Center for the Teaching of History

2023 National History Day -- Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas

Start by looking through the official National History Day 2023 Frontiers in History 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 catalogs, our online resources, our collection guides, or by visiting us in person.

Have research questions?  Not sure where to start?  Our Library Reader Services are happy to help!  You can contact our librarians at 617-646-0532, by email at, or via live chat and virtual reference services with any questions.

Interested in obtaining reproductions of materials that have not been digitized? Learn about our reproductions policies on our website, or email with specific questions.

Questions to Get You Started

The following are a sample of the many potential topics for a National History Day 2023 Frontiers in History project based on MHS Collections, digitized and on site. 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 recommend browsing our Online Collections for ideas as well--just a few of those collections are linked to topics listed below.

"What factors contributed to the development of a frontier? Why did it emerge, and how did it change? When did it cease to be a frontier? What impact did it have on the people who experienced it, and how did they affect it? " (NHD Theme Book, 3). 

To determine whether something is a frontier, the National History Day Theme Video asks us to consider these three ideas:

  1. People, often referred to as "pioneers," often crossed frontiers. They adapted to unknown situations, and used creativity, ingenuity, and grit.
  2. Frontiers are places and events in history with a clear before and after. Once a frontier is crossed, history changes.
  3. Pioneers develop ideas to survive and thrive in these new situations.

Frontiers are not limited to geographical boundaries. Rather, a field of study, the farthest limit of knowledge on a subject, or even the boundaries of social thought can be frontiers. Think through the ways in which people and technology can influence what we consider frontiers.

Below are some questions to get you started:

  1. What does frontier mean, both literally and metaphorically? What are the different forms it may take? Can a frontier be something other than a physical location?
  2. What is the significance of frontiers in our society and history?
  3. Why do people cross frontiers? What kinds of motivations or forces drive them to do it?
  4. What kinds of places can be frontiers? What kinds of ideas can be frontiers?
  5. What is a particular frontier that was important in history? What was possible because of this frontier?
  6. Has the definition of "frontier" changed over time? What has caused this change?
  7. How does perspective affect how we think about frontiers? Do different people or groups see particular frontiers differently?
  8. Have the places or concepts once considered frontiers changed over time? When do they change? Why?
  9. Who is affected by the exploration of and dispute over “frontiers”?
  10. What kind of myths or stories do we have about frontiers? How are those stories significant? Are there any "frontiers" that you would argue ISN'T actually a frontier?

Thinking Through The Archive

Archive: "a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.”                                                                  Analysis: “detailed examination of the elements or structure of something.”

As historians, it is important to think through the authors of the sources that you are working with. What is their story, and were they in a position of power? What does the source tell us? What does it not tell us? Does it silence a particular narrative at the expense of sharing another?

  • Northeast Boundary Papers, 1700-1799. This collection is composed of correspondence and other papers concerning the dispute over the St. Croix River, part of the lands of the Passamaquoddy which the U.S. and Canada illegally claimed as their own and used as part of their Northeast boundary in the Treaty of 1783. The collection contains depositions and interrogations of persons living in the vicinity of the river, including members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and other Wabanaki nations, and of surveyors employed by both countries. From whose perspective is this a frontier? What makes this a frontier? Did the limits of this frontier change over time? Which voices are included or left out of these narratives?
  • Massachusetts Debates a Woman's Right to Vote. The MHS collection highlights the fight over a woman’s right to vote in Massachusetts by illustrating the pioneers in the suffragist movement and their opponents. These women pushed the boundaries of the perceived place of women in society. How can political and social arenas be frontiers? What role do individuals like Lucy Stone have in the shaping of frontiers? Which voices are included or left out of this frontier? See also the Caroline Wells Healey Dall Papers, Papers of Judith Winsor Smith, and more.

Frontiers in History: Prompts Through The Eras

Early New England

The Revolutionary War Era

  • The Coming of the American Revolution:  How were ideas of freedom and democracy frontiers in political thought? How did these new ideas spark a revolution? How did Native Nations view these ideas? (NHD Theme Book, 4)
  • Abolition in Massachusetts and 1783's Legal End of Slavery. How were movements and resistance frontiers in abolition? How did ideas about freedom with regard to slavery engage with ideas of freedom relating to the Revolutionary War? What strategies did enslaved and free Black activists use to advocate for their rights?
  • The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.: Newspapers in the colonial era were at the forefront, or frontier, of 18th century communication. Dorr was a member of the Sons of Liberty: how might his political associations have impacted the ways in which he created, annotated, and organized his newspaper collection?

