Homestead Act: Primary Documents in American History
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Ken Drexler, Reference Specialist, Researcher and Reference Services Division
Created: December 3, 2020
Last Updated: December 11, 2020
Primary Source Documents in American History - History
Internet History Sourcebooks Project
Welcome to The Internet History Sourcebooks Project, a collection of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts presented cleanly (without advertising or excessive layout) for educational use. Primary sources are available here primarily for use in high-school and university/college courses. From the outset the site took a very broad view of the sources that should be available to students and as well as documents long associated with a "western civilization" approach to history also provides much information on Byzantine, Islamic, Jewish, Indian, East Asian, and African history. You will also find many documents especially relevant to women's history and LGBT studies.
Search engines such as Google now deliver may users directly to relevant documents, but the various Index pages are the key to the best use of this site. You can access the major divisions of the site from the subject indexes at the top of each page. Within each major division the left of each page directs you to more focused indexes. Any given document may me listed in several indexes.
The IHSP is both very large and fairly old in Internet terms. At the time it was begun (1996), it was not clear that web sites and the documents made available there would often turn out to be ephemeral. The index pages therefore contained links to the thousands of documents available at this Fordham University website alongside links to documents at other websites. As a result of a process called "link rot" - which means that a "broken link" is a result of someone having taken down a web page - this means some links no longer worked. Since 2000, very few links to external sites have been made and we make efforts is under way to remove bad links. Very often you will be able to find archived versions of such documents by using the Wayback Machine [www.archive.org].
This site at Fordham can now be searched via the Search box at the top of each page.
I am always happy to hear from people who wish to submit copy permitted texts to the various sites below.
The Internet History Sourcebooks
- Internet Ancient History Sourcebook
A "classroom usable" sourcebook of copy-permitted material for Ancient history and civilization courses.
- Internet Medieval Sourcebook
This is an online sourcebook of copy-permitted, although not necessarily copyright-free, source material for Medieval Studies. It is the largest online resource of medieval and Byzantine textual sources.
- Internet Modern History Sourcebook
Now with almost as many online texts as the Medieval Sourcebook, this also constitutes a "classroom usable" sourcebook of copy-permitted material for Modern European history and Modern Civilization courses. North American and Latin American documents are located within its structure.
The following consist of thematically based subsets of texts, with some additional documents and links, of the three main Source-books listed above.
The following consist of thematically based subsets of texts entirely taken from the three main Sourcebooks listed above, along with documents from the subsidiary source-books
- Legal History: Ancient and Medieval
Traveler's accounts of their journeys and the lands they visit are important sources in understanding the past. As outsiders, travelers often note aspects of a culture that are too commonplace for local commentators to mention. More than this, travelers often provide some insight into how their own society understood itself in relation to other cultures.
Historical Studies Websites
- Byzantium: Byzantine Studies on the Internet
This page reflect my primary interest as a historian - the history and culture of the Byzantine Empire.
- Medieval New York
A guide prepared by students in my Fordham medieval courses to the Middle Ages in New York City.
- 2019 [PDF].[See also Items added since 2000 [PDF]
- Saints: A Research Guide 2005 [PDF]
- The Byzantine Saint: A Bibliography 2005 [PDF]
- Listening to Medieval Music 2002 [Discography] Expanded PDF Version
- Bibliographical Guide to Lesbian and Gay History
- Bibliography of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Catholic Studies v.5.1 [PDF]
- Paul Halsall, Life of St. Thomaïs of Lesbos (introduction and translation) in Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation, edited by Alice-Mary Talbot, Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996. 291-322 [PDF]
- Paul Halsall: Wedded to Christ: Nuptiality and Gender Reversal in the Lives of Byzantine Male Saints, Byzantine Studies Conference, Wisconsin, 26-28 September 1997, updated version [PDF]
- Paul Halsall: Male-Bonding: Homosexuality and Friendship in Byzantine Saint's Lives. Queer Middle AgesConference, New York, November 6, 1998 [PDF]
- Paul Halsall: Men's Bodies, Women's Souls: Sanctity and Gender in Byzantium. PhD Dissertation, Fordham University, New York, 1999 [PDF]
- Paul Halsall: Judith Bennett's Contribution to Doing a History of and for Lesbians and Gays. Panel 1298: "Lesbian Like" and its Theoretical and Historical Implications for the Study of the History of Women's Sexuality: A Roundtable Discussion with Judith Bennett. 35th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo MI., May 5, 2000.
