"(The fish were) lying so thicke with their heads above the water . . . we attempted to catch them with a frying pan: but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with: neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for small fish, had any of us ever seen in any place so swimming in the water."
Journal of Captain John Smiht, 1608
A new course on the local history of Washington, D.C. is being introduced as a pilot project in 15 city junior high schools. It is scheduled to become part of the curriculum for eighth graders in the remaining junior highs next fall.
The year-long course is being designed by educators, historians and citizens to present a history of the city from a local and residential perspective rather than a national one.
"For a number of reasons, our own unique heritage lies largely undiscovered," a summary describing the curriculum points out. "Most of what is written about Washington describes it in the context of a monumental city, giving the impression that the District of Columbia is interesting only as a stage setting for national events."
Development of the history course is being directed by the staff of 2-W, a federally funded program which has set up remedial and enrichment classes in D.C. schools for the last several years. Eighteen District teachers have also assisted in planning the course.
"It's really a community coordinator for 2-W. "We've been flooded with offers of help." The National Collection of Fine Arts, the Portrait Gallery, the National Park Service, the Archives, local newspapers and universities and individuals have provided materials and expertise, she adds.
Since the city's history has been largely neglected, few texts exist on the subject, says Smith. The course developers have relied on original sources like old maps, journals, diaries and documents, and so will the students.
"We hope they'll make their own discoveries and draw their own conclusions as historians do," Smith says.
The starting point of the course will be the year 1608 when Captain John Smith made an exploratory sail into the upper reaches of the Potomac River. He kept the first written accounts of the area, describing the friendly welcome from the Piscataway Indians and the angler's paradise he found in the shallow waters near Little Falls.
To get a view of life in mid-19th century Washington, students can read the daily paper, the National Intelligencer.
"There is now trespassing on the enclosure of the subscriber a small dark cow," complained Dorothy Wales in a lost-and-found ad in May, 1839. "The owner is requested to prove property, pay charges and take her away."
Elizabeth Carter of Near Groveton, Va., ran a notice about her runaway slave in June, 1837. "Ran away . . . on the 14th instant, a Negro man named Moses, aged about 40 years, and about six feet high, well-made and possessing a good address. He is very black, and has lost one of his ears. His clothing is not recollected . . . $50 will be paid by the subscriber for the recovery of Moses."
Room-for-rent ads had cachet!
"Mrs. Susan L. Hewitt, having fitted up in handsome style that large and commodious house on the north side of Pennsylvania avenue, corner of Third Street, for the accommodation of boarders, is prepared to receive a mess of Members of Congress the ensuing session."
Mrs. Smith feels the new course keys in well with the teaching of black history. "The black population has always had a significant influence on the city. Most people don't realize that there was a large free black community here well before the Civil War."
The course promises to unravel some other little-known pieces of information:
-The current D.C. Congressman, Walter Fauntroy, is not the city's first non-voting delegate. Norton Chipman was, back in 1871-74.
-The nation's capital could be in St. Louis today if the Yankees who distrusted Washington's loyalty to the Union during the Civil War had had their way.
-Like many American cities, Washington had her own tradition of bossism in the person of Alexander Shepherd, governor of the territory of Washington and head of public works in the 1870's. Known around town as Boss Shepherd, he finagled $8 million out of Congress to fix the city up. He graded and paved the streets, put in lights, trees, and gas and sewer lines - all at a cost overrun of $14 million. Congress in its fury ousted Boss Shepherd, installed its own three-man commission and the District didn't regain self-government for another century.
The history course will be divided into two semesters, the first from 1608 to 1874, the second from 1874 to the present.
A key part of the project, Smith points out, is encouraging students to learn more about their family histories and their own neighborhoods through original research like interviews with relatives and neighbors, photographic studies, neighborhood walking tours, and studies of library and museum records.