The 2021-2022 California Conquest research project, the first Madera Method project by Madera South High School students, was an ambitious undertaking spearheaded by eager third-year teacher Valerie Shelton and 14 seniors in her elective historical literacy course.
Unsure of where to begin, Ms. Shelton met with Madera Method founder Bill Coate and perused the archive of primary sources he graciously donated to the school’s library in 2019. There, she was most intrigued by a series of eloquent letters written by Benjamin S. Lippincott, a California pioneer, and statesman who helped in the creation of the California constitution. Ms. Shelton brought these letters back to her classroom to share with students where she found them to be most interested in parts of Lippincott’s letters related to the conflict between America and Mexico in the Mexican American War, known in Mexico as the California Conquest.
These primarily Hispanic students were keen to know how California became part of the United States and through their research, they would quickly discover the inconvenient truth that the state, along with much of the western United States as we know it today, was in fact stolen from Mexico in America’s land quest under the philosophy of manifest destiny.
Having little knowledge of the Mexican American War–a vital component of their California history–students dug deeper, selecting prominent men involved in the war to research. The result is a collection of historical narrative accounts written as journal entries and letters from the perspectives of Captain John Sutter, Dr. John Marsh, Consul Thomas O. Larkin, former Mexican governor of California Juan Bautista Alvarado, Californio General turned statesman Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, Isaac Graham, and Benjamin S. Lippincott. In this research, students drew from the primary sources of Lippincott’s letters, the letters of other individuals, articles published in the first California newspapers, and historical documents such as Polk’s Declaration of War and the text of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. As a class, they also studied Irving Stone’s historical narrative “From Mud-Flat Cove to Gold to Statehood” as a model to inspire their own writing.
The result of the students’ intense work is a forthcoming book under the working title “Uncovering the California Conquest: How the United States took the golden state from Mexico”.
In addition to providing narrative accounts, students also shared some of their research with a broader audience through our class-created podcast, the Madera Method Podcast, which we hope will grow into a venue where all students participating in Madera Method projects throughout the district and beyond can share their historical knowledge.