- Paul Halsall: Same-Sex Marriage, the Majesty of the Law, and the Power of Language: _____ and ____vs. the Attorney General of Canada (Affidavit of 2001). 2001 [PDF]
- Paul Halsall: Thinking about Historical Film: Is it Worth the Trouble? 2002 [PDF]
- Paul Halsall: Early Western Civilization under the Sign of Gender: Europe and the Mediterranean (4000BCE-1400CE), in Blackwell Companion to Gender History, edited by Teresa A Meade and Merry E Wiesner-Hanks, Cambridge: Blackwell, 2005, 285-306. [PDF]
Course Web Sites by Paul Halsall
Various course websites which reflect the use of IHSP documents.
Western Civilisation Courses
Core I: Western Civilisation to 1715
A website created for my 2004 course at UNF. This includes lecture/class outlines [Archived Version]
Core II: Western Civilisation since 1715
A website created for my 2004 course at UNF. This includes lecture/class outlines [Archived Version]
Modern History Course: The West: Enlightenment to Presents
A page created for my Fall 1998 Modern History survey course at Fordham University, The West: From the Enlightenment to the Present.
European History and Historians I
A website created for my 2004 course training graduate students how to teach introductory history courses. This course parallels a typical undergradiuate survey course, but with a reading load directed at graduate students who will be teaching such courses. [Archived Version]
European History and Historians II
A website created for my 2004 course training graduate students how to teach introductory history courses. This course parallels a typical undergradiuate survey course, but with a reading load directed at graduate students who will be teaching such courses.[Archived Version]
Medieval History Courses
Medieval Studies Course or low graphics version
A page created for my Fall 1996, and after, Medieval survey course at Fordham University, The Shaping of the Medieval World.
A website created for my 2004 course on Medieval Europe at UNF. This includes lecture/class outline [Archived Version]
A website created for my 2004 course on Byzantine History at UNF [Archived Version]
A website created for my 2005 course on the Crusades at UNF [Archived Version]
World History Courses
Core 9: Chinese Culture
A website created for my 1996-1999 courses in Chinese Culture at Brooklyn College. [Archived Version]
Islamic History to 1798
A website created for my 2005 course on Islamic History at UNF [Archived Version]
Myth, Epic, and Romance: Medieval History in Film
A website created for my 2005 course at UNF [Archived Version]
Saints, Sainthood and Society
A website created for my 2005 seminar on the history and culture of sainthood at UNF with extended outline [Archived Version]
Sex and Gender in Pre-Modern Europe
A website created for my 2002 course on sex and gender in history UNF [Archived Version]
The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University. Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.
© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 20 January 2021 [CV]
Print Document Collections at Crumb
The Library of American Civilization (LAC)
The Library of American Civilization is a collection of material on ultramicrofiche relating to all aspects of American life and literature from their beginning up to 1914. The titles in this collection are not found in the online catalog. Use the author, subject and title catalogs (in book form) and the index called a "Biblioguide." Sets of these four books are found on the LAC cabinet in which the collection is stored in the reference area. Ask for help viewing LAC microfiche.
The Charles Evans' American Bibliography
(Ref. Z1215.E923), published in 14 volumes by one energetic researcher and the American Antiquarian Society, is the most important general, annotated list of early American publications. It cites books, pamphlets and periodicals printed in the United States between 1639 and 1800, arranged by year of publication. Each volume has three indexes: author, subject and printers and publishers. The documents are reproduced on microcard and contain the full text of all known existing books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed in the United States (or British American colonies prior to Independence) from 1639 through 1800. This includes every nonserial item listed in Evans and an additional 1100 titles from Bristol's supplement to Evans. Although the serials and newspapers have been numbered in the bibliography, they are not included in the microprint edition. These documents are in boxes on shelving along the wall behind the Information Desk. A special machine is used to read microcards.
The American Culture Series
The American Culture Series is a collection of some 5000 books and pamphlets on American culture from 1493 to 1876. They were selected and microfilmed under the auspices of the American Studies Association to enable colleges having limited library resources to have on microfilm materials that can no longer be purchased. ( The Bibliography of American Culture, 1493-1875 , Ref E156.A1 A585 1957, lists all the filmed items and approximately 1500 others relevant to the period but reprinted after 1900 and therefore possibly available in print.)
