Social Media in Colonial Times: Primary Source Learning with the Cape Fear Mercury

I’ve always liked using primary sources in my instruction because the unfiltered records guide students to exercise higher order thinking skills and draw their own conclusions.

In November 2014, I was thrilled and honored to be selected by the North Carolina Geographic Alliance as a teacher scholar for an immersive professional experience in primary sources, entitled When We Were British, at the National Archives in London. Not only was I one of twelve teachers selected, but I was also the only school librarian in the bunch! We met with program coordinator Andy Mink, from,as well as leaders from both the North Carolina and Virginia Geographic Alliances. The purpose was to develop resources for classroom teachers in our respective states, keeping our work filtered through a geographic lens. My topic? “The British Connection to the Cape Fear Region in North Carolina.” In the course of my research, I uncovered six copies of the Cape Fear Mercury newspaper published in Wilmington, North Carolina, in the summer of 1775. 

Lesson Overview 

After many hours of examining the Cape Fear Mercury, I began to notice that the articles originated throughout the colonies and from across the Atlantic. As my lesson took shape, I could see that the Mercury clearly represented the movement of ideas, one of the five themes of geography. This theme set up my lesson objectives:

  • Students will explore the movement of ideas in colonial North Carolina using a GIS map of the Cape Fear Mercury.
  • Students will learn how to analyze primary sources both as a group and independently.
  • Students will create modern platforms for delivery of historic information.

Setting the Stage for Learning

I decided to kickstart my lesson with a hook. Old newspapers aren’t going to instantly grab an eighth grader’s attention, so delivery is key! I found an accompanying (current) title about newspapers during the Revolutionary War: Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News by Todd Andrlik. This book also has a short but compelling trailer ( highlighting newspaper headlines and illustrations demonstrating the drama unfolding in the 1770s. This book trailer plus the lesson title, “Social Media in Colonial North Carolina,” helped introduce this lesson as relevant to today’s learners.

Creating a GIS Map

My favorite activity is one I created just for this lesson: a GIS (geographic information system) map of the Mercury using ArcGIS. Using GIS technology, I created thumbnail images of newspaper articles and located them on an interactive map. Each pin on the map represents the geographic origin of the article and provides a visual interpretation of the movement of ideas. Some articles came from Wilmington where the newspaper was published, but others came from Charleston, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, London, and even Germany. Users can zoom in and out of these locations on the map, as well as scroll through the thumbnails to browse for particular articles of interest. Today’s students can access and explore primary sources through innovative platforms like this to engage with history and construct their own conclusions. 

Assessing Student Knowledge

It is important to use some kind of pre-assessment to gauge students’ knowledge to determine whether you need to build background knowledge first. For this lesson, I used a KWL chart to find out what students knew and to start them thinking about our topics:

  • How did news travel in colonial America?  
  • Where did newspapers get their information?  
  • How do newspapers influence ideas in the minds of readers?
  • Why did newspapers become a popular form of social media?
  • How are the articles in the Mercury similar and different to newspaper articles today?

Essential Question & Building Context

When setting our purpose for learning, it’s important to know why. Students and the teacher need to know expectations so student learning can be assessed. For this lesson we asked, “How did the Mercury receive news items and ideas? How did these ideas influence the changing political environment in North Carolina?

It is important to provide the schema so students can gain a full understanding of the lesson objectives. It might be necessary to provide (or have students build) a contextual essay or some other supporting information to fill in the gaps. These key factors established context for the lesson:

  • In 1775, there were only about three dozen newspapers in the thirteen colonies and only two in all of North Carolina. 
  • It took about a week to typeset a single edition of a newspaper. 
  • Political turmoil was brewing between the colonists and England. 

Lesson Objectives

Primary sources aren’t just for history and they aren’t just for high school. Although my lesson objectives were designed with eighth graders in mind, they can be adapted for use with younger or older students. Primary sources can be used across the curriculum for building background knowledge, accompanying content curriculum, and encouraging students to apply high-order thinking skills. Here are examples in a range of subject areas:

  • History: Students will be able to explain how the Mercury procured ideas and helped to contribute to the changing political and social climate in colonial North Carolina.
  • Geography:Students will be able to illustrate the movement of ideas from various locations to the Cape Fear region.
  • Technology:Students will be able to create modern versions of the information conveyed in the Mercury in various mock “social media” platforms.  
  • Language Arts: Students can produce “news articles” from a journalistic perspective as if they were there and then publish a collaborative, new version of the Mercury.  

Assessment of Student Learning

These are some assessment techniques that can be adjusted or modified to accommodate grade level, student ability, or time. 

  • Students can do a five-minute “power write” explaining the movement of ideas and how colonial newspapers such as the Mercury contributed to social and political changes.
  • Students create social media documenting the events found in the Mercury to construct digital media.
  • Students write their own current events articles and create a modern version of the Mercury.
  • Students respond to guiding questions in either an essay or a series of test questions.
  • As a class, revisit the KWL chart to ensure the instructional goal was met. 

Using What I’ve Learned

By the time I finished creating my lesson, I had moved on to a new position at the county office. I no longer work with students directly, but instead I work with other school librarians and classroom teachers as an instructional coach. I continue to work with educators integrating primary sources into instruction, as well as learning more about using different instructional strategies with primary sources for promoting student engagement. 


Works Cited & Additional Resources

Abercrombie, Sedley. Movement of Ideas: The Cape Fear Mercury—Social Media in Colonial North Carolina (GIS Map of Cape Fear Mercury).

Andrlik, Todd. Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News. SourceBooks, 2012.

Library of Congress. Teaching with Primary Sources Program. (accessed August 14, 2016).

Mink’ED. (accessed August 14, 2016).

National Archives (United Kingdom). (accessed August 14, 2016).

National Council for Geographic Education. (accessed August 14, 2016).

When We Were British.iBook Download. (accessed August 14, 2016).

About the Author

Sedley Abercrombie is the lead library media coordinator for Davidson County Schools, NC. She has worked as a school librarian in the elementary, middle and high school levels. She earned her batchelor's from the University of New Orleans and her master's in library science from East Carolina University.
Although she entered the profession mid-career, Abercrombie has always had an affinity for books and libraries. Her destiny may have been sealed as a fourth grader having created spine labels and a card catalog for her small personal library of paperbacks. She is currently serving as president for the North Carolina School Library Media Association. Abercrombie regularly presents on her work at various educational and school library conferences.

MLA Citation Abercrombie, Sedley. "Social Media in Colonial Times: Primary Source Learning with the Cape Fear Mercury." School Library Connection, November 2016,

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Entry ID: 2046631

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