The Early Republic

  • Debates on the Ratification of the Constitution in MassachusettsHow did the Massachusetts Constitution represent a frontier in self-government? 
  • Petition of Prince Hall to the Massachusetts General Court: What arguments did Hall and his fellow petitioners make on behalf of freedom for all Black people? Were they successful? How did their petitions break new ground for later abolitionist efforts?  
  • Timothy Pickering Papers. This collection from the late 18th century includes papers related to the negotiations between nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the United States and the plans to settle the border between the two societies. Who is meeting at this frontier? What voices are included or left out of this account? What were the outcomes of exploring this frontier?
    • See also the Ann Powell Clarke Travel Journal,  which includes descriptions of major Haudenosaunee councilmen & women, including Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) & Karonghyontye (Captain David Hill) as Clarke traveled down the Saint Lawrence River in the summer of 1789. Powell Clarke was a white colonial woman. How did that impact her observations? What more can we read between the lines? 
  • Samuel Shepard Diary, 1787-1796. This collection contains excerpts from Samuel Shepard’s diary from the Kentucky frontier. What made Kentucky a frontier to Samuel Shepherd? How do different groups experience frontiers?

The 19th Century 

  • 54th Regiment. How many frontiers (geographic, societal, political, etc.) were involved in the Civil War? What barriers was the 54th Regiment crossing? What new frontiers were established because of this? What role did individuals play in the navigation of this frontier?
  • William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator: This was the most widely circulated anti-slavery newspaper during the antebellum period and throughout the Civil War. Whose voices are given space in the newspaper? How can print culture be a frontier for voices and ideas? 
  • Anthony Burns and The Fugitive Slave Act: Following his self-liberation from slavery, Burns escaped to Boston. Due to the Fugitive Slave Act, he was jailed in the summer of 1854, raising a public outcry. (The Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League was founded in 1854 to aid freedom seekers and resist the Fugitive Slave Law.) Burns wrote a letter to Boston lawyer and abolitionist Richard Henry Dana, imploring abolitionists to purchase his freedom. In 1857, Burns again wrote to Dana sharing the opportunities--including a college education--that freedom had made possible for him. Was Burns' story typical? What role did individuals, groups, laws, and the courts play in Burns' life and in response to the Fugitive Slaw Law more broadly?
  • Harlow Family Papers, 1737-1920. Noah R. Harlow was a civil engineer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. These papers include plans to construct the Nashua and Lowell Railroad. What impact does the construction of railroad across the nation during this period have on Americans? How did it change Americans' perceptions of the frontier?
  • John Bachelder Pierce Papers, 1839-1881. This collection contains letters by John B. Pierce, from Salem, Massachusetts, while participating in the California Gold Rush. What is significant about this moment in U.S. history? What groups of people are pioneering this frontier?

The 20th Century

  • The Treaties of Peace, 1919-1923: For which countries were the peace treaties following WWI a success? A failure? How did they shape the decades that followed?
  • Margaret B. Wright, "What Women are Doing in America": What is Wright saying about women in the workplace in this article? How is this related to earlier frontiers in the movement toward women’s rights? What types of achievements are shown as groundbreaking? Whose voices are left out?
  • Leverett Saltonstall Photographs, 1872-1979. Leverett Saltonstall acted as both governor and U.S. senator for Massachusetts during the mid-twentieth century. This collection includes photographs of his professional career with visits to concentration camps after the end of World War II and also of nuclear bomb tests on Bikini Atoll. What frontiers was Saltonstall interacting with? Who were forging these frontiers?

 Primary Source Highlights

Historians use many types of media to conduct research. For example, they may look at diaries, letters, records, photographs, maps, or newspapers to perform their work. Similarly, diplomats use more than words to convey messages and maintain relationships. What can these media tell us about a nation, event, or time period at-large? Here are examples of interesting documents and artifacts which could inspire your NHD project.

