Were the Freedmen Really Free? – An Analysis of Three Documents

How did whites use sharecropping, black codes, and violence to perpetuate slavery, despite Lincoln’s promise at Gettysburg that the Civil War would bring “a new birth of freedom?”

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Two Snakes

“Slavery wus a bad thing en’ freedom, of de kin’ we got wid nothin’ to live on wus bad. Two snakes full of pisen. One lying wid his head pintin’ north, de other wid his head pintin’ south. Dere names wus slavery an’ freedom. De snake called slavery lay wid his head pinted south and de snake called freedom lay wid his head pinted north. Both bit de nigger, an’ dey wus both bad.”

-Patsy Mitchner, former slave in Raleigh, NC; interviewed in 1937 (at age 84) for the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.

Document A: A Sharecropper’s Agreement

Read and analyze the following, a contract between Thomas J. Ross of Tennessee, a plantation owner, and a group of freedmen, perhaps his former slaves, laying out the terms by which these freedmen would work Ross’s land.

Things to consider:

  1. Create a table with two columns — “Obligations of Thomas J. Ross” and “Obligations of the Freedmen on the Rosstown Plantation.” Complete this table using information you glean as you read the following document.
  2. Who benefits the most from the arrangement outlined in this contract? Who is most likely to lose?
  3. Refer to these rules for the management of enslaved people on a plantation in 1853. In your opinion, how different is the situation of the freedman from their previous status as slaves?
  4. Why would a freed slave enter into an agreement like this?

This indenture of Bargain and agreement made and entered into in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight and Sixty Five (1865) Dec 23 by and between Thomas J. Ross of the County of Shelby & State of Tennessee of the first part and the Freedmen on the Rosstown Plantation in County & State aforesaid whose names will appear below of the second part, witnesseth that whereas the said Thomas J. Ross agrees to employ the said Freedmen to plant and raise a crop on his Rosstown Plantation for the year 1866 in Shelby County, Tenn. On the following Rules, Regulations and Renumerations. To wit-the said Ross agrees to furnish the land to cultivate, and a sufficient number of mules & horses and feed them to make and house said crop and all necessary farming utensils to carry on the same and to give unto said Freedmen whose names appear below one half of all the cotton, corn and wheat that is raised on said place for the year 1866 after all the necessary expenses are deducted out that accrues on said crop. Outside of the Freedmen’s labor in harvesting, carrying to market and selling the same and the said Freedmen whose names appear below covenant and agrees to and with said Thomas J. Ross that for and in consideration of one half of the crop before mentioned that they will plant, cultivate, and raise under the management control and Superintendence of said Ross, in good faith, a cotton, corn and oat crop under his management for the year 1866. And we the said Freedmen agrees to furnish ourselves & families in provisions, clothing, medicine and medical bills and all, and every kind of other expenses that we may incur on said plantation for the year 1866 free of charge to said Ross. Should the said Ross furnish us any of the above supplies or any other kind of expenses, during said year, are to settle and pay him out of the nett proceeds of our part of the crop the retail price of the county at time of sale or any price we may agree upon-The said Ross shall keep a regular book account, against each and every one or the head of every family to be adjusted and settled at the end of the year. We furthermore bind ourselves to and with said Ross that we will do good work and labor ten hours a day on an average, winter and summer. The time to run from the time we commence to the time we quit. The time we are going to and from work shall not be computed or counted in the time. We further agree that we will loose all lost time, or pay at the rate of one dollar per day, rainy days excepted.

A sharecropper family chopping the weeds from cotton near White Plains, in Georgia, US (1941). The systems of sharecropping and legal segregation put into place at the end of the Civil War persisted well into the 1960s.

     We furthermore bind ourselves that we will obey the orders of said Ross in all things in carrying out and managing said crop for said year and be docked for disobedience and further bind ourselves that we said Freedmen will keep up the fences around the enclosures, and lots especially and if any rails be missing by burning or otherwise destroyed by said Freedmen, we will pay for the same or otherwise reconstruct the fence anew at our expense…

     –All is responsible for all farming utensils that is on hand or may be placed in care of said Freedmen for the year 1866 to said Ross and are also responsible to said Ross if we carelessly, maliciously maltreat any of his stock for said year to said Ross for damages to be assessed out of our wages for said year, all of which is understood by us Freedmen in the foregoing contract, or agreement, the said Ross assigning his name and ours following. It is further agreed by us whose names appear below that we will keep a sufficiency of firewood hawled up at all times and make fires in the room of said Ross, when desired, attend to all stock properly, under direction of said Ross.