This collection does not appear in the online catalog. Use the printed volume, noted above, to see what it includes. Due to the time of publication, much of the series can be considered "primary" sources. Location numbers for the items in the collection all begin with XE 4.5. The rolls of film are stored in drawers behind the reference desk in the reference area.
Microform sets of Monographic and Pamphlet Materials
- The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents , travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791: the original French, Latin and Italian texts, with English translations and notes. Ed. Rueben Gold Thwaites. Microcard. Ya/F2
- Early Western Travels, 1748-1846 , a series of annotated reprints of some of the best and rarest contemporary volumes of travel. Ed. Rueben Gold Thwaites. Microcard. Ya/F1
- Lost Cause Press: Anti-Slavery Bibliography . In microfiche drawers at WE1. These documents from the antislavery movement are listed individually in BearCat. Search there by subject, author, or title.
- Another set of primary sources, most relating to slavery in the U.S. is found in microfiche drawers at Wa/E1. These are also listed individually in BearCat - by subject, author, and title.
- Jeffersonian Americana (Books Relating to America) (selected from Sabin. Bibliotheca Americana . Ref Z 1201.S2) - some 700 documents on microfiche at WF1 and NOT listed in BearCat. They are publications in many languages about America, from its discovery to mid-1800s. The fiche are arranged alphabetically by author, or lacking an author, by title.
- New York County Histories . 5 reels of microfilm containing 14 county histories for Oneida Co. and Rensselaer Co. (XF 14)
- Civil War Letters, 1861-1865 . "Selected from those written by men serving in Union companies from Chautauqua County, N.Y. 14 sheets of microfiche, approx. 1400 pages. (Wa/E2)
The Congressional Serial Set
It is customary for a government to print is publications in a collected edition for official use. The volumes are usually uniform and are referred to as a set. The collected edition of United States publications is known as the Congressional Edition, or Congressional Set, or Serial Set. In general, the Serial Set for the United States includes material which has resulted from the work of the legislative branch but in some years materials from executive bodies have been included.
The material from each Congress is serially numbered and published in categories called Senate reports, House reports, Senate documents, House documents, Executive documents, journals of the Senate, journals of the House, etc.
Crumb Library holdings of the Serial Set begin with Serial No. 710 from the 33rd Congress (1853), with scattered volumes through the year 1887. From 1948-1978 the set is more complete, though there are gaps here as well. The library's holdings are shelved in the Lower Level. Although the library's holdings are incomplete, this is a valuable primary source. The Serial Set includes the following kinds of documents: reports to Congress from congressional committees, executive communications to Congress, annual reports of various patriotic organizations, reports of executive agencies (through 1912 only), and other publications considered by Congress to be of public interest. Excluded are documents such as hearings, committee prints, bills and resolutions, and executive agency publications since 1913. The contents of the Serial Set are not cataloged and therefore no records are in the online catalog. St. Lawrence University Library has the serial set complete except for a few small gaps. Holdings up to 1869 are on micro-card. From 1870 to present the volumes are bound. All are available on interlibrary loan.
A subject index to the Serial Set is being published. It is now complete for the period 1789-1969. Called the U.S. Serial Set Index (Ref Z 1223.Z9C65 1975). Reference is provided to the Serial Set volume where the indexed document appears. Also note: United States Government Documents on Women, 1800-1990 . (Ref HQ 1410.A1H85 1993), and Guide to American Indian documents in the congressional serial set: 1817-1899 . (Ref KF 8201.A1J63)
A folk history of slavery in the United States from interviews with former slaves was assembled as a Federal Writers' Project between 1936 and 1938. It is now available on five reels of microfilm. The title is Slave Narratives its location (behind the Information Desk) is indicated by "Microfilm XE11." Also see the printed volumes entitled, American Negro Slavery: a documentary history (E 441.M86 1976), and The American slave: a composite autobiography : supplement, series 1 (E 444 .A45 suppl.)
American Periodical Series
This collection of early periodicals is on microfilm in the AP 2 section of the periodicals microfilm cabinets. The collection is described in the volume American Periodical series (Ref PN 4877.A1H65). The periodicals available in Crumb are those in the first series, mainly from before the year 1800. To see a list of the titles in this collection, connect to BearCat - Advanced keyword Search choose in "Fields to Search"- Series Keyword and enter american periodical series
Periodicals from the mid-1800s to early 1900s
Some are available in paper, others are on microfilm: a selected list. A complete list of historically interesting periodicals available at SUNY Potsdam is the Early Periodicals database. Search by periodical subject or title, or by decade of interest.
