How Do We Know About Colonial Life

Document Analysis

Elementary, Middle School

Students will analyze an eighteenth-century inventory in order to learn more about how colonial Virginians lived.

Standards of Learning:
Virginia SOL: VS1.a; VS1.d; VS1.e; VS4.e; US1.1a; US1.1b; VUS.1a; English 4.5; English 5.6
National Standards of History: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Materials Needed for Activity:
Student Handout – Inventory of Thomas Holmes
Student Handout – Inventory Document Analysis Graphic Organizer
Student Handout – Comparing and Contrasting the Property of Thomas Holmes with Mine
Student Handout – Division of Thomas Holmes Estate (middle and high school extension activity)
Inventory Vocabulary List

Teacher Background:
By 1775 about 500,000 people lived in Virginia.  Many of these people lived on small farms of fewer than 200 acres.  The small farmer likely lived in a one or two room frame house and had one or more other wooden buildings or sheds on his land.  He may have owned one to three enslaved people. If he could not afford to buy and keep enslaved people of his own, he might have hired them from a neighbor to help during the growing season, or with especially large tasks that required additional workers.

A relatively small number of Virginians were wealthy planters who lived on large plantations with many enslaved people.  Another very small percentage (perhaps under 2%) lived in Virginia’s small towns, or cities like Williamsburg, Norfolk and Richmond. Residents of cities and towns included merchants, artisans, and other skilled and unskilled workers.

For more information, also see:
Colonial Life in Revolutionary Virginia essay

Students will work in pairs to analyze a document.

Step 1: Review with students the many ways we learn about the past. We study artifacts and primary documents such as journals, diaries, and drawings. Today the students will study a document to uncover clues about how people lived in colonial Virginia. Ask the students to think about documents from the past that they have seen. What can we tell about a period of history by examining a document?

Step 2: Divide the students into pairs and give each pair a copy of the Inventory of Thomas Holmes. Have the students read the document and identify any unfamiliar words.  Help students identify the meaning of each new word.  The Inventory Vocabulary List is provided to assist in this effort.  Students may also ask about the value of each item.  During this time, the English monetary system was still in use.  The British pound (denoted by £ on the inventory) was the basis of this system.  Pounds were broken down into smaller values. Twenty shillings (denoted by S on the inventory) made up one pound.  Twelve pence (denoted by D on the inventory) made up one shilling.

Step 3: After all pairs have had time to read and analyze the document, distribute copies of the Inventory Document Analysis Graphic Organizer. Ask each pair to complete the graphic organizer using the information gained from the document and their discussion.

Step 4: After students have completed the graphic organizer, discuss their answers and observations. What did they learn about life in colonial Virginia from studying the document?

Note:  While little is known about Thomas Holmes, it appears from the inventory that he was a small farmer.  He owned a house and a separate parcel of land.  He owned two enslaved people and some livestock.  Some activities suggested by the inventory are flax processing, spinning, cooking, eating, sleeping, ironing, and grinding corn.  Note the kinds of furniture the family owned and compare this with today.

Summary Activity:
Students will draw and complete a Venn diagram comparing the Thomas Holmes inventory with a partial inventory of their home and belongings.  Use the Comparing and Contrasting the Property of Thomas Holmes with Mine diagram for this activity.
What items are the same?  What items are different? How does this help us understand life in colonial Virginia? How is life in Virginia different today?

Upper Elementary / Middle School Extension Activity:
Hand out the Division of Thomas Holmes Estate, and have students read and analyze the document.   Discuss the following:
• How was the property of Thomas Holmes divided between John Moss and James Stevens?  What considerations seem to have been taken into account?
• Why do you think Mr. Moss had to pay Mr. Stevens the difference?

Other Helpful Resources:
These books provide excellent visuals for the students:

Kalman, Bobbie.  The Kitchen.  New York: Crabtree, 1993

Kalman, Bobbie.  Home Crafts.  New York: Crabtree, 1993

Kalman, Bobbie.  Tools and Gadgets.  New York: Crabtree, 1992
Lesson plans made possible by Archibald Andrews Marks.