Former slave with horn historically used to call slaves, Texas, 1939.

     –It is further agreed by a special agreement with Herod and his wife Linda, whose names appear below that the said Ross furnishes one fourth of provisions consisting of meal, and meat for said year. Furnish medicine and hire attention whilst in sickness to himself wife and four children, RalphRindaOsborn and ZackeryRinda is to act as nurse and have her meals and clothing free for her services to said Ross. Osborn & Zackery to wait in minor matters, Ralph to work on the farm. The foregoing obligations are sufficiently understood by us as Freedmen and hereby assign our marks with names attached, with a witness, the said Ross assigning first.

Witness

Wm. Stublen                                                                            Thomas J. Ross 
                                                                                                Herod (X) Pap

The special agreement with Herod & wife Linda applies to all below.

Witness to the last five names                            Thomas J. Ross
C. W. Hill                                                                Samuel (X) Johnson 
                                                                               Thomas (X) Richard
 
                                                                                  Tinny (X) Fitch
 
                                                                                 Jessie (X) Simmons
 
                                                                                 Sophe (X) Pruden
 
                                                            She assigns for Henry & Frances
                                                                                 Henry (X) Pruden
 
                                                                              Frances (X) Pruden
 
                                                                                  Elijah (X) Smith

Document B: The Black Codes

The Black Codes were laws passed by Southern states in 1865 and 1866 in the United States after the American Civil War with the intent and the effect of restricting African Americans’ freedom, and of compelling them to work in a labor economy based on low wages or debt. Black Codes were part of a larger pattern for Southern whites, who were trying to suppress the new freedom of emancipated African-American slaves, the freedmen. Mississippi was the first state to legislate a new Black Code after the war. It is extensive, but excerpted below.

Things to consider:

  1. As you read the document below, create a simple list of rules and consequences for breaking those rules.
  2. Considering what you know about sharecropping arrangements (described above) as well as the legal requirements for employment detailed below, why would it be hard for a freedman to move away?
  3. Are the freedmen free? Explain your answer.

CIVIL RIGHTS OF FREEDMEN

Section 3: . . . [I]t shall not be lawful for any freedman, free negro or mulatto to intermarry with any white person; nor for any person to intermarry with any freedman, free negro or mulatto; and any person who shall so intermarry shall be deemed guilty of felony, and on conviction thereof shall be confined in the State penitentiary for life; and those shall be deemed freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes who are of pure negro blood, and those descended from a negro to the third generation, inclusive, though one ancestor in each generation may have been a white person.

Section 5: . . . Every freedman, free negro and mulatto shall, on the second Monday of January, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-six, and annually thereafter, have a lawful home or employment, and shall have written evidence thereof . . .

Section 6: . . . All contracts for labor made with freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes for a longer period than one month shall be in writing, and a duplicate, attested and read to said freedman, free negro or mulatto by a beat, city or county officer . . . and if the laborer shall quit the service of the employer before the expiration of his term of service, without good cause, he shall forfeit his wages for that year up to the time of quitting.

Section 7: . . . Every civil officer shall, and every person may, arrest and carry back to his or her legal employer any freedman, free negro, or mulatto who shall have quit the service of his or her employer before the expiration of his or her term of service without good cause . . .

VAGRANT LAW

Section 1: . . . That all rogues and vagabonds, idle and dissipated persons, beggars, jugglers, or persons practicing unlawful games or plays, runaways, common drunkards, common night-walkers, pilferers, lewd, wanton, or lascivious persons, in speech or behavior, common railers and brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, misspend what they earn, or do not provide for the support of themselves or their families, or dependents, and all other idle and disorderly persons, including all who neglect all lawful business, habitually misspend their time by frequenting houses of ill-fame, gaming-houses, or tippling shops, shall be deemed and considered vagrants, under the provisions of this act, and upon conviction thereof shall be fined not exceeding one hundred dollars, with all accruing costs, and be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding ten days.

Section 2: . . . All freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawful assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time, and all white persons assembling themselves with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, or usually associating with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, on terms of equality, or living in adultery or fornication with a freed woman, freed negro or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding, in the case of a freedman, free negro or mulatto, fifty dollars, and imprisonment at the discretion of the court, the free negro not exceeding ten days . . .


Convicts leased to harvest timber circa 1915, in Florida.