- American Quarterly Review (LAC 30257-30272) 1827-1837 and (AP2.A4) 1827-1829. (Bound) Philadelphia. A literary review noted for its excessive national pride and often criticized for dullness.
- American Review (AP2.A465)1845-1852. (Bound) Intended to be the voice of the Whig party-corresponding to the U.S. Democratic Review. It contained quite a bit of literary material (including poems by E.A. Poe) in addition to the political content.
- Antislavery Examiner (E 449.A5092) 1836-1845. (Bound) Published in New York by the Amer. Antislavery Society.
- Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines' Friend (HT 851.A7 Microfilm) 1846-1909. London. Anti-slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. A comprehensive discussion of slavery along with extracts from contemporary newspapers and periodicals. World-wide coverage. Treats the historical events and their social and economic implications. A very significant set of documents.
- Boston Quarterly Review (LAC 30528-30531) 1838-1842. Represents the thinking of Orestes Augustus Brownson, a strong personality who wished an organ for his opinions.
- Christian Examiner (LAC 31319-31366) 1824-1869. An important religious review (Unitarian) that also treated social, literary, philosophical and educational problems. A distinguished list of contributors.
- De Bow's Review (LAC 31367-31393) 1846-1861. A journal of trade, commerce, agriculture and industry focusing on the South and West. Political issues were taken up after 1849.
- Dial (AP2.D48) 1840-44 and 1880-1929. (Bound) It was a conservative journal of literary criticism. After 1916, it became an advocate for modern developments in literature. John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen were important contributors in the period, 1916-1919. In the period 1920-1929, it represented the state-of-the-art in literature - running articles by T.S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, Kenneth Burke and others.
- Godey's Magazine (LAC 31750-31779) 1830-1860. Philadelphia. A "Ladys" magazine which published many sentimental and moral tales. Illustration formed an important attraction. Provides a history of manners, taste, costume, and a background to the advancement of women in later years.
- Harbinger (LAC 31785-31790) 1845-1849. A weekly publication of Brook Farm expounding the doctrines for Fourier, and an early source for the study of transcendentalism. Some treatment of politics. Good articles on music. A very high-minded publication.
- Harper's Magazine (AP2.H3) 1850-date (Bound). Described as an index to the literary culture and general character of the nation. Before 1925, it was a general literary magazine. After that date, it became a journal of diversified opinion - distinctly liberal. In the 1890's, it was perhaps the foremost literary magazine in America. , - 1857-1865 (via the library web site). Full-page images of Harper's Weekly for this time period. The text is also fully searchable online. (SUNY Potsdam only)
- Knickerbocker (LAC 31305-31318) 1833-1843. A monthly magazine with a N.Y. focus. Popular light reading which had correspondents reporting from throughout the country. Important for its humor. A magazine of great variety with important literary contributions.
- Merchants Magazine and Commercial Review (LAC 30640-30688) & (HF1.M5 Microfilm) 1839-1870. It was an encyclopedia of commercial subjects covering most thoroughly statistics, mercantile law, currency, banking, insurance, navigation, treaties and biography of successful merchants.
- The Nation (AP2.N2 bound) 1868-date. Current affairs, especially in the early years about Reconstruction. Following that, it was especially concerned with civil service reform, tariff reform, and proportional representation. Also a source for literary reviews. Many distinguished contributors.
- National Era (E 185.5.V33 bound - in an oversize case). 1847-1860. A reprint in the series "Negro Periodicals in the U.S., 1840-1960."
- Niles Weekly Register (LAC 31232-31273) 1811-1849. Contains 'political, historical, geographical, scientifical, statistical, economical, and biographical documents, essays and facts: together with notices of the arts and manufactures, and a record of the events of the time' . A chief resource for the historiographer of the early 19th century. Documents and speeches are printed.
- North American Review (AP2.N7) 1821- date. (Bound). (LAC 30273-30400) 1815-1901. Edited at various times by James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton and Henry Adams. A stalwart organ of political and literary comment. It attempted to remain non-partisan and impartial.
- Southern Literary Messenger (LAC 31088-31118) 1834-1863. From Richmond. Literary and travel articles. Poe edited it for a time. Of importance to the history of Southern literature, society and politics.