Map showing land of the Sioux and Padoucas, 1755

yellowed map identifying rivers and territories, and describing lands


Engraved by Thomas Kitchin and published in London by John Mitchell in 1755, this map is one plate from “A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America with the Roads, Distances, Limits, and Extent of the Settlements..." The inset in the upper left corner shows Hudson's Bay and Labrador. Published at the beginning of the French and Indian War, the inset shows the limit of English interest as of the mid 18th century. Both England and France hoped to find a water route through the continent—a “Northwest Passage"; the inset of Hudson’s Bay includes the cartographer’s speculations on its probability. 


The rest of the map identifies the territories of the Sioux, Padoucas and other Indigenous peoples. Spend time looking at each section of the map. (You may notice, for example, that the bottom right of the map is labeled "extensive meadows full of buffaloes.") What story is Mitchell telling with this map? Who is his audience? What does he claim to know? What, for Mitchell and the English, was unknown? For whom was this a frontier? 


View additional maps made during the French and Indian War that are held in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Examining Maps

Maps are one way to examine change over time. "The term 'frontier' often finds itself closely related to expansion, as seen in the example of the American frontier. That frontier was an edge of land that colonists pushed and penetrated to expand their existence, with physical consequences occurring between Indigenous Peoples and colonists." (NHD Theme Book, page 54)

The Declaration of Independence, Dunlap broadside, 1776 


Black text printed on a yellowed document. The top reads


This broadside is one of 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap in July 1776. Horseback riders carried these printed broadsides throughout the 13 colonies, where they were read aloud to gathered townspeople. To further spread the news, the Declaration of Independence was also printed in newspapers. It stated the colonists' grievances against King George III and used racist rhetoric to justify war on the frontier and the taking of Indigenous lands. While announcing the creation of a new nation, the Declaration of Independence made promises of equality that later Americans would fight to make a reality.


The MHS also holds two handwritten drafts of the Declaration of Independence; one written by Thomas Jefferson and the other by John Adams.


In 1777, Prince Hall and other free Black men in Massachusetts sent a petition to the Massachusetts state legislature in which they stated their case for the end of slavery, arguing that freedom is the natural right of all people.


large, hexagonal stamp with Chinese characters printed in red ink, and some red ink markingsGrand Chop of the Ship Astrea, January 1790


This chop, or permit, was issued to the Astrea, an American ship, in Canton, China. It was then examined and countersigned at Whampoa. When all   was in order, the final port clearance, or "grand chop," was issued to the ship. All foreign traders shipping cargo out of Canton, China--the only port   open to international trade before 1840--were obliged to observe a complex series of customs and formalities. This grand chop states that all proper   duties have been paid for the ship and should not be required again if the ship is driven into another port by contrary weather. It also lists the number   of crew members, swords, cannons, guns, bullets, and gunpowder aboard ship, and the date of issue.


Establishing trade with China was a new frontier   for the early United States government, and an important step in nation-building.


Additional digital primary source materials held by the Massachusetts Historical Society and related to early trade with China can be found at the China, America and the Pacific: Trade and Cultural Exchange subscription database. This database can be accessed for free onsite at the MHS.

Benjamin Sewall Blake jumping, circa 1888


a black-and-white photograph shows a boy wearing a hat outdoors and jumping in the air 

This stop-action photograph of Benjamin Sewall Blake jumping was taken by his father, Francis Blake. Francis Blake was born in Needham, Mass., in 1850. In his early years, he was a scientist who worked on the US Coast Survey and Darien Exploring Expedition. Later in life he became an accomplished inventor—he was known as “Transmitter Blake” because of his work on the development of the telephone—and a skilled photographer. In the mid-1880s, Blake designed a distinctive shutter that allowed him to take photographs with very short exposure times. 


The Massachusetts Historical Society holds additional photos of Francis Blake's that show his pioneering work in stop-action photographs, including images of a moving passenger train, a tennis player in motion, a horseback rider, and a flock of pigeons. Blake's stop-action images, such as these and many others, were exhibited in Boston, Philadelphia, and London from 1891 to 1893, to much critical acclaim.


In what ways was high-speed photography on the edge of a technological frontier in the late 1800s? What came before this advancement? What came afterwards? How have advancements in photography over time changed society?


