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Interpreting the Evidence

Sarah Bishop and Help for the Poor

  • Historical Eras:

    Revolution and New Nation (1754 - 1820s)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School

  • Topics:

    American Revolution

  • Primary Source Types:

    Written Document

  • Regions:

    Capital District
    Long Island
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load My File Upload - January 28, 2021 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Topic: Socioeconomic status the early 1800s, Economics, Connection to literature

Skills: Fact vs. Fiction, Inference, Compare/contrast, Text based evidence

This document shows people in need in North Salem in the early 1800s. Many women are widows with children to support, some require medical assistance, and others are being relocated to Long Island.

Sarah Bishop, by Scott Odell, tells the story of a young orphaned girl, who lost her brother and father in the American Revolution, both fighting on opposite sides of the war and her struggle to find shelter and peace in her life. Scott O’Dell’s character Sarah Bishop could be based on historical information.  Her name is listed twice in this document as receiving funds and in removal to Long Island.

Historical Context: Throughout American history, both private groups and local, state, and federal governments have taken steps to help the poor.  Records of financial help, such as this Overseer of the Poor Book of Accounts from the Town of North Salem, NY, are available in many historical societies across the state, as well as the New York State Archives.  Overseers of the poor were officials in the town who distributed funds acquired from taxes to people that needed money for food, clothing, and medical treatments.  For people that could not take care of themselves or did not have shelter, the overseer would have to go in search of a community member or family member that would take the person in need into their home for a small fee.   

Essential Question: What do public records show us about the desire of Americans to help the less fortunate?

 ​​​​​​Document Analysis: 

1.      This document can be used with the children’s literature book, Sarah Bishop or as a stand-alone document supplementing the early 1800s.

2.      Discuss the difficulties of war and how the American Revolution might have impacted families in the early 1800s (Sarah Bishop was greatly impacted).  In many situations when the man went to war, the wife and children were left to tend to the farm and maintain production. If he did not return, the family might have experienced tremendous economic hardships. Using this overseer of the poor document you can explore the hardships of families during this time.

3.      Place students in groups and have them complete Part 1 Group Analysis & Prediction and Part2 Document Analysis.

4.      As a class, discuss each component of the organizer.  Incorporate the following questions into the discussion:

 ​​​​Link to Literature:

•        Scott O’Dell’s book Sarah Bishop, is about a young orphaned girl who has to escape from the British soldiers and finds herself living and surviving in a cave in Northern Westchester County at the end of the Revolutionary War. Scott O’Dell’s character Sarah Bishop could be based on historical information and a bit of oral tradition.  The primary document shows Sarah Bishop receiving funds and assistance from the overseer of the poor in North Salem, New York.

•        Using the information from the document and the book:

•        Why would a young girl want to live alone?

•        What makes the book easier to understand then historical documents?

•        From a literary point of view, why can Scott O’Dell take such liberties when writing historical fiction?

•        What’s the difference between a historical document and a historical fiction book?

Writing Extension:

As a society do we have a responsibility to help the less fortunate?  Can you think of any examples from today of how we help those in our society that need it? What would happen if we refused to help the less fortunate?

Compare this account of helping the poor to other examples in American history, such as the Great Depression. Compare this account of helping the poor to modern examples, such as welfare programs.