Section 5: . . . All fines and forfeitures collected by the provisions of this act shall be paid into the county treasury of general county purposes, and in case of any freedman, free negro or mulatto shall fail for five days after the imposition of any or forfeiture upon him or her for violation of any of the provisions of this act to pay the same, that it shall be, and is hereby, made the duty of the sheriff of the proper county to hire out said freedman, free negro or mulatto, to any person who will, for the shortest period of service, pay said fine and forfeiture and all costs . . .

CERTAIN OFFENSES OF FREEDMEN

Section 1: . . . That no freedman, free negro or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States government, and not licensed so to do by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie knife, and on conviction thereof in the county court shall be punished by fine . . .

Section 2: . . . Any freedman, free negro, or mulatto committing riots, routs, affrays, trespasses, malicious mischief, cruel treatment to animals, seditious speeches, insulting gestures, language, or acts, or assaults on any person, disturbance of the peace, exercising the function of a minister of the Gospel without a license from some regularly organized church, vending spirituous or intoxicating liquors, or committing any other misdemeanor, the punishment of which is not specifically provided for by law, shall, upon conviction thereof in the county court, be fined not less than ten dollars, and not more than one hundred dollars, and may be imprisoned at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty days.

Section 3: . . . If any white person shall sell, lend, or give to any freedman, free negro, or mulatto any fire-arms, dirk or bowie knife, or ammunition, or any spirituous or intoxicating liquors, such person or persons so offending, upon conviction thereof in the county court of his or her county, shall be fined not exceeding fifty dollars, and may be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty days . . .

Document C: The Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by six former officers of the Confederate army as a secret vigilante group, the Klan targeted freedmen and their allies; it sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against black and white Republicans.

An interview with Ben Johnson, 85, of Hecktown, Durham, Durham County, May 20, 1937.

Uncle Ben, who is nearly blind and who walks with a stick, was assisted to the porch by his wife who sat down near him in a protecting attitude. He is much less striking than his wife who is small and dainty with perfect features and snow white hair worn in two long braids down her back. She wore enormous heart shaped earrings, apparently of heavy gold; while Uncle Ben talked she occasionally prompted him in a soft voice.

Things to consider:

  1. For you, what is the most remarkable story that Ben tells?
  2. Did Ben mention police, judges, courtrooms, or trials at any time? Why is this important?
  3. Based on Ben’s memories, how do the Ku Klux Klan fit into system of sharecropping and black codes outlined above?

AN EX-SLAVE STORY

“I wuz borned in Orange County and I belonged ter Mr. Gilbert Gregg near Hillsboro. I doan know nothin’ ’bout my mammy an’ daddy, but I had a brother Jim who wuz sold ter dress young missus fer her weddin’. De tree am still standin’ whar I set under an’ watch ’em sell Jim. I set dar an’ I cry an’ cry, ‘specially when dey puts de chains on him an’ carries him off, an’ I ain’t neber felt so lonesome in my whole life. I ain’t neber hyar from Jim since an’ I wonder now sometimes if’en he’s still livin’.

“I knows dat de marster wuz good ter us an’ he fed an’ clothed us good. We had our own gyarden an’ we wuz gittin’ long all right.

“I seed a whole heap of Yankees when dey comed ter Hillsboro an’ most of ’em ain’t got no respeck fer God, man, nor de debil. I can’t ‘member so much ’bout ’em do’ cause we lives in town an’ we has a gyard.

“De most dat I can tell yo’ ’bout am de Ku Klux. I neber will fergit when dey hung Cy Guy. Dey hung him fer a scandelous insult ter a white ‘oman an’ dey comed atter him a hundert strong.

“Dey tries him dar in de woods, an’ dey scratches Cy’s arm ter git some blood, an’ wid dat blood dey writes dat he shall hang ‘tween de heavens an’ de yearth till he am daid, daid, daid, an’ dat any nigger what takes down de body shall be hunged too.

“Well sar, de nex’ mornin’ dar he hung, right ober de road an’ de sentence hangin’ ober his haid. Nobody’ud bother wid dat body fer four days an’ dar hit hung, swingin’ in de wind, but de fou’th day de sheriff comes an’ takes hit down.

J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith were young African-American men who murdered in a spectacle lynching by a mob of thousands on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana. They were taken from jail cells, beaten, and hanged from a tree in the county courthouse square. They had been arrested that night as suspects in a robbery, murder and rape case. A third African-American suspect, 16-year-old James Cameron, had also been arrested and narrowly escaped being killed by the mob; an unknown woman and a local sports hero intervened, and he was returned to jail. As was typical in lynchings, no one was ever charged for their deaths

“Dar wuz Ed an’ Cindy, who ‘fore de war belonged ter Mr. Lynch an’ atter de war he told ’em ter move. He gives ’em a month an’ dey ain’t gone, so de Ku Kluxes gits ’em.

