Death and Dying in Two Mid-Nineteenth Century Communities

Students will use the Valley of the Shadow newspaper abstract search page to explore causes of death in the late 1850s and early 1860s.

Instructional Objectives
Materials, Equipment, and Student Background Required
Historical Background
Follow-up, Extension, and Assessment

Instructional Objectives

National History Standards

Virginia Standards of Learning

  • C/T8.4 The student will use search strategies to retrieve electronic information.
  • 11.17 Students will develop skills in historical analysis, including the ability to analyze documents, records, and data, formulate historical questions and defend findings based on inquiry and interpretation, and communicate findings orally, in brief analytical essays, and in a comprehensive paper.

National Council for the Social Studies

  • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    • a. Students will systematically employ processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and reinterpret the past, such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, and searching for causality.

Materials, setting, and student background required

In this activity, each team of two to four students will need a computer with internet access. Students should know how to establish an on-line connection (if necessary), and they should have experience using an internet browser such as Netscape or Intern et Explorer. In particular, they should be familiar with a browser's "find" function.

Post the URL for the student activity page in a prominent place: /teaching/vclassroom/deathwksht.html

Students should understand the difference between an abstract of an article and a transcription of an article. (For the most part, students will be reading abstracts.)

No paper handouts are necessary, but teachers may find it practical to print, copy, and distribute the student activity sheet in advance.

Students should have paper and pen or pencil with them while they work at their computers.

IMPORTANT: Students may inadvertently come across inflammatory racial rhetoric as they search the newspapers. Teachers should discuss this issue with their students in advance, and they should be prepared to handle situations that may arise when students confront these articles.

Historical Background

Death was a more constant presence in the mid-nineteenth century than it is today. Most places lacked reliably clean drinking water, and antibiotics were unheard of. Fire was a common threat, because wood or coal stoves or open fire places heated people 's homes and cooked their food.


Brief students on background material as necessary.

Divide class into four groups. Each group will search a different newspaper. Further divide each group into teams of 2-4 students each. Each team must have its own computer. Students should connect to the student activity page and follow the directions given.

After students have completed the task to your satisfaction, have students share their observations in a whole-class discussion. Since each group searched a different newspaper, not all students will will have the same findings.

Discussion questions:

  • What did you find that surprised you?
  • What appeared to be the most common cause of death for adults?
  • What appeared to be the most common cause of death for children and infants?
  • What impact might the frequency of childhood deaths have had on family life?
  • What are common causes of death today? For children? For adults? What accounts for the change?
  • In addition to learning about common causes and ages of death in antebellum America, what else have you learned about America in the late 1850s and early 1860s?

Follow-up, Assessment, and Extensions

Have students read secondary sources about health, sickness, and death in Civil-War era America and tie their findings from their newspaper search with what they have found in their secondary sources. Did their findings support or undermine the interpret ations they read in the secondary accounts?

Have students use the newspaper search function to search another aspect of daily life in the years just before the Civil War, such as accidents, crime, or education, and write a paragraph about their findings.

Go back to "Valley of the Shadow in the Classroom" homepage.

This material was developed by Alice Carter for the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.