I just read through a young person’s history book at breakneck speed, because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened. It was a mystery and a story of research, all wrapped in one, and it was about John Henry.
You remember John Henry—the steel driving man who won the contest with a steam drill, but died in the effort? Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson (with March Aronson) tells the story of his quest to find the real John Henry, from clue to fragile clue. His way was blocked by everything from missing documents to recalcitrant librarians, but he persevered, in the best tradition of creative researchers everywhere. At the end of the book is a section by co-author Aronson on “How to be a Historian.” It provides a basic introduction to the processes of historical research, from searching out what is known to formulating and exploring new questions.
If you’d like to introduce students to historical research as the thrill of the chase, you can’t do better than Ain’t Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. But be warned, when you find it, you won’t be able to put it down!
P.S. Professor Nelson also has an adult book on John Henry, titled Steel Drivin’ Man: The Untold Story of an American Legend. I may just have to find it.