“Hit wuz on a cold night when dey comed an’ drugged de niggers out’n bed. Dey carried ’em down in de woods an’ whup dem, den dey throws ’em in de pond, dere bodies breakin’ de ice. Ed come out an’ come ter our house, but Cindy ain’t been seed since.

“Sam Allen in Caswell County wuz tol’ ter move an’ atter a month de hundret Ku Klux come a-totin’ his casket an’ dey tells him dat his time has come an’ if’en he want ter tell his wife good bye an’ say his prayers hurry up.

“Dey set de coffin on two cheers an’ Sam kisses his ole oman who am a-cryin’, den he kneels down side of his bed wid his haid on de piller an’ his arms throwed out front of him.

“He sets dar fer a minute an’ when he riz he had a long knife in his hand. ‘Fore he could be grabbed he done kill two of de Ku Kluxes wid de knife, an’ he done gone out’n de do’. Dey ain’t ketch him nother, an’ de nex’ night when dey comed back, ‘termined ter git him dey shot ano’her nigger by accident.

“I ‘members seein’ Joe Turner, another nigger hung at Hillsboro in ’69 but I plumb fergot why it wuz.

“I know one time Miss Hendon inherits a thousand dollars from her pappy’s ‘state an’ dat night she goes wid her sweetheart ter de gate, an’ on her way back ter de house she gits knocked in de haid wid a axe. She screams an’ her two nigger sarvants, Jim an’ Sam runs an’ saves her but she am robbed.

“Den she tells de folkses dat Jim an’ Sam am de guilty parties, but her little sister swears dat dey ain’t so dey gits out of it. “Atter dat dey fin’s out dat it am five mens, Atwater, Edwards, Andrews, Davis an’ Markham. De preacher comes down to whar dey am hangin’ ter preach dar funeral an’ he stan’s dar while lightnin’ plays roun’ de dead mens haids an’ de win’ blows de trees, an he preaches sich a sermon as I ain’t neber hyard before.

“Bob Boylan falls in love wid another oman so he burns his wife an’ four youngins up in dere house.

“De Ku Kluxes gits him, of course, an’ dey hangs him high on de old red oak on de Hillsboro Road. Atter dey hunged him his lawyer says ter us boys, ‘Bury him good, boys, jist as good as you’d bury me if’en I wuz daid.’

“I shuck han’s wid Bob ‘fore dey hunged him an’ I he’ped ter bury him too an’ we bury him nice an’ we all hopes dat he done gone ter glory.”

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The Dead of Antietam: Photography in the Civil War


This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Mathew B. Brady (May 18, 1822 – January 15, 1896) was one of the earliest photographers in American history, best known for his scenes of the Civil War.

Continue reading “The Dead of Antietam: Photography in the Civil War”

Environmental Social Studies

  • Californios Verdes and Your Public Purpose Project: Can young people change the world, or are they stuck with the messy one that adults are planning to hand to them? Learn about the Californios Verdes, a group of young people inspired to take action on behalf of the environment in their hometown of La Paz, Mexico. Based on this model, students will devise their own public purpose project – a year-long project devised and carried out by students to improve quality of life, raise environmental awareness, or in some other way positively impact their community.
  • Where do you fit into Earth’s Ecosystems? (Even the Ones You’ve Never Seen with Your Own Two Eyes): Read about John Steinbeck, the American author who took part in a voyage to collect scientific samples of species in the Sea of Cortez.  His vivid writing is an entry point for students into a discussion of ecosystems, ecosystem goods and services, and human impacts on ecosystems.  Afterwards, students will apply these concepts to surveying, quantifying, and mapping their own ecological footprint.
  • Unrecognized Potential: Terra Preta, Ancient Orchards, and Life in the Amazon: Until relatively recently, it was widely believed that the Amazon Rainforest was incapable of sustaining large scale human development.  New findings have challenged this view, and evidence of ancient agriculture suggests that humans once developed this fragile region in ways so subtle that – in the form of carefully managed soils and prehistoric orchards – they have been hiding in plain sight all this time, challenging the basic tenants of “agriculture” as western eyes tend to recognize it.
  • The Pristine Myth: How Native Americans Shaped Their World (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities) For millennia before the arrival of Columbus, Native Americans shaped the environment around them to suit their needs, often in ways that were invisible from a European perspective.
  • The Three Sisters: Background information on the agricultural combination of maize (corn), beans, and squash that formed the backbone of the Mesoamerican and North American civilization, plus suggested activities.

