Making history come alive

Unlike some of his classmates, Sequim eighth-grader Bill Koenig was having a little trouble digging up first-person accounts for his History Day project.

Understandable, considering that those sources are about 600 years dead.

Still, he and fellow Sequim Middle School students Wesley Gilchrist and James Reis are heading to the East Coast next week for the National History Day competition at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Gilchrist and Reis earned a spot at nationals for their project “Lessons of Failure: The Impact and Innovation of the Bridges of the Narrows,’ about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, that took first place at the Washington State History Day competition in the Group Exhibit division.

Koenig’s individual exhibit, “Changing the Face of War: The Longbow,” took second place in his division.

Koenig, a fan of fantasy books that use medieval themes, studied the Middle Ages — and how the longbow changed warfare — as a seventh-grader.

This year’s History Day theme “Innovations in History: Impact and Change” sparked something in his mind.

“That’s one of the first things that popped into my mind,” Koenig said.

History Day is a nationwide competition challenging middle school and high
school students to complete in-depth research.

At Sequim Middle School, each student in grades seven and eight is required to do some sort of project: a paper, a documentary, a Web site, a poster board or a performance.

“One of the things History Day emphasizes is a strong primary source focus,” teacher Tricia Billes said.

Bill Koenig, a Sequim Middle School eighth-grader, is headed to the National History Day competition in Maryland next week. His project, “Changing the Face of War: The Longbow,” took second place at the state competition.  Sequim Gazette photo by Michael Dashiell

For Koenig, that’s a problem, considering his time period of study is 1100-1400.

Unable to get an interview with a longbow user from that era, Koenig researched the topic extensively by book and Internet sources, compiling a 1,300-word research paper.

His next problem? His project could have only 500 of his own words.

At each stage of the History Day competition — districts (within the school), regional and state — Koenig worked to replace his own words with more quotes and insight from his sources.

And what did he find in all that research?

“It (the longbow) definitely changed strategies,” Koenig said, noting that soldiers from England developed the practice to fight the French in the Hundred Years War.

Before the emergence of the longbow, knights were the power on medieval armies, Koenig explains. The English’s adoption of the long-range bowmen allowed lower-class citizens (peasants, predominantly) to be warriors, using armor-piercing arrows to topple French knights from up to 250 yards away.

“The English needed a fast, effective way to have a weapon everyone could use,” Koenig said.
The idea of chivalry — that one class of citizenry were allowed to fight only the same class, such as nobleman versus nobleman — went out the proverbial window, Koenig said.

The French army leaders didn’t respond to the longbow by adopting it as well, Koenig says, because they were afraid to arm their lower class citizenry.

“I was surprised they were so dedicated to this honor code,” Koenig said. “It was nothing like it is today.”

The style of warfare was so effective, he said, that soon 80 percent of the English army were archers.

Koenig and others will have their research tested at nationals, where judges consider the depth and breadth of their work with dozens of others at the University of Maryland.

With any free time the Sequim students have, they’ll join a tour of Washington, D.C., and try to see the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, the Library of Congress and Ford’s Theatre.

National History Day is set for June 13-17.

Those wishing to help students cover costs of making the trip may call Sequim Middle School at 582-3500.

Reach Michael Dashiell at

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