- Southern Quarterly Review (AP2.S85) 1842-1857. (Bound) Reflected the thought and feeling of the South in this period. Slavery and literary criticism are important, as are political and historical articles. Quite a bit of attention to the far west.
- United States Democratic Review (LAC 30219-30233) 1837-1846. Contains some literary material, but its political articles are most important. Interesting, too, for its portraits of democratic statesmen.
- Vanity Fair , (AP2.V32 bound) 1913-1936. (Index shelved with bound volumes)
- Western Messenger (LAC 30572-30576) 1835-1841. From Cincinnati. It began as a unitarian organ and is known, chiefly as a literary periodical. Deals with slavery, promotes the West (meaning, beyond the Appalachians), and American literature. The most important magazine of the west at that time.
Some of the above listed magazines are indexed in Poole's Index to Periodical Literature (Ref AI 3.P7). Vol. 1 covers the years 1802-1881. Use this index to search for a subject.
Also see the Research Society for American Periodicals - includes scanned 19th, 20th, and 21st century periodicals and resources for teaching about them.
U.S. Censuses (The Decennial Census of Population)
Some volumes, often the entire census report, are available for all of the decennial censuses from 1790 to the present with the exception of censuses of 1840 and 1890. These volumes are in the stacks at HA 201 [yr]. See also the Statistical Atlas from the 12th census (1900) at Ref HA 201 1990 B1.
Hand-recorded census rolls for St. Lawrence Co. (and some alphabetically adjacent counties) are found in the microfilm drawers at XHA1.
Census Index - this searchable database includes records for Decennial Census publications (paper and CD only) produced between 1790 and 1997. Each record includes basic bibliographic information about the title. Most records also include an abstract. This is not a way to search for names, but for census data.
Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States - a working paper presenting selected decennial census data on the foreign-born population of the United States from 1850 to 2000.
Other Collections : Selected collections of primary sources:
- Look at the bibliographies and footnotes from articles and books to see what primary sources those scholars are using for evidence
- Think and research multiple institutions, archives, or repositories that could have information and collections about your project
- Use historical language
- Keep it simple. Use broad keywords to find sources
- online collections
- digital collections
- digitized collections
- historical collections
- Narrative sources or literary sources tell a story or message. They are not limited to fictional sources (which can be sources of information for contemporary attitudes) but include diaries, films, biographies, leading philosophical works, and scientific works.
- Diplomatic sources include charters and other legal documents which usually follow a set format.
- Social documents are records created by organizations, such as registers of births and tax records.
- In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.
- In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.
- In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results." 
- Hakluyt Society - "works issued by the Hakluyt Society" - 1st and 2nd series. Approx 175 vols. of reprints of early exploration and discovery. (G 161.H2)
Native American History
Finding primary sources is a multi-step process. There is no "one-stop-shop" database that will give you everything you need for your paper. Follow these tips:
When searching for primary source collections online, include the following additional phrases with your first key words:
Be aware that digital collections only show a small portion of what an institution holds!
In scholarly writing, an important objective of classifying sources is to determine their independence and reliability.  In contexts such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources."  Sreedharan believes that primary sources have the most direct connection to the past and that they "speak for themselves" in ways that cannot be captured through the filter of secondary sources. 
Other fields Edit
In scholarly writing, the objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources.  Though the terms primary source and secondary source originated in historiography [ citation needed ] as a way to trace the history of historical ideas, they have been applied to many other fields. For example, these ideas may be used to trace the history of scientific theories, literary elements, and other information that is passed from one author to another.
In scientific literature, a primary source is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results, and theories. In political history, primary sources are documents such as official reports, speeches, pamphlets, posters, or letters by participants, official election returns, and eyewitness accounts. In the history of ideas or intellectual history, the main primary sources are books, essays, and letters written by intellectuals these intellectuals may include historians, whose books and essays are therefore considered primary sources for the intellectual historian, though they are secondary sources in their own topical fields. In religious history, the primary sources are religious texts and descriptions of religious ceremonies and rituals. 
A study of cultural history could include fictional sources such as novels or plays. In a broader sense primary sources also include artifacts like photographs, newsreels, coins, paintings or buildings created at the time. Historians may also take archaeological artifacts and oral reports and interviews into consideration. Written sources may be divided into three types. 
In historiography, when the study of history is subject to historical scrutiny, a secondary source becomes a primary source. For a biography of a historian, that historian's publications would be primary sources. Documentary films can be considered a secondary source or primary source, depending on how much the filmmaker modifies the original sources. 