Californios Verdes and Your Public Purpose Project

Can young people change the world, or are they stuck with the messy one that adults are planning to hand to them?

“Adults, in their dealing with children, are insane, and children know it too. Adults lay down rules they would not think of following, speak truths they do not believe. And yet they expect children to obey the rules, believe the truths, and admire and respect their parents for this nonsense. Children must be very wise and secret to tolerate adults at all. And the greatest nonsense of all that adults expect children to believe is that people learn by experience. No greater lie was ever revered. And its falseness is immediately discerned by children since their parents obviously have not learned anything by experience. Far from learning, adults simply become set in a maze of prejudices and dreams and sets of rules whose origins they do not know and would not dare inspect for fear the whole structure might topple over on them. I think children instinctively know this. Intelligent children learn to conceal their knowledge and keep free of this howling mania.”
― John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez
This lesson was reported from:

The Californios Verdes – in English, the Green Californians – are a group of environmentally conscious young people based in La Paz, Mexico, on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. They explain, “We are a new generation of young leaders united by love of nature and interested in working for the conservation of the environment and a better quality of life.”

They are alumni of environmental education programs run by the nonprofit Ecology Project International, which works to educate students about their connections to local and global ecosystems. Inspired by what they have seen and learned, these young people, aged 17 to 25, wanted to apply that passion and those lessons to their own community.

They formed the Californios Verdes in 2011 with the mission “to be agents of change, collaborators, and generators of local conservation projects” and the vision to “create a sustainable and participatory community where young people have an active role in conservation.”

What does that look like?

The Californios Verdes meet weekly to organize and plan. They have advocated successfully on behalf of a statewide ban on single-use plastics – the cups, straws, bags, and utensils you get in stores and takeout places that then end up in oceans, killing animals, or as microplastics inside of you! These single-use plastics are bad news! Getting lawmakers and business onboard to eliminate them in Baja California Sur is a big deal – the Californios Verdes helped to change the law.

This albatross died from the large quantities of plastic waste it ate and then could not pass. It effectively starved to death, even though its stomach was full. This is the exact kind of waste that the Californios Verdes are working to eliminate in their community. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

One of their favorite projects involves community outreach – they regularly stage events to educate citizens of La Paz about the ecology of the surrounding area, including at the nearby beach Balandra. They help residents – and young people in particular – to understand: Why should we save that mangrove forest, instead of letting developers turn it into a beach resort? Why is the whale shark worth protecting?

Conservation of your local wild spaces has to start with a local love and understanding of those spaces. If you and your neighbors aren’t going to stand up for your community and its ecosystems, why would anyone else?

The Californios Verdes are online and in the streets, helping their neighbors see the value in protecting the natural world around them. They are ground zero for a grassroots movement that aims to change the world, starting with their own city block in La Paz and radiating outward.

The Californios Verdes at Playa Balandra, widely regarded as one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches. The Californios Verdes routinely work to educate the surrounding community about the importance of protecting this valuable ecosystem.

Look, I hear you – life is hard. With homework, parents, maybe a job – it’s busy. And you’re a kid.

But so are the Californios Verdes… So the only question left is —

What have you done this week to make the world a better place?

Public Purpose Project

Most Fridays for the rest of the year, you will be working on your very own Public Purpose Project. Your PPP should be something you care deeply about, and it’s something you’re going to be spending a lot of time with – so be thoughtful in your selection. Your main goal is to produce something that leaves your community nicer than you found it.

Projects could include (but are not limited to):

  • Identify a need in your school or community. Develop and carry out a service project to address that need
  • Design and create a mural in your school or community
  • Research, develop, and share a historical or ecological walking/driving tour of your community
  • Produce a documentary video about your community – an aspect of its history, its ecology, or some exemplary charity/activist group working to make it a better place
  • Produce a work of environmental storytelling (a video, a published article, a photo exhibition, a social media feed with original content) about a species, park, ecosystem, or ecological issue in your region
  • Research, design, and produce a sustainably-sourced line of products that raise awareness of an environmental issue related to your region – think of T-shirts or reusable shopping bags that feature local flora and fauna, reusable water bottles, etc.
  • Implement a composting or recycling program at your school
  • Develop and implement a plan to make your school more green
  • Volunteer for a minimum of 20 hours with a local organization and tell the story of your experience

Consult with your teacher for questions on topics like group sizes, as well as on specific due dates.

