Lesson Plan

Learning about Mill Workers through Primary Sources

Lesson Plan Image
Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
State Standards:
HP 1; HP 1 (3-4)-1; HP 2; HP 2-2; HP 2 (3-4)-3; HP 3; HP 3-1;
Additional Standards:
D2.Eco.3.3-5; D2.Eco.4.3-5; E 1 (3-4) –1; E 2 (K-2) – 2; D2.Geo.1.3-5; D2.Geo.2.3-5; D2.Geo.8.3-5; D2.His.1.3-5; D2.His.16.3-5
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

What do the injury reports from the past tell us about the lives of mill workers?


1) Students will analyze injury reports of several mill workers and identify characteristics of mill employees.

2) Students will compare the similarities and differences of mill workers.

3) Students will formulate questions about primary source documents.


About These Materials:  

Rhode Island is a state with an extensive history, as it is part of the original thirteen colonies owned by England and played a crucial role in the development of America as a nation. Rhode Island was extremely influential in the United States Industrial Revolution; English immigrant Samuel Slater built a mill that made cotton thread along the Blackstone River Valley area of Rhode Island. With the funding from Moses Brown, this idea began a shift from agriculture to industry throughout parts of New England. Numerous other investors developed mill complexes that dotted Rhode Island’s rivers and utilized water power in new ways. Canals created a new mode of transportation while dams allowed human control of the rivers. This created major changes in how people moved over land and also how people were able to obtain goods and other basic needs. One of those investors was Captain Wilbur Kelly, whose influence in and around the area of Ashton will be the focus of this unit.  

The Rhode Island Historical Society, in partnership with Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, developed academic lessons that can be used on-site at the grounds of the Kelly House and the Ashton Mill complex as well as in the classroom if unavailable to go to the site itself. The project consisted of conducting archival research, reading secondary sources, and local educators creating interactive lessons for students which focus on historical context, ELA strategies, and STEM education. This unit provides a well-rounded learning experience for students at the upper elementary level. It intends to showcase a narrative of Rhode Islanders who used the Blackstone River Valley for commercial purposes. Educators could teach this unit during an exploration of famous Rhode Islanders, the Industrial Revolution, or the study of environment and geography in Rhode Island. 


View this set of videos for an overview of the history of the Wilbur Kelly and Ashton Mills. 

See this timeline of the history of the property from before European contact to the present. 

See this video by the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park about canal construction. 

* * * 

How to Use These Materials 

The lessons do not need to be completed as a whole or in any particular order. A teacher may decide to teach the lesson on “The Rhode Island System” in the classroom before a class visit to the Kelly House, visit the Kelly House to walk the property and see what they have learned, run the “Testing the Water Quality of the Blackstone River” lesson while at the property, and follow up in the classroom with the “Project Zap” lesson. A teacher may decide to take pieces of one lesson and combine it with another. The lessons are for teachers to use as is fitting for their curriculum. There are endless possibilities. The lessons below give tips for running the lesson at the Kelly House Museum and property and in the classroom. Some of the lessons have additional suggested extension activities to deepen the lesson further. 






These primary source documents, courtesy of Rhode Island Historical Society, provide demographic and work related information about injured mill workers. Students should analyze these primary source documents

Download Mill Worker Injury Records

This fact sheet provides the students with reference of what types of jobs and roles each worker had

Download Mill Worker Occupation Reference

This is a blank worksheet for the students to use

Download Worksheet

This is the teacher's answer key

Download Answer Key for Worksheet

Lesson Hook/Preview

This lesson will have students use primary sources to learn about some of the mill workers and their jobs at the Lonsdale Company in Rhode Island during the early 1940s through injury reports found at the Rhode Island Historical Society. Students will examine the documents, describe injuries obtained while working at the mill, and identify characteristics of the mill employees. Students will also create a T-chart to show how mill workers were alike and different. 


  1. Inform the class that they will review injury reports from 1942 of workers at the Lonsdale cotton textile company mills. These primary sources will be used to learn about the mill workers, their jobs, and the injuries they sometimes received while working at the mill. These reports were from the Berkeley Mills in Cumberland. Berkeley Mills were located a short distance away from Ashton to the south and also along the Blackstone River.  

  1. Separate the students into groups of five. 

  1. Distribute the set of five different injury reports to each group. 

  1. Distribute copies of the Mill Injuries Worksheet, one worksheet per student. 

  1. Post the key vocabulary that students will encounter when working with the primary sources. 

  1. Students will examine their assigned injury report and highlight the injured worker’s name, age, nationality, time employed, wages earned per day, and injury obtained while at work. 

  1. Students will record their findings on their worksheet and share information with their group until all details from the five injury reports have been recorded on the worksheets. 

  1. Each team will analyze the group’s findings to determine the characteristics that the mill workers had in common and identify how they were different. 

  1. Students will describe their similarities and differences on a T chart. 


Carding: the process of combing or brushing cloth until the fibers are separated and parallel to each other 

Disability: a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities. 

Doffing: removing 

Employed: having a paid job 

Employee: a person who has a paid job 

Foreman: a person who supervises and directs other workers. In the past, the foreman was usually a man. 

Nationality: the state of belonging to a particular country or being a citizen of a particular  

Spool: a cylindrical piece of wood on which yarn is wound 

Wages: payment of money for labor on an hourly, daily, or piecework basis 

Assessment Materials

Primary sources tell students about the past.  Work documents, such as injury reports, provide details about the mill workers and their work environment.  These records help students to better understand the lives of mill workers.

1) What types of injuries are reported on this small sample of documents? 

2) Compared to the mill employees, do adults today work more or fewer hours for their employers per day? Days per week? 

3) What other information can you learn about the people from their injury reports? 

Enrichment Activities

Extension: To learn more about Black Rhode Islanders and employment during the Industrial era, see the Rhode Island Historical Society’s lesson “Civil Rights in Employment,” in our unit plan for elementary students African American Civil Rights in Rhode Island. The full set of units and more information about the civil rights of Black Rhode Islanders in the 20th century, see our project page here which was supported by funding through the National Park Service. 

This article is not for students, but may be of interest to further teacher knowledge, there is an article title “African Americans and the Industrial Revolution” available through Jstor. 

Contact Information

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Last updated: January 4, 2024