This curriculum unit uses several types of primary and secondary source material concerning the colonial period of New England to teach high school students about everyday life in early America. It describes a research program to investigate Puritan worldviews and beliefs about death and dying. The research program includes a study of New England gravestone carving and the use of imagery on the early gravestones found in Cape Cod, Massachusetts burying grounds. Using vital records of the colonial period for Cape Cod towns, connections are made between the information available from gravestones and human demographic trends in seventeenth century and eighteenth century Cape Cod.1 The source material used consists of:
1. Five hundred gravestones from seventeen of the earliest burying grounds at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and a set of eight hundred color photographs of these gravestones;
2. An extensive database of vital statistics on Cape Cod colonists assembled from the gravestone texts;
3. A collection of published monographs on gravestone iconography that includes numerous photographs of gravestones from throughout New England;
4. Published vital records for each Cape Cod town, compiled by the towns and by the Society of Mayflower Descendants;
5. The sermons of Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards, three prominent religious and spiritual leaders of the New England colonial period.
The unit is intended for use in two upper level science elective courses that I teach at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, Connecticut: Macy Honors Anatomy & Physiology, and Advanced Placement Environmental Science. Each course is limited to eighteen students, juniors and seniors. Aspects of this unit are applicable to younger students studying American history, American culture, or human geography. The unit has been developed through my participation in the 2003 Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute seminar, "Everyday Life in Early America," seminar leader John Demos (Yale University, Professor of American History and Professor of American Studies).
As with the curriculum units that I have developed in prior years of the Teachers Institute, this one emerges from some long-held interests of mine. I have been studying the colonial gravestones of Cape Cod since 1970, initially by enjoying the hobby of gravestone rubbing and shortly thereafter by beginning a more serious study of gravestones, using photography and comparative analysis of gravestone carving details. My life-long interest in the natural and human history of Cape Cod is reflected in previous curriculum units on archaeology at a tidal creek site in Wellfleet, Massachusetts and its implications for understanding technological change, and on Connecticut's freshwater wetlands, a unit drawing in part on the freshwater ecology on Cape Cod2. For many years, I also have had interest in colonial American history.
This curriculum unit differs from most of my previous Teachers Institute units in some important respects. A substantial portion of the narrative that follows is based on my own research into Cape Cod gravestones and gravestone symbolism. In that sense, the unit is most similar to my teaching unit on historical archaeology at the Duck Creek, Wellfleet, Massachusetts site. The narrative here sets the stage for the definition of a student research program that is intended not only to educate students about Puritan New England, but also to teach them how to conduct original research. In the process, students carry out a detailed community study to seek answers to questions on topics that perhaps have not been addressed by others. I envision the following outcomes from this student research project: (1) a comprehensive analysis of Cape Cod gravestones and iconography from the period 1683-1760; (2) the accumulation of information about specific sets of gravestones that likely were produced by the same carver; (3) the matching of these gravestones with published vital records for each Cape Cod town, which will suggest the percentage of individuals in the total population who were memorialized by gravestones; (4) a deeper understanding of human population demographics in colonial Cape Cod, including age structure, fertility rates and mortality; (5) as a future outgrowth of this unit, the correlation of mortality in Cape communities with known outbreaks of infectious disease in New England. (The last outcome listed requires additional work on my part to develop teaching and learning strategies for studying outbreaks of illness, epidemic, and endemic disease in New England.) I believe that the research program described here can be carried out by pre-college students, and with success. The unit serves as a test case for this approach to teaching and learning.