Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Ordinary Citizens Create History
Diane Haywood
American History
Time Frame:
1 to 2 classroom hours and document creation time
Civil War

Grade Levels:
9, 10, 11, 12

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • The students will receive a copy of Margaret Hays’ letter Number 35, and will read, interpret and answer questions.  The class will discuss individual interpretations.  This may be done in small groups or as a class unit.  Following discussion, each student will create an e mail, blog entry or personal letter to the audience of choice and write a modern equivalent of the primary source used.  The student creation must include both typical lifestyle events and current events of local, state, national and international interest.  The current events must have personal opinion of the author expressed in the document.


This lesson will allow students to participate in history within the context of an ordinary person (Margaret Hays) and then create history with the student becoming the primary source for events they are witnessing.  Hopefully, the lesson will help build a connection to the past and encourage more participation in civic policy and interest in current events.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

  • Missouri Show Me Standards Goal 1 SS 7, Goal 2 SS2 and SS7
  • Missouri Grade Level Expectations, Government 9-12:1a, 2ab, 7

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Teacher lecture of Civil War events on Missouri/Kansas border in 1850s or
  • American History text book of choice with readings on Missouri/Kansas border
  • Kansas Nebraska Act and how it changed the Missouri Compromise

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

Full description of activity or assignment.


The teacher needs to introduce or revisit the material leading to the Civil War (Mo Compromise, Kansas Nebraska Act, Kansas Missouri border disputes). 

  • Vocabulary students need to be familiar with include: popular sovereignty, free soilers, bushwhackers, jayhawkers
  • Students will then read and analyze the letter, complete the worksheet and share ideas and interpretations with the class in a discussion format.
  • Following class discussion, each student will pretend to be living at a distance from family and will compose an e mail, letter or blog to the absent family member.  The student creation must include personal daily life details, personal opinion and descriptions of current political and social events.

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:



You must create an e mail, blog entry or personal letter to a friend or family member you do not see on a regular basis.  Your written document must contain daily events of a personal nature (typical events of an American teen’s life) and local, state, national and international current events including your opinions and reactions to the events you are witnessing in history.  Your document is worth 20 points and is due on _______________________________.  For each day your document is late, two points will be deducted from your final score.

Student created an e mail, blog entry or personal letter(style of your document must match name of document)                                                                             .                               3 points

Document contains daily life events.                                                       2points

Document contains current events                          local events        2 points

                                                                                                state events       2 points

                                                                                         national events        2 points

                                                                                international events       2 points

All events have a personal connection or commentary.                  2 points

All events have details included-more than a passing mention.  6 points

Document has correct spelling and grammar.                                      1 point

Document is printed out to be graded or handwritten in ink.       1 point

Document style is realistic                                                                            2 points

2 point deduction for each day late.

  • The lesson will be assessed by completion of the attached document interpretation and question worksheet, participation in class discussion and the student created e mail, blog entry or personal letter.  Worksheet and scoring guide attached.

Watts Hays Letter Worksheet


What type of document is this?     Chart _____ Speech _____ Letter _____ Report _____ Telegram_____

                                                                Statement _____ Diary Excerpt _____ Advertisement _____

Document date (s) _____  Where was it written or created? ____________________

Author __________________ Author’s status or title _______________

For what person is the document intended? _____________________________________________

Why was the document created? ______________________________________________________

Does the author state any opinions? __________ 

Are the Hays family Northern or Southern sympathizers?  How do you know?


What is Mr. Hays’ current occupation?

Why does Margaret claim the newspapers are wrong in what they report?


What did Jayhawkers do to the Hays household on November 20?

How do you know Margaret lied to the Jayhawkers?

How do you know the ninety five Jayhawkers had no plans to harm Margaret or her friend, Mary?


Why did not all of the family belongings get destroyed in the fire?


Why couldn’t Margaret take her salvaged belongings to her friends and neighbors?


Who is Andy?                      Why did you come to this conclusion?


What events in the letter show Jayhawks in an unflattering or “evil” light?



What personal fear does Margaret express to her parents?



What questions are left unanswered by the letter?  What else would you like to know?



What concerns would a citizen have in a border area such as Westport, MO? (modern day Kansas City)



What should the state or national government legal response to events be?


How might a family member respond to this letter?


If you were Margaret, what would you have done? Consider transportation and communication of the time period.




Can you think of other people who have been or currently are confronted with similar events?