The Lafayette College Library provides a synopsis of primary sources in several areas of study:
Although many primary sources remain in private hands, others are located in archives, libraries, museums, historical societies, and special collections. These can be public or private. Some are affiliated with universities and colleges, while others are government entities. Materials relating to one area might be located in many different institutions. These can be distant from the original source of the document. For example, the Huntington Library in California houses many documents from the United Kingdom.
In the US, digital copies of primary sources can be retrieved from a number of places. The Library of Congress maintains several digital collections where they can be retrieved. Some examples are American Memory and Chronicling America. The National Archives and Records Administration also has digital collections in Digital Vaults. The Digital Public Library of America searches across the digitized primary source collections of many libraries, archives, and museums. The Internet Archive also has primary source materials in many formats.
In the UK, the National Archives provides a consolidated search of its own catalog and a wide variety of other archives listed on the Access to Archives index. Digital copies of various classes of documents at the National Archives (including wills) are available from DocumentsOnline. Most of the available documents relate to England and Wales. Some digital copies of primary sources are available from the National Archives of Scotland. Many County Record Offices collections are included in Access to Archives, while others have their own online catalogs. Many County Record Offices will supply digital copies of documents.
In other regions, Europeana has digitized materials from across Europe while the World Digital Library and Flickr Commons have items from all over the world. Trove has primary sources from Australia.
Most primary source materials are not digitized and may only be represented online with a record or finding aid. Both digitized and not digitized materials can be found through catalogs such as WorldCat, the Library of Congress catalog, the National Archives catalog, and so on.
History as an academic discipline is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles, and papers. Arthur Marwick says "Primary sources are absolutely fundamental to history."  Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources that were created by the people involved at the time being studied. In practice, some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews that were taken years later. Sometimes the only evidence relating to an event or person in the distant past was written or copied decades or centuries later. Manuscripts that are sources for classical texts can be copies of documents or fragments of copies of documents. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book or letter has survived. Potential difficulties with primary sources have the result that history is usually taught in schools using secondary sources.
Historians studying the modern period with the intention of publishing an academic article prefer to go back to available primary sources and to seek new (in other words, forgotten or lost) ones. Primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives and special collections for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. A work on history is not likely to be taken seriously as a scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done. 
However, primary sources – particularly those from before the 20th century – may have hidden challenges. "Primary sources, in fact, are usually fragmentary, ambiguous, and very difficult to analyze and interpret."  Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the newcomer to historical studies. For this reason, the interpretation of primary texts is typically taught as part of an advanced college or postgraduate history course, although advanced self-study or informal training is also possible.
In many fields and contexts, such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources."  In addition, primary sources avoid the problem inherent in secondary sources in which each new author may distort and put a new spin on the findings of prior cited authors. 
"A history, whose author draws conclusions from other than primary sources or secondary sources actually based on primary sources, is by definition fiction and not history at all."
However, a primary source is not necessarily more of an authority or better than a secondary source. There can be bias and tacit unconscious views that twist historical information.
"Original material may be. prejudiced, or at least not exactly what it claims to be."
The errors may be corrected in secondary sources, which are often subjected to peer review, can be well documented, and are often written by historians working in institutions where methodological accuracy is important to the future of the author's career and reputation. Historians consider the accuracy and objectiveness of the primary sources that they are using and historians subject both primary and secondary sources to a high level of scrutiny. A primary source such as a journal entry (or the online version, a blog), at best, may only reflect one individual's opinion on events, which may or may not be truthful, accurate, or complete.
Participants and eyewitnesses may misunderstand events or distort their reports, deliberately or not, to enhance their own image or importance. Such effects can increase over time, as people create a narrative that may not be accurate.  For any source, primary or secondary, it is important for the researcher to evaluate the amount and direction of bias.  As an example, a government report may be an accurate and unbiased description of events, but it may be censored or altered for propaganda or cover-up purposes. The facts can be distorted to present the opposing sides in a negative light. Barristers are taught that evidence in a court case may be truthful but may still be distorted to support or oppose the position of one of the parties.
Many sources can be considered either primary or secondary, depending on the context in which they are examined.  Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary sources is subjective and contextual,  so that precise definitions are difficult to make.  A book review, when it contains the opinion of the reviewer about the book rather than a summary of the book, becomes a primary source.  
