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National History Day Research Portal : Sample Topics with Sources

Jean Nicolet – Myth versus Reality

Time Period: Early 1600s
Type of History: Political, Economic, Native American, Early Explorers
What is this about?
Jean Nicolet was a French Canadian explorer credited with being the first person of European descent to set foot in what is today Wisconsin. As the story goes, Nicolet was searching for the rumored Northwest Passage, a water-route across northern Canada that would lead to the Pacific Ocean. When arriving on the shores of Green Bay, Nicolet disembarked from his canoe wearing Chinese silk robes, fired his pistols into the air, and was immediately disappointed to realize he was not, in fact, in China. New research by Patrick Jung has uncovered the truth behind these myths, discovering that much of Nicolet’s story has been misinterpreted and miscommunicated through the ages as historians added their own “facts” to the story.

Keywords: Jean Nicolet, Samuel De Champlain, Etienne Brule
Where to Start?
The Misunderstood Mission of Jean Nicolet by Patrick J. Jung:
Turning Points from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

The Lead Rush and Treaty Era

Time Period: Early 1800s – 1848
Type of History: Political, Economic, Native American
What is this about?
The story of how we became the Badger State is familiar to most schoolchildren. Lead was "discovered" in the southwestern portions of the state, and miners came from all over the world. Many of them were from Cornwall, England. In fact, so many miners came that soon we had enough voters to go from territory to statehood. In 1848, Wisconsin was voted into the Union. This Eurocentric perspective of Wisconsin statehood ignores the Native American story in Wisconsin—the dozens of treaties, forced removals, and broken promises made by the US Government. The true history of lead and its uses by Native peoples reaches back in time long before the Treaty of 1837 stripped the Ho-Chunk of their ancestral lands and forced them out of Wisconsin. This more comprehensive picture of our history brings needed perspective to the story of the Badger State.

Keywords: Ho-Chunk, Treaty of 1837, Lead Mining, Badgers
Where to Start?
Lead Mining: Turning Points from the Wisconsin Historical Society
Treaty Councils: Turning Points from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

The Black Hawk War

Time Period: 1800–1830s
Type of History: Political, Military, Social, Economic, Native American
What is this about?
The Black Hawk War of 1832 names the conflict between the Sauk Indians, led by Chief Black Hawk, and the United States government. After ceding their land in an 1804 treaty, the Sauk were finally ordered to leave in 1829. When the US Government failed to deliver on its promises of supplies, Black Hawk led his nation back onto their former homeland. Due to a miscommunication, attempts to negotiate ended up in shots being fired and fatalities on both sides. The war ended with the Massacre at Bad Axe with the deaths of over two hundred of Black Hawk’s followers at the hands of US soldiers and state militia.

Keywords: Black Hawk War, Sauk Nation, Treaty of 1804
Where to Start?
Life of Black Hawk:
Turning Points from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

The Underground Railroad

Time Period: 1840s–1860s
Type of History: Political, Social, Economic, African American
What is this about?
The Underground Railroad was a coalition of abolitionists in the north and south that provided safe havens for freedom seekers looking to escape enslavement in southern states. Abolitionists were called conductors and had a series of codes used to communicate with each other and enslaved persons as they made their way north. For many enslaved persons, the ultimate destination was Canada, which, as part of Great Britain, had abolished slavery in 1833.

Keywords: Slavery, US Civil War, Underground Railroad, Abolitionist
Where to Start?
Codes of the Underground Railroad:
The Underground Railroad in Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

Letters From Home

Time Period: Varies (1860s; 1918–1919; 1940s)
Type of History: Social, Military
What is this about?
Soldiers on the frontlines have relied on letters and packages from home to boost morale, keep up with their friends, and maintain long-distance relationships. Reading those letters today gives us a glimpse into the everyday lives of those on the frontlines and those left at home. In letters sent home from the US Civil War, World War I, and World War II, soldiers both explained theirs views of war and shielded their loved ones from the daily horrors of it. In letters sent to the front, you can see how families, friends, husbands, wives, and children encouraged their soldiers while maintaining homes, working new jobs, and enduring rationing and other hardships.

Keywords: Civil War Letters, War Correspondence, Homefront
Where to Start?
Wisconsin Women in the War Between the States by Ethel Hurn:
The Civil War Homefront from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

Women's Suffrage

Time Period: 1840s–1920s
Type of History: Social, Economic, Political
What is this about?
The right to vote is fundamental to democracy, and the successful struggle to expand suffrage to include women was built over time through the efforts of generations of activists. Wisconsin’s Progressive political movement produced local and national leaders in the Woman’s Suffrage movement, including Ada James, Belle Case La Follette, Robert La Follette Senior, Carrie Chatman Catt, Theodora Youmans, and many more. Using a wide variety of methods from protest marches to hunger strikes, men and women suffragists worked to guarantee women to vote, culminating in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Keywords: Suffrage, Suffragists, Nineteenth Amendment, Progressives
Where to Start?
On Wisconsin Women: Working for Their Rights from Settlement to Suffrage by Genivieve McBride:
The Woman’s Suffrage Movement from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

Wisconsin Civil Rights Leaders

Time Period: 1960s
Type of History: Social, Political, African American
What is this about?
While many people associate the civil rights movement of the 1950s–1970s with southern states and southern leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Wisconsin also has a proud history of strong civil rights leadership. Alderwoman Vel Phillips, the first African American woman to be elected to Milwaukee’s City Council, Father James Groppi, the white Catholic priest who became the spokesperson for the youth NAACP, and Representative Lloyd Barbee all played important roles in leading Milwaukee’s civil rights movement.

Keywords: Representative Lloyd Barbee, Father James Groppi, Madam Alderman Vel Phillips, MUSIC, Milwaukee Civil Rights
Where to Start?
The March on Milwaukee from UW Milwaukee:
Desegregation and Civil Rights – Turning Points from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

On This Page

This page suggests several Wisconsin-based NHD topics. These topics are broad ideas and can be examined in many different ways. There are enough resources available online or through your local library to support your research. Use this page as a place to get ideas and get started on research, then use the other pages in this guide to keep going.

Need more ideas? Find more topics here.