"Mess Hall, Bathroom, Barracks. Japanese Relocation Center. Heart Mt. Wyoming," Estelle Ishigo, March 1943, 7:00pm


Image entitled /2012/juniper/assets/teaching-history/5876_camp_work_lg.jpgEstelle Ishigo painted this watercolor of Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming while incarcerated with her husband during World War II. The camp consisted of one square mile of land, with hundreds of barracks and other ramshackle buildings, and around 12,000 people. Heart Mountain suffered the most extreme weather conditions, with bitter cold and windy winters. Estelle, a white woman, met Arthur Ishigo, a Japanese American man, in Los Angeles in 1929. It was illegal for them to get married in the United States, so they wed in Mexico. On 19 February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and the U.S. Western Defense Command ordered all people of Japanese ancestry on the west coast to be placed in “protective custody.” More than 110,000 Japanese Americans were commanded to leave the west coast. Not wanting to be separated from Arthur, Estelle chose to accompany him, and the government ultimately transported them to Wyoming. Estelle was recruited as a “Documentary Reporter” for the War Relocation Authority, recording the Heart Mountain experience in illustrations, line drawings, oil, and watercolors. "While interactions on frontiers can bring about the exchange of goods and ideas, boundaries can also separate people, places, or ideas" (NHD theme book, page 23). The Japanese incarceration camps of World War II are one such example. In what ways did these camps represent a 'frontier'? In what ways was the Ishigo's marriage breaking frontier boundaries and pushing them forward?


MHS Collection Guides

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

This set of collections include digitized materials:

  • Women's Education Association (Boston, Mass.) Records, 1871-1935: The WEA worked to improve education for children and women, locally and nationally.
  • 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. What were the short- and long-term consequences of anti-suffrage groups and efforts?
  • The Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America Records and the Benjamin Colman Papers give insight into white Christians' missionary efforts to convert Indigenous people to Christianity. Whose perspectives are included in these documents, and whose is missing? What frontiers existed in this work, and who was crossing them? Were these frontiers geographical? Ideological? Both?
  • Visual Materials of Antislavery. MHS’s website Images of the Antislavery in Massachusetts is a digital archive that includes some 840 photographs, paintings, broadsides, banners, and sculptures related to antislavery. How do these visual materials push the boundaries of public discourse about slavery?
  • Who Counts?  A Look at Voting Rights Through Political Cartoons.  Political cartoons have long served to provoke public debate, illustrating opinions of the day for the masses. From early in the 19th century, arguments over voting rights—who votes and who counts the votes—have been depicted in cartoons, especially with the rise of illustrated newspapers and magazines with a national circulation before the Civil War. Featuring examples of published cartoons from the MHS collections as well as other libraries and foundations, this exhibition illustrates how cartoonists helped to tell the story of voting rights in the United States, including modern reinterpretations of these topics by Boston-area editorial cartoonists. How do prior battles over voting rights impact the present day? How are today's debates over voting rights similar? Different?
  • Revolutionary-Era Art and Artifacts. This collection contains 67 portraits and 48 artifacts from the American Revolution. Who were these individuals and what did they pioneer? How can art be a part of a frontier? What role does it play? How were these artifacts a part of a frontier?
  • The Coming of the American Revolution: 1764 to 1776. Newspapers, documents, and personal correspondence describe the people and events responsible for the revolution. What events were significant in this revolutionary period?

The following collections have not been digitized; however, you may make an appointment to view materials in person, or you may request reproductions of materials.

  • Massachusetts Temperance Society Records, 1813-1929: Records span from the founding through the organization's dissolution, and include correspondence. What is the legacy of the temperance movement?
  • Timothy Pickering Papers: Following the Revolutionary War, Pickering served the federal government as a negotiator with the Seneca Nation in western Pennsylvania and, later, served on a diplomatic mission to the entire Haudenosaunee Confederacy which culminated in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. As Secretary of State, he helped to implement the Jay Treaty, and was responsible for maintaining Franco-American relations. The latter did not go well, and his rocky relationship with President John Adams led to his dismissal in 1800. How did early America interact at its borders?
  • Northeast Boundary Commission Papers, 1814-1828. These records contain papers regarding the creation of the northeastern boundary between Canada and the United States. How did this commission go about establishing frontiers and boundaries? What did they take into consideration?
  • Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society related to Native American history: An Overview. This collection is largely from the European perspective. What experiences are left out because of this perspective? How are the various actors portrayed in these accounts?
  • Moorfield Storey Papers, 1848-1935. Moorfield Story was a Civil Rights activist and president of various associations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. What role do individuals play in the shaping of new social and political movements?