If a historical text discusses old documents to derive a new historical conclusion, it is considered to be a primary source for the new conclusion. Examples in which a source can be both primary and secondary include an obituary  or a survey of several volumes of a journal counting the frequency of articles on a certain topic. 
Whether a source is regarded as primary or secondary in a given context may change, depending upon the present state of knowledge within the field.  For example, if a document refers to the contents of a previous but undiscovered letter, that document may be considered "primary", since it is the closest known thing to an original source but if the letter is later found, it may then be considered "secondary" 
In some instances, the reason for identifying a text as the "primary source" may devolve from the fact that no copy of the original source material exists, or that it is the oldest extant source for the information cited. 
Historians must occasionally contend with forged documents that purport to be primary sources. These forgeries have usually been constructed with a fraudulent purpose, such as promulgating legal rights, supporting false pedigrees, or promoting particular interpretations of historic events. The investigation of documents to determine their authenticity is called diplomatics.
For centuries, Popes used the forged Donation of Constantine to bolster the Papacy's secular power. Among the earliest forgeries are false Anglo-Saxon charters, a number of 11th- and 12th-century forgeries produced by monasteries and abbeys to support a claim to land where the original document had been lost or never existed. One particularly unusual forgery of a primary source was perpetrated by Sir Edward Dering, who placed false monumental brasses in a parish church.  In 1986, Hugh Trevor-Roper authenticated the Hitler Diaries, which were later proved to be forgeries. Recently, forged documents have been placed within the UK National Archives in the hope of establishing a false provenance.   However, historians dealing with recent centuries rarely encounter forgeries of any importance.  : 22–25
American History 1877-1900, The Gilded Age & Industry
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Want more on finding books or eBooks? Try our How to Use Books & eBooks guides.Defining Documents in American History: Court Cases (1803-2017) This title covers important historical documents from the U.S. Supreme Court as well as other courts in American history. Readers will find in-depth analysis of a broad range of court cases covering critical topics. The set provides detailed, thought-provoking analysis of: Marbury v. Madison Roe v. Wade Plessy v. Ferguson Bush vs. Gore Muller v. Orgeon Each in-depth chapter guides readers with historical insight and comprehension. Written by historians and teachers, several elements explain the document's historical impact and provide thoughtful critical analysis, including a Summary Overview, Defining Moment, Author Biography, Document Analysis, and Essential Themes. Plus, an historical timeline and bibliography of important supplemental readings will support readers in understanding the broader historical events covered. From the earliest decisions of the Supreme Court to the battles over civil rights to divisive events in contemporary America, this set provides thoughtful analysis of court cases allowing readers to gain a better understanding of this crucial topic in American history. An important resource for the history collections of high schools, undergraduate libraries and public libraries. Defining Documents in American History: Dissent & protest (1635-2017) Dissent & Protest studies crucial documents from various protests, dissents, revolts, riots, and revolutions throughout American history, from the American Revolution to the Black Lives Matter Movement of today. This text closely studies more than eighty primary source documents to deliver a thorough examination of issues so important to Americans that they took action, exercised their rights and stood up to protest. Defining Documents in American History: Dissent & Protest provides detailed thought-provoking analysis of speeches and documents surrounding: American Revolution Native American Dissent Women's Rights Worker's Rights Abolitionism Slave Rebellions State Rights Political & War Protests Whiskey Rebellion Racism Poverty Civil Rights . Each in-depth chapter guides readers with historical insight and comprehension. Written by historians and teachers, several elements explain the document's historical impact and provide thoughtful critical analysis, including a Summary Overview, Defining Moment, Author Biography, Document Analysis, and Essential Themes. Plus, an historical timeline and bibliography of important supplemental readings will support readers in understanding the broader historical events covered. The documents include highlight American's commitment to stand up and fight for the issues they believe in. This volume will be a welcome addition to the history collections of high schools, undergraduate libraries, and public libraries. Defining Documents in American History: Immigration & Immigrant Communities (1650-2016) This text explores the full history of immigration issues in America, from those early immigrants making their way through Ellis Island, to immigration issues in modern society. With in-depth analysis of a broad range of documents, researchers come away with fresh understanding and insight to study this hot button topic. Defining Documents in American History: Native Americans (1451-2017) This title covers important historical documents from influential figures in Native American history. Readers will find in-depth analysis of a broad range of historical documents, including speeches, letters, legislation, court cases, and other sources about Native Americans. The set provides detailed, thought-provoking analysis of: Iroquois Thanksgiving Address