Grade 3-5

Economic Spotter: Trade in Colonial History

Updated: January 14 2021,
Author: Mickey Ebert

Students take a trip back in time and spot economic concepts in a historical fiction tale. This time frame features Boston Harbor around 1680.


Time MachineWould you like to go back in history in a time machine? Would you be able to spot economic concepts? We know that economics helped shape our history, but can you recognize those concepts when you read about history? You are going to take a time machine back to Boston Harbor in 1680. Your job is to be an economic spotter and see if you can recognize trade as it happened in 1680. You are going to keep a list of different kinds of trade that you find in the story. Then you are going to explain in paragraph form what trade is and how trade and specialization might have helped people in the colonies.

Learning Objectives

  • Define the concept of exchange.
  • Find examples of economic specialization within a story.

Resource List

  • Time Machine-U.S. Mint Activity: This website discusses the history of coins and contains various information regarding current and past coins while including activities about coins. (This link requires the use of Internet Explorer, if you are not using Internet Explorer use the colonization activity).
  • Colonization Activity: For more information about trade and trade specialization students can participate in this activity.
    Colonization activity
  • Boston Online: History: This site provides links to webpages that will provide history on the Boston and Boston Harbor.


  1. Tell the students that they are going to be given a chance to go back in history on a time machine. This journey is going to take them back to Boston Harbor in 1680, but their job is to be an economic spotter. Can they spot and explain economic concepts within a historical time frame?
  2. Discuss trade. When two people exchange goods and services or money, it is called Tradetrade.  And trading goods and services with people for other goods and services or money is called exchange.
  • Have you ever traded something with another person?
  • Were you and the other person happy after you traded?
  1. Explain that when people trade voluntarily — because they want to — both parties usually think that they are better off after the trade. You should never trade something when you are going to be unhappy after the trade. You should be better off after the exchange, or you shouldn’t have traded.
  • Did you ever use money as an exchange for candy or gum?
  • Were you happy that you exchanged money for those goods?
  • Was the store happy with the money that you exchanged for the candy or gum?
  1. Time Machine-U.S. Mint Activity. (This link requires the use of Internet Explorer, if you are not using Internet Explorer) use this Colonization activity) and keep a list of all the ways trade is used in the story.


Discuss the following questions with the students:

[NOTE: Click here to learn more about Boston’s history.]

  1. Why was Boston Harbor important to the colonies? [It was a good harbor city and many goods were exchanged there.]
  2. What were the ships coming into Boston carrying? [Goods from other countries and ports, such as tea, and maybe furniture, cloth, dishes, rum, etc.]
  3. What were the ships leaving Boston carrying? [They were carrying furs, animal hides, and crops.]
  4. Where did the furs come from? [Fur traders traded wampum for animal pelts and then the father bought them from the fur traders. The father then sold the pelts to merchants.]
  5. Why could the Massachusetts Bay Colony specialize in beaver pelts? [There were a lot of animals in the colonies and the Indians would trap them to trade for wampum.]
  6. What is a shilling and what did it get exchanged for? [A shilling is a coin and it was used to buy a packet of tea.]


Go back to the Time Machine activity and review what you have learned.

Write a paragraph in which you tell what exchange is and what sort of exchanges took place in Boston, 1680. Tell how specialization helped people in the colonies trade with England.