Timeline:

End of First Quarter: In communication with your teacher, develop a detailed proposal for your project. This proposal should identify a specific need in your community and state a goal. Your proposal should answer basic questions about how you plan to fill that need and achieve that goal. It should set out a detailed timeline for achieving your goal by the end of the school year. Your proposal should also describe resources necessary to carry out your goal, estimated costs of those resources, and any other relevant issues or challenges that you will need to surmount. You should point to other similar projects that have been carried out elsewhere, answering the question: What lessons from that project can I apply to my own? Your report should be delivered in the form of a Google Slide presentation, shared with your teacher and presented to the larger class. Your teacher and peers will offer feedback on your plan.

End of Second and Third Quarters: Add new slides to your original presentation. These new slides should update your instructor and peers on the status of your project – How far along are you? What new challenges have presented themselves? How have you addressed those issues? What have you learned? What new questions do you have? How can the group support you? Has your timeline or goal changed in any way? Be sure to include photos, videos, or other documentary evidence of your project in progress.

End of Fourth Quarter/School Year: Your goal should be achieved, your project finished. Update your presentation with new slides taking your teacher and peers through the final months of your project. Reflect by addressing the following questions: Were you successful? What did you learn? What would you have done differently? If you were to continue developing this project, how would you extend it?


THIS LESSON WAS DEVELOPED WITH SUPPORT FROM ECOLOGY PROJECT INTERNATIONAL.

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A female sea lion sleeps on a small, rocky island near La Paz, Mexico. Her fate is connected to yours – she competes for food in the same ecosystem where humans fish extensively. She swims in water where currents carry our plastic waste. Populations of animals that she loves to eat are threatened by oceans changed dramatically by human-driven climate change. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

Where do you fit into Earth’s Ecosystems? (Even the Ones You’ve Never Seen with Your Own Two Eyes)

Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.” – John Steinbeck
This lesson was reported from:

In 1940, the author John Steinbeck joined an expedition to the
Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, with his friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Their purpose was scientific – they wished to document and understand the ecology of the Sea of Cortez. They traveled with a small crew aboard a 75-foot boat named the Western Flyer, collecting scientific samples and data of the fauna they encountered, all with the goal of writing a scientific guidebook – one part species catalog, one part travel adventure – entitled Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. (1941)


John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters,” and many of his works – Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl – are considered classics of Western literature. (Wikipedia)

First edition of The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, 1951.

The book describes the complex ecosystem of the Sea of Cortez, its islands, and shorelines. An ecosystem is a community of living organisms interacting with the nonliving components of their environment. Steinbeck describes the wildlife – in particular, the marine invertebrates – in colorful detail, but Sea of Cortez is perhaps most notable for placing humans and human activity firmly into his poetic take on ecology. After all, humans inhabit the Sea of Cortez, they fish in it, they mine the surrounding mountains, their carbon emissions and plastic waste from thousands of miles away effect it – humans should not be considered apart from its ecology.

Humans engage in complex interactions with ecosystems – both those in their immediate surroundings, where they live and work, and those on the other side of the planet, in areas that supply commercial goods that they consume or that are effected by greenhouse emissions. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)
(Enlarge and open in a new window.)

In fact, human activities are a significant factor in almost all of Earth’s ecosystems. The cumulative effects of their impact are large even enough to influence the planet’s climate, or patterns of weather over long periods of time.

Ecosystems provide a variety of goods and services upon which people depend. Ecosystem goods include food (fishing, for example), construction material (lumber from forests, sand, stone from quarries, metals from mines, plastics from petroleum pumped from deep under the Earth), and medicinal plants (aspirin, quinine, marijuana). Ecosystem goods also include less tangible items like tourism and outdoor recreation, staples of the economy in many communities around the globe.

Ecosystem services, on the other hand, are the many and varied benefits that humans gain from the natural environment and from properly-functioning ecosystems.  These include clean air and water (thanks to plants which capture CO2 and aquifers which filter rain water) and crop pollination (by insects and birds). Even things like beauty, inspiration, and opportunities for scientific research, which help humans to better understand our world.

In addition to providing a home (habitat) for a great variety of other species, mangrove swamps protect coastal areas from erosion, storm surge (especially during hurricanes), and tsunamis – a great example of ecosystem services in action. (Florida Everglades at low tide, 2018.)

While ecosystem goods have traditionally been recognized as the basis for things of economic value – they are property and goods that one can own – ecosystem services tend to be taken for granted – available to all,
whether one “owns” the forest or not. Ecosystem services are what an economist might call a public good – something shared more or less equally by everyone for free. Since they do not cost money, our capitalist system has traditionally placed little value on protecting them – even though they are vital to life as we know it.

In Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck connects the dots between ecosystem goods, ecosystem services, and human activity. While he was not the first to connect humans to the ecosystems they inhabit and exploit, his writing on the subject is both eloquent and persuasive. Early in the book, he writes:

“Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.”

The Earth can seem huge on a cross country drive that takes days, but it is actually finite. Its natural resources are vulnerable and limited. As human population and per capita consumption grow, so do the demands imposed on ecosystems and the effects of the human ecological footprint – that is, the impact of humanity on the global ecosystem in terms of carbon released, energy used, water consumed, and waste created.

Ecosystem services are not only limited but also that they are threatened by human activities. Problems for all ecosystems include: environmental pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. For terrestrial ecosystems, additional threats include air pollution (chemicals released by manufacturing and power generation, emission of greenhouse gases), soil degradation (erosion from farming, salinization from irrigation, conversion of ecosystems for human construction projects), and deforestation (especially in tropical and coastal regions). For marine ecosystems threats include unsustainable exploitation of marine resources (overfishing of certain species), marine pollution (from deep sea oil drilling or spills), microplastics pollution (plastic takes thousands of years to biodegrade and too often ends up floating in the ocean), water pollution (from urban runoff and industrial manufacturing), and building on coastal areas.

Scientists have been conducting research for decades to help us better understand long-term ecosystem health and its role in enabling human habitation and economic activity. In a capitalistic democracy like the United States – where the priorities of both corporations and government are responsive to the will of the majority of people – it is important for all citizens to understand the findings of these scientists. Each of us must begin to recognize the way our habits of consumption impact on the ecosystems in our region, as well as – in a globalized economy threatened by climate change – ecosystems on the other side of the planet.

Downtown La Paz is beautiful, just like the downtown of your city, but human development shapes ecosystems as well. Earth, rock, and sand are paved over, waves and tidal action are broken, buildings and pavement reflect or trap heat and rain, runoff from roads after a rain can carry oil, plastic wastes, and other pollutants into otherwise clean waters. (La Paz, Mexico, 2019.)

Humans have the unique ability to shape our environment. This is one thing that distinguishes us from our fellow animals and plants.

Alongside this ability to shape, we also have the ability to ask and answer complex questions through careful observation of the world around us – this is what we can science. Elsewhere in Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck said, “It is not enough to say that we cannot know or judge because all the information is not in. The process of gathering knowledge does not lead to knowing. A child’s world spreads only a little beyond his understanding while that of a great scientist thrusts outward immeasurably. An answer is invariably the parent of a great family of new questions. So we draw worlds and fit them like tracings against the world about us, and crumple them when they do not fit and draw new ones.” 

As we begin to better understand the world around us, we find ourselves confronted with the uncomfortable truth that some of our activities as a species have damaged – and continue to damage – the ecosystems on which all life depends.

Modern technology has only enhanced these abilities to shape and to understand – just as it has enhanced our responsibility to create a sustainable future for our species and all others on this planet.

A handful of sand from the bottom of Candelero Bay on Isla Espíritu Santo reveals an entire ecosystem of marine worms living underfoot and, for most people, out of mind. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

For Writing or Discussion

1. What is an ecosystem? What goods and services do humans extract from them? What negative impacts do human activities have on them?

2. Describe an ecosystem in or near your hometown – name species of plants and animals, identify the substrate and topography, the temperature, rainfall, etc. How have humans shaped this ecosystem and for what reasons?

3. In your own words, what does Steinbeck mean when he says “None of it is important or all of it is?” Do you agree with this sentiment?

4. Amongst life on Earth, human beings possess a unique level of self-awareness, as well as an unparalleled ability to shape every ecosystem on the planet for better or worse. Does that power come with any responsibility? Defend your answer.

