The Sea & Me: Using Maritime Sources to Teach American History

Jamie L. H. Goodall
U.S. Revenue Cutter Aiken

U.S. Revenue Cutter Aiken, captured by Confederate and re-named Petrel, being sunk by U.S. frigate St. Lawrence, 1861. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1621 a young William Claiborne left the comforts of England for the adventure of a lifetime on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Claiborne settled in Virginia and managed to work his way from surveyor to councilor to the colony’s secretary of state. But his ambitions weren’t satisfied. In April 1627, Claiborne was granted a commission from Sir George Yeardley, Governor and Captain-General of Virginia, which granted full authority to Claiborne to discover the “remaining divers [sic] places and parts of this kingdom of Virginia altogether unknown.” Claiborne was entrusted to “sail into any the rivers, creeks, ports, and havens within the Bay of Chesapeake” and establish trade relations with local indigenous populations, particularly in the fur trade.[1] Claiborne decide to center his operations on Kent Island, with a goal of provisioning and trading along the coast from Virginia to Nova Scotia.

What should have been a simple and profitable scheme was anything but. While seeking funding in London, Claiborne learned that George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, was using his influence to stake out a Catholic colony just north of Virginia. To Claiborne’s dismay, a new charter was granted to the Calvert family that technically placed Kent Island—land and cattle valued over £7,000—under the control of Maryland.[2] A series of territorial debates and maritime conflict ensued, with Claiborne at the helm. And with that, Claiborne and his associates held the first recorded convictions (and executions) for piracy in the Chesapeake. But they would not be the last. In many ways, Claiborne’s path to piracy mirrors the maritime experiences of hundreds of men engaged in the illicit economy of the early modern Atlantic world. Although Claiborne was spared the same fate as two of his colleagues—both hanged for piracy in June 1638—he lost his goods, lands, tenements, and cattle. And his former reputation as an important Virginia official was destroyed.

I’m a pirate historian. My research world is necessarily maritime in nature, and stories like these abound. Yet it’s quite rare that I get to teach an entire course on the history of piracy in the Atlantic world. More regularly I teach survey courses on the history of early America from pre-European contact until 1877. Students enter the course believing that much of the “action” takes place on land. When they initially plan their final project topics in the first weeks of the semester, I routinely get submissions focused on the land-based battles of the American Revolution/American Civil War or the development of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. Very rarely does a student submit a topic with a maritime focus. So to combat this I try to find ways to incorporate the importance of the ocean and seafaring individuals on the development of what would become the United States. Given that I teach in Maryland, students are particularly fond of reading about William Claiborne’s piratical exploits on the Chesapeake. Working with Claiborne’s story helps me to demonstrate to the students the intimate connection between land and sea, the complexity of piracy and colonial expansion, and the importance of maritime history to the broader history of early North America.

I make sure that whatever topic we’re on at the time, I include maritime actions or individuals in my lectures and classroom activities. When we talk about the early years of colonization, we examine the development of new sailing technologies and the importance of pirates. When it comes to the American Revolution, the War of 1812, or the American Civil War, we talk about the privateers entrusted with preventing blockades and disrupting the “enemy’s” trade. We cover the big stuff like the Barbary Wars or the transatlantic trade in enslaved peoples, and the small stuff like everyday merchants and sailors making a living via ocean travel.

One of the easiest ways to engage students with maritime history is through the use of primary sources. For example, students are particularly moved when they work together to analyze both ship surgeon Alexander Falconbridge’s An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Another particularly useful source when discussing the transatlantic trade in enslaved peoples is Thomas Clarkson’s 1787 pamphlet, A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition. Clarkson interviewed over 20,000 sailors and obtained various items that were used on these ships to maintain control over the enslaved people on board. These primary sources are great when used in conjunction with books like Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History. In this way students not only are introduced to maritime history but also are forced to grapple with the use of enslaved labor in the building of the United States. They’re also engaging with political, social, and cultural foundations of the U.S. The Library of Congress also has a great collection of digitized Piracy Trials, while British History Online has digitized the Calendar of State Papers: America & West Indies, which includes a significant number of maritime-facing primary sources. There is no shortage of resources for students to engage with. One of my assignments is a primary-source analysis. First, I partner students who then work together to read through and analyze the primary sources, using appropriate worksheets from the National Archives and Records Administration. In addition to the questions on the worksheets, I have the students think more deeply about historical context, the creator’s audience/goal(s), and the significance of the documents. After class, students have a week to take the work that they and their partners did and offer up their own individual analysis in the form of a short paper. In this way, they’re translating the work they did on the worksheet into a coherent written piece. They have the benefit of their partner’s insight, but they must rely on their own analytical skills in the end. Ultimately, I want students to walk away from the primary-source activity recognizing that we can’t take these documents at face value and that there’s much more to learn than what’s on the surface. I also want them to develop a sense of historical empathy, to recognize that the people they’re reading about may be long gone, but they were real people who made real choices or who were forced into very real situations.

But I don’t just leave it there. I encourage students to think about maritime-focused final project topics as well. In their final project they research their topic, find a minimum of seven primary sources and four scholarly secondary sources related to said topic, analyze those primary sources in a sort of annotated bibliography, and find a visual medium to present their information. One student created an interactive “sea-trip” map of naval battles during the American Civil War, while another created a children’s ABC book on pirates/sailors in the Atlantic world. I’ve had a student create a “dark tourism” TripLine outlining maritime sites of devastation that impacted American history, while another recounted the Battle of Baltimore from the perspective of the harbor. I’ve found that when students are introduced to maritime history early, they embrace it and recognize the broader historical applicability of the field. By using maritime sources and material, I open my students up to a bigger piece of American history and help them to think outside the boxes they and others have drawn.

I can’t wait to see what they do in my new course, Activism and Dissent in American History.


[1] “America and West Indies: March 1677, 1–15: Commission signed by Sir George Yeardley, Governor and Captain-General of Virginia, to ‘my well-beloved friend William Claiborne,’ April 27, 2617,” in Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies: Volume 10, 1677–1680, ed. W Noel Sainsbury and J. W. Fortescue (London, 1896), No. 86iii, 27–36. British History Online, accessed June 4, 2019,

[2] “America and West Indies: March 1677, 1–15: Captain William Claiborne’s case stated against ‘Lord Baltimore,’ 163,” No. 86vii, 27-36.

23 September 2019

About the Author

Jamie L. H. Goodall is Assistant Professor of History at Stevenson University.

Share this Post