Mammy Kate Uses Her Head
Will the "Real" History Please Stand Up!
Writing “mock”primary sources
Historians rely on primary sources for "the truth" about an event. But primary sources are sometimes incomplete and contradictory. This lesson encourages students to assume the perspective of a person involved in an event and write from that person's point of view. When students have shared the pretend "primary sources" they have generated, they will understand why primary sources may offer contradictory or confusing information. The discussion following the writing assignment will provide insights about the difficulties of historical research.
The story, "Mammy Kate Uses Her Head," from The Tree that Owns Itself and Adventure Tales from Georgia’s Past (Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 1996)
Share the Mammy Kate story. Then cut apart and distribute the writing prompts below to individuals or groups of students, one prompt per person/group. Caution students against telling others about their prompt. Have the students respond to their prompt, either in class or as a homework assignment. (If the lesson is to be completed in class, assign a time-limit to the writing.)
Have students share their prompt and their writing.
After sharing, ask students what each of these writings would be called. (Answer: a Primary Source) Ask students which of these primary sources should be considered reliable? Encourage students to discuss why some of the writers might have lied, omitted, or distorted the truth. If the writer witnessed the event, will his/her primary source be more or less reliable? How about if the writer was emotionally involved in the event? Or if the person's fortune or future might have been affected by the event? Can any generalization be made about which type of primary source can be believed when there are contradictory accounts? (You may need to play "devil's advocate" to encourage a lively discussion.)
Extending the Lesson
Have students choose one historical event and research three primary sources for that event. (You will need to do a mini-lesson on finding primary sources. Your librarian will be invaluable in this lesson, and you might want to invite your librarian to be a guest speaker for your class before assigning the research.) Have the students present their findings to the class. Were the "facts" identical in all three primary sources? Encourage the students to speculate about why the information might be contradictory or incomplete.
You are a historian interviewing Mammy Kate's grandson. Write the oral interview you conduct, recording what he remembers his grandmother saying about this incident. Remember: Mammy Kate could neither read nor write.
You are a British officer in charge of the Fort Cornwallis prison. Write an official memo to General Brown explaining the disappearance of Stephen Heard. Remember: Your future in the military may depend on what you decide to include/omit in this memo.
You are a patriot who sheltered Stephen Heard and Mammy Kate after their escape from Fort Cornwallis. You fed them, provided them with fresh horses, and sent them on their way to the Heard home on Fishing Creek. Write a letter to your cousin Nathaniel, a patriot who lives in New England. Tell him about your important role in this episode.
You are a reporter for the official British newspaper in the colonies, The Tory Tattler. You have heard a rumor that a rebel sympathizer scheduled for hanging, named Stephen Heard, has escaped from Fort Cornwallis. Interview General Brown and the prison guards at the Fort to expose the truth for your readers.
You are an archaeologist searching through the remains of the Heardmont Estate after the big fire, and you find a charred scrap of paper containing only 50 words in Stephen Heard’s handwriting. The scrap appears to be a page from his journal concerning his famed escape from Fort Cornwallis. Write this fragment.
You are General Brown, and you are angry because you have just learned that a prized prisoner has somehow escaped from Fort Cornwallis. You surmise that his disappearance is linked to the negress who laundered your shirts. Write your journal entry.
You are a prominent American statesman, and you’ve been asked to contribute to a volume concerning "bravery under fire" a few years after the Revolutionary War. Write the first paragraph of your testimonial to either Stephen Heard or his maidservant.
You are a historian with an interest in the Revolutionary War in Georgia so you are well aware that Stephen Heard was scheduled for execution by the British who held him captive at Fort Cornwallis, and there are no official records explaining Heard's sudden reappearance in the ranks of the patriots. One day, while leafing through a collection of old nursery rhymes, you come upon a tantalizing children's verse which seems to recount an astonishing rescue of a soldier inside a laundry basket carried atop the head of his maidservant. Write that verse.
Some examples of writing generated by these prompts:
Reporter: Where was the guard when this happened?
General: Unfortunately, the guard was found unconscious and ill, with some unusual crumbs on his upper lip.
Reporter: Was there an accomplice to the crime?
General: Some say there was a band of runaway slaves lurking near the prison.
Reporter: My sources claim there was a mysterious laundry basket found in the woods.
General: I am aware of that piece of evidence. I can only speculate that Stephen Heard was a slave hater, and he murdered the poor negress who laundered for the men at the fort -- this negress, incidentally was as industrious and well-mannered a woman as any I have encountered in these colonies.
As I reflect upon incidents of "bravery under fire" that I encountered during the War for Independence, my mind is drawn to one who risked her life for my freedom, even though she herself had never drunk from that heady brew we call freedom. Our country's struggle can only be understood when we contemplate the price paid by such determined individuals, who loved freedom better than they loved life itself.
. . . conveyed to me that she had learned I was to be hanged two days hence. Her actions wordlessly demonstrated a plan she had devised, to carry me out of the Fort inside her laundry basket! I anxiously awaited her arrival the next day, unsure if such a daring scheme would prove workable . . .
My dear cousin Nathaniel,
What a day I have had! Remember my friend and fellow patriot, Stephen Heard? He has been held captive by the British under the most horrid conditions. We learned yesterday that his death had been ordered by the general in charge of the prison at Fort Cornwallis.
With the assistance of his childhood mammy, Stephen was able to escape from the Fort's prison. Unbeknownst to the the British, he was smuggled out in a laundry basket balanced on the head of this maidservant! Can you imagine the outrage of the British when they discover what happened to their prize captive?
Stephen and the maidservant have just left my cabin, where I was privileged to feed the fugitives and supply them with fresh horses. They are now on their way to the Heard estate at Fishing Creek.
It is my fervent wish that I could do more for our cause, but I am only a humble farmer. Today has….