Calculate Your Ecological Footprint

  1. Trace your impact outward into the environment — list and categorize all of the (a) trash (paper, plastic, metal, recyclable or not), (b) carbon emissions (from electricity use, transportation, ordering things off of Amazon, etc), and (c) food/water (including showers, toilet flushes, and the sprinkler on your lawn) you consumed today. Be thorough and precise.
  2. Quantify each of these impacts — weigh them, measure them, use information from the internet to estimate them. There are many tools online that can help you to calculate these numbers. Represent this information in charts or diagrams.
  3. Incorporating information compiled in steps one and two, create a world map infographic or poster showing the origin points and impact points of your ecological footprint. Also, plot and illustrate the ways in which those points will effect you. For example: Where does your food come from? How is it transported to you? Is it refrigerated on the way? What is the carbon impact of these activities? What kind of biomagnification (plastics, pesticides, antibiotics, etc) is present in your diet? Was the tuna you may have eaten farmed or caught wild? Where? Is the current population of that fish in the wild sustainable? How many MPG does your car get? How far do you live from school? How long did your mom idle in carline? What temperature is the AC in your how many square foot house? Where do the plastics you trash end up? Where does the water in your toilet go after you flush? What effect does carbon have on the ice caps? Sea level? Acidification of the ocean? Where does your waste water go? What does your clean water come from? How will rising sea levels due to increased greenhouse activity impact your hometown? etc
  4. In a reflective essay: Which of these impacts can you reduce through personal choices? What challenges or barriers to change will you encounter? Which of these impacts can only be reduced through government or corporate action?

Take It Further

Identify three concrete steps you will take to reduce your ecological footprint. This online quiz may help you. Describe exactly how you plan to take these steps. Resolve to carry them out for the next month.

. Describe exactly how you plan to take these steps. Resolve to carry them out for the next month.

THIS LESSON WAS DEVELOPED WITH SUPPORT FROM ECOLOGY PROJECT INTERNATIONAL.

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John Steinbeck visited Isla Espíritu Santo, an island in the Gulf of California, off the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Wikipedia describes ecosystems in the surrounding reefs as being home to parrotfish, angelfish, trumpetfish, Moorish idols, and rainbow wrasse, with many other species passing nearby including sharks, rays, turtles, dolphins, and whales. Birds who call the island home include brown pelicans, great blue herons, snowy egrets, turkey vultures, and hummingbirds. A large sea lion colony resides nearby. By the 1990s pressure to develop on Isla Espiritu Santo was intense: a real estate developer wanted to create a resort casino on the island. Tim Means, a conservationist based in nearby La Paz, formed a coalition of activists who were able to purchase part of the island from the ejido (farming commune) that wished to sell it to the developer. One third of the funds came from Mexican funders, another third from American funders via the Nature Conservancy, and the rest through an anonymous gift to the World Wildlife Fund. Today,Isla Espíritu Santo is protected as part of the Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna – Islas del Golfo de California. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

Lobbying for the Compromise of 1850

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

“the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave, and made them liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $29,000 in present-day value). Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest people suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant‘s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf.[6] In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. Since a suspected slave was not eligible for a trial, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery, as suspected fugitive slaves had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations.”


You’ve probably grown up seeing political ads on TV.  Most of these are sponsored by PACs or Political Action Committees – groups that aren’t candidates in an election, but wish to influence the outcome with money spent on advertisements.

Imagine that TV and PACs existed in 1850.  Create a television spot either opposing or supporting the Compromise of 1850.  In your ad, be sure to explain the components of the compromise.  Also mention the alternatives – do you have a better plan, or are there alternatives worse than the unpalatable elements found in the compromise.  Be creative, but in order to get 100% on this assignment, in addition to taking an editorial point of view, you will need to include lots of rich historical details, such as who in Congress supports this compromise, who opposes it, and why.TV ads should be one to two minutes in length. They may be filmed and uploaded to YouTube or performed in class. 

For writing (Approximately 250 words): In politics, is it better to compromise to solve disputes, even if that compromise is ugly, or is it better to “stay the course” – sticking to your beliefs about what is right, no matter what, even if it means greater conflict and division?  Make sure that your answer uses historical examples such as the Compromise of 1850.

The Real Oregon Trail

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.
The Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail was a 2,170-mile, historic East–West, large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail in the United States that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon.From the early to mid-1830s (and particularly through the years 1846–69) the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by about 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers, and business owners and their families. 

The Oregon Trail is a computer game developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and first released in 1985. It was designed to teach students about the realities of 19th-century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail.  In the game, the player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon‘s Willamette Valley via a covered wagon in 1848.

Play several rounds of the game, embedded below.  While you play, devise a research question about the real life Oregon Trail. For example, what was the leading cause of death for pioneers traveling west?  Are there many grave markers left along the old route of the trail, and if so, what do they say? What was hunting like in the 1800s, and what impact did it have on animals like American Bison?  What were covered wagons really like, and did settlers actually carry spare parts for them?

Create an infographic with facts, figures, images, and at least three paragraphs worth of information on the realities of some aspect of the game.  Be sure to include information about your sources at the bottom of your infographic.  You can see an example of a student infographic here and here.

An Oregon Trail infographic produced, typographical errors and all, by an 8th grade student.