HOME: The Story of Maine

"They Came By Sea"
Lesson 2: Maine’s Merchant Marines

For use with Classroom Module 2


Guiding Principles:

1. A Clear and Effective Communicator

  • Uses oral, written, visual, artistic, and technological modes of expression.
  • Reads, listens to, and interprets messages from multiple sources.

    SOCIAL STUDIES: History: Historical Inquiry, Analysis, and Interpretation

  • Students will learn to evaluate resource material such as documents, artifacts, maps, artworks, and literature, and to make judgments about the perspectives of the authors and their credibility when interpreting current historical events. Students will be able to:

    Middle Grades 5-8: Formulate historical questions based on examination of primary and secondary sources including documents, eyewitness accounts, letters and diaries, artifacts, real or simulated historical sites, charts, graphs, diagrams, and written texts.

  • Students will:

    • Experience the cramped quarters of a cabin aboard ship.
    • Read and/or listen to excerpts from primary sources (diaries, letters, writings) describing life at sea, primarily from the perspectives of women and children on board ship.
    • Discuss how methods of trade and transport have changed since the era of the sailing ship.
    • Write a letter to Joanna Colcord or Alice Drinkwater that shows an understanding of the experience of being aboard ship, and asks further historical questions about the experience.
    Background Information:

    Maine was a cosmopolitan place in the mid-nineteenth century. It was one of the centers of shipbuilding in the U.S., and its small towns supplied a large number of sailors, officers, and ship’s captains. These captains would often bring their wives and children aboard. In this activity, students learn a bit about what it might have been like to travel aboard ship.
    One-two class periods
    • Cleared space in the classroom (or elsewhere) to simulate the quarters aboard ship.
    • Tape or desks to mark off the dimensions of the quarters
    • Yardsticks and/or tape measures
    • Paper and pens
    • Excerpts from writings by Joanna Colcord and Alice Drinkwater
    1. View the video with the class. Discuss the travel at sea. Tell students they will have a chance to get a feel for what this might have been like.
    2. Give students the following information:
      • Exact cabin sizes varied. Joanna Colcord, a native of Searsport, traveled overseas with her family very often. On one trip in 1899 aboard the State of Maine, she wrote a letter to her brother Lincoln describing her cabin. The berth was 3 ft. by 6 ft. and the cabin was 8 ft. by 5.5 ft. She had a small amount of shelf space at the head of the berth.
      • On the State of Maine, the entire captain’s cabin measured about 20 ft. by 24 ft. This space included the captain’s stateroom, a spare stateroom, Joanna’s room, a saloon, a chronometer room, and a bathroom (with a leaky bathtub).
      • There was some storage space in lockers, and beneath bunks and settees. When they were at sea, all knick-knacks that could be dislodged by the rolling waves were stowed away. At port, though, pictures and ornaments were displayed, and carpets were put down.
      • Captain’s cabins were usually very well decorated, with ground glass, fine woods, and intricate carvings.
    3. Find a place that is wide enough for students to measure out the dimensions of the captain’s cabin and Joanna’s room. Have students mark off the dimensions on the floor with masking tape. If you like, mark off approximate divisions for the captain’s stateroom, the bathroom, the saloon, the spare stateroom, and the chronometer room.
    4. Ask students to stand within the space they have marked off. Have them explore it—how big are the rooms? The bunks? The storage space? How does the space compare to their own rooms in their own homes? What could they fit in this space? Remind them that children going to sea had to pack lightly, because there was not much room, and not much storage space for unnecessary items. But trips could last from six months to a year. While they are still standing or sitting in the "cabin," have students make a list of items of their own that they would bring on a year-long trip from Maine to China and back. What would they bring? Why? Ask some students to share their answers.
    5. As students sit within their quarters, read to them some of the excerpts of "Domestic Life on American Sailing Ships," "Childhood at Sea," and A Seafaring Legacy. When you have finished reading, tell students they may get up and return to their seats. Discuss the experience with students. Ask them to share their observations and feelings about what life aboard ship must have been like.
      • What would the difficulties have been? The advantages?
      • Would they have preferred staying at home while their father went to sea?
      • Where would they have liked to travel?
      • How has international travel and trade changed since the era of the sailing ship?
      • What did the writings of Joanna Colcord and Alice Drinkwater help them understand? What else would they like to know?
      • How do primary sources like the writings—letters, diaries, first-hand accounts—help us understand history? What limitations do they have?
      • Come up with a list of questions that were raised or left unanswered by the writings. Write the list on the board.
    6. Have students to write a letter to either Joanna Colcord or Alice Drinkwater. Their letter should summarize what they learned from their writings, and should list 1-3 questions that were raised by their writings. Grade students according to the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of their work, using a check system (check plus, check, or check minus).
    • Have students research one of the historical questions they rose in their letter, and write a report, detailing the information they found.
    • Study the China trade with students. What kinds of cargo did American merchant marines bring over to China? What kinds of cargo did they bring back?
    • Teach students sea shanties. A good source is Songs of American Sailormen, by Joanna Colcord. Learn the vocabulary of the songs, and have students pretend to haul a yardarm during the choruses.
    Thanks to John Arrison at Penobscot Marine Museum for help in designing this lesson plan.

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