fighting for the right of the South to secede; Ulysses S. Grant, General of the Union Army; Robert E. Lee, General of the Confederate Army; John Wilkes Booth, assassinated Lincoln on April 14, 1865; President Andrew Johnson, succeeds Lincoln after his assassination)
  • What were the effects of the Civil War? (Over 600,000 people died, leaving many families without fathers and brothers and in dire economic straits; Reconstruction, the effort to bring the South back into the Union and to rebuild it; Slaves were all freed, due to the Emancipation Proclamation and Amendment 13; South begins implementing Jim Crow laws to “legally” discriminate against Black Americans)

Deconstruct an Episode of HDSI

Watch an episode of “History Detectives: Special Investigation” together as a class, in full or select excerpts as desired. Alternatively, you could have students watch the episode as a homework assignment and respond to the questions in the Viewing Guide.

The Viewing Guide will examine the protocol followed by history detectives:

  1. Question: What is the investigation question? What does the History Detective want to find out?
  2. Source: What kinds of sources does the History Detective examine?  Is it expert testimony/opinion, physical evidence, a document: primary or secondary? What evidence (or clue) does it reveal?
  3. Analyze the Evidence using the 3C’s and an S approach from Stanford University’s “Reading like a Historian”
    1. Sourcing: Who made this source? When did they make it?
    2. Contextualizing: Why was this source made? What historical events contributed to its making?
    3. Close Examination: What does this source tell us? What clues does it reveal? What does it tell us about the historical era in general?
    4. Corroborating: Do other sources confirm or contest what this resource tells us? What discrepancies, if any, are there?
    5. Further Investigation: What questions does this source leave unanswered?

Using the Viewing Guide to Deconstruct an Investigation

HDSI episodes follow a similar narrative structure. They introduce the investigation question and then bring in the three detectives to discuss it, then determine which path of inquiry they wish to pursue. Thereafter, each detective pursues a path of investigation to collect as much evidence he or she can until eventually they all come together to arrive at a new understanding of the mystery at hand.

 As students watch the episode, pause or instruct them to pause the video periodically to answer questions on the Viewing Guide Reproducible and to take notes on the Conducting the Investigation Graphic organizer regarding the sources pursued and evidence uncovered by the History Detectives uncover.

Part 1: Background Questions

  • What historical event is the team investigating?
  • Every good investigation begins with a clear, concise question. What question or questions does the team set out to answer?
  • With their questions in place, the team makes a plan. What paths of inquiry will the team follow?  HDSI episodes follow a similar narrative structure. They introduce the investigation question and then bring in the three detectives to discuss it, then determine which path of inquiry they wish to pursue. Be sure to stop the episode at this point so that students can fill out the relevant chart.

In the case of the Sultana episode, that would be:


History Detective

Path of Inquiry

Type of Research


Interview Sultana Survivors Association

Interview an expert


Visit the site of the wreck

Examine physical evidence


Research in archive

Analyze primary source documents




Part 2: Conducting the Investigation

After Wes and Tukufu meet with members of the Sultana Survivors Association, fill out the first chart under “Conducting the Investigation” together as a class. Consult the “Teacher’s Guide: Annotated Viewing Guide” for examples of how to fill in the chart.

Part 3: Chart the Investigation

As you continue to watch the episode, periodically pause to give students an opportunity to take notes on the sources and evidence (or clues) pursued by the History Detectives. You have two options for documenting the investigation. Students can continue to use the detailed chart they used in Part 2, analyzing a select number of clues in detail. Or they can use the simplified chart titled “Charting the Investigation” and detail the name of the detective, the source, the source type, and the evidence or conclusion. Make an appropriate number of photocopies of these pages based on your decision.

Part 4: Summary and Conclusions

After students have viewed the episode, ask them to answer the questions under “Summary and Conclusions” and then lead a conversation about those answers.

Apply Learning

After students have viewed and dissected the episode, lead a discussion about how students can apply what they learned by engaging in this close viewing to their own historical research. Ask:

  • What did you learn about conducting historical investigations from watching the Sultana investigation and completing this viewing guide?
  • What tools can you use when investigating a historical event? What processes?
  • What makes one clue more trustworthy than another?  How can you reach a conclusion when you have more than one plausible explanation for an event?
  • What do you do when there are no definitive answers? Does this mean an investigation was a failure?

Extension Ideas

Have students use the same process and viewing guide to watch another episode of “History Detectives: Special Investigations” or a fictional TV procedural (“Law and Order,” “Cold Case,” etc), or a mystery novel. Invite them to consider how that particular mystery  is similar or different than the Sultana investigation. What can we learn from these investigations that we can apply to a historical research project?

More on History Detectives

You may also wish to teach this lesson using the following episodes of HDSI:

Episode: Who Killed Jimmy Hoffa?

Episode: Texas Servant Girl Murders

Episode: The Disappearance of Glenn Miller