Center for the Teaching of History

2020 National History Day: Breaking Barriers in History

Start by looking through the official National History Day 2019 Triumph and Tragedy Theme Book.

Then begin exploring the many historical resources available at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  You can begin searching for inspiration anywhere in our collections: by exploring our library catalogues, our online resources, our collection guides, or by visiting us in person.

Topics and Themes

The following are a sample of the many potential topics for a 2019 Triumph and Tragedy National History Day project based on MHS Collections.  Please note that these ideas are just to get you started, and many of these subjects will have to be narrowed down to produce a high quality project.  We highly recommend browsing our Online Collections for ideas as well--just a few of those collections are linked to topics listed below.

Early New England

  • The Salem Witch Trials
  • Smallpox and Inoculation
  • American Settlers Versus Native Americans
  • Metacom's Rebellion: The Triumph and Tragedy of the King Phillip's War
  • The Diary of Michael Wigglesworth: Homosexuality and Religion in the Early Colonies

The Revolutionary War

The Early Republic

The 19th Century

The 20th Century

Highlighted MHS Collections

Here are just a few of the numerous collection guides at MHS with manuscripts and artifacts related to National History Day themes:

  • American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Records 1920-2005: Documents the administrative, legal, legislative, and educational activities of ACLUM, the ACLU , and its other affiliates from ACLUM's founding as the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts in 1920 to 2005. The records include legal, legislative, and subject files, ACLUM administrative records, correspondence, printed material, and other records related to the organization's attempts to protect civil rights in Massachusetts and the United States.
  • Collections Relevant to African American History at the Massachusetts Historical Society: Within the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) reside manuscripts, books, printed materials, photographs, and artifacts by and about African Americans. This overview is intended to guide historians, researchers, genealogists, teachers, and others to the type and depth of information available for the study of African American lives, institutions, and history at the Society.
  • Civil War Correspondence, Diaries, and Journals at the Massachusetts Historical Society: This microfilm edition consists of Civil War correspondence, diaries, and journals from several collections of personal or family papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
  • Presidential Letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society--An Overview : This subject guide is an overview of the Massachusetts Historical Society's U.S. presidents holdings of all known letters written by presidents found in the Society's manuscript and autograph collections.
  • Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women Records, 1894-1920: This Massachusetts Association  was founded in May 1895, and its primary function was to obtain signatures for "remonstrances" against "the imposition of any further political duties upon women." These "remonstrances" were circulated to offset the petitions of the suffragists.
  • Pre-Revolutionary Diaries at the Massachusetts Historical Society: This microfilm edition of pre-Revolutionary era diaries consists of 276 diaries written by 112 individuals from 1635 to 1790 and provides a rich and authentic portrait of incidents, manners, customs, and details of life in pre-Revolutionary America. The collection contains the diaries of a broad range of individuals, from farmers and businessmen to clergymen, soldiers, students, and physicians.

  • Henry Cabot Lodge Jr Collection I and Collection II:  These two collections contain papers by and related to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.  Lodge served as a Massachusetts state representative and later senator. He left to serve in Libya during WWII, and was elected again to the Senate in 1946, where he served until he lost his reelection bid to John F. Kennedy in 1952. Lodge then began a diplomatic career that lasted nearly three decades, including service as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1950s, as ambassador to Vietnam in the 1960s, and as envoy to the Vatican in the 1970s.

NHD Collection Highlights

Here are examples of interesting documents and artifacts which could inspire your NHD project:

A watercolor depicting a row of buildings on a flat landscape.  There are people walking around, several kites flying in the sky, and a mountain rising up in the distance."Mess Hall, Bathroom, Barracks. Japanese Relocation Center. Heart Mt. Wyoming." by Estelle IshigoThis watercolor painting by Estelle Ishigo depicts the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, one of ten internment camps established for Japanese Americans during World War II. Ishigo was recruited as a “Documentary Reporter” for the War Relocation Authority and recorded the internment experience in illustrations, line drawings, oil, and watercolors.



Image of a printed version of the US Constitution with handwritten notes


U.S. Constitution (first printing) with annotations by Elbridge Gerry


This copy of the first printed draft of the U.S. Constitution shows the evolution of the text as it was amended during the debates at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry, who refused to sign because it lacked a Bill of Rights, annotated the draft with his handwritten notes.



Ink, watercolor scene on wove paper depicting a Cheyenne Medicine Pow-wow"Cheyenne Medicine Pow-Wow" by Bear's Heart, from book of sketches made at Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida, 1877

This colorful scene was drawn by Bear's Heart, a young Cheyenne warrior, during his captivity at Fort Marion in Florida after the Red River War of 1874-1875. While held by the U.S. military, Bear's Heart and other Native American prisoners depicted their lives in ledger art like this.


Title page and index of Cotton Mather's Book,

Samuel Sewell and the Salem Witch Trials: Diary Entry 19 September 1692


Samuel Sewall served as one of the judges at the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692 and, on 19 September, described in his diary the gruesome torture and death of Giles Corey. Corey was pressed to death "for standing mute," that is, refusing to answer his indictment for witchcraft.



Elizabeth Freeman Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman ("Mumbet"), 1811This watercolor-on-ivory miniature portrait was painted by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick in 1811. Its subject is Elizabeth Freeman, known as "Mumbet," an enslaved who sued for her freedom in 1783 and set the legal precedent for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.



Red Cross workers offering beverages to soldiers outside a canteenPhotographs from the WWI Memoir of Margaret Hall, 1918-1919


As a member of the American Red Cross in France during World War I, Massachusetts-born Margaret Hall worked at a canteen at a railroad junction in the town of Châlons. On her return home she compiled a typescript narrative from the letters and diary passages that she wrote while overseas. Her words offer a first-hand account of life on the View of a French helmet atop a cross marking a gravesiteWestern Front in the last months of the war. She also copiously illustrated the text with her own photographs, which depict soldiers, canteens, and the extensive destruction and ruin following the war.



Portrait of Frederick Douglass Frederick DouglassAfter escaping from slavery in 1838, twenty-year-old Frederick Bailey took the name Douglass and became an active abolitionist and antislavery lecturer. The publication of his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845 and a subsequent tour of Europe brought him international celebrity. In 1847 Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, where he published the abolitionist journal, the North Star. During the Civil War, he served as a recruiting agent for Massachusetts when it became the first state to enlist African-American soldiers in the North. After the Civil War, Douglass served in high ranking federal positions under five presidents and continued to write, lecture, and advocate in many other ways for the rights of African Americans.


                                Massachusetts Civil War Letters from Antietam

Account of Rupert Sadler (copy), 24 September 1862Letter from Wilder Dwight to Elizabeth A. Dwight, 17 September 1862.Letter from Wilder Dwight
to Elizabeth A. Dwight,
17 September 1862
Account of Rupert Sadler
(copy), 24 September 1862
On 17 September 1862, along a rambling creek in western Maryland, Americans fought the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of combat in United States history: there were almost 23,000 casualties before nightfall when mutual exhaustion ended the fighting. Of the long list of killed and wounded, it was the death of Col. Wilder Dwight, the 29 year-old commander of the 2nd Mass. Infantry who seemed bound for greater things, that most shocked Massachusetts.


Wilder Dwight wrote the letter on the left to his mother Elizabeth A. Dwight while he lay mortally wounded on the Antietam battlefield.


In the letter on the right, Rupert Sadler recounts coming to the aid of his injured commander, Wilder Dwight, during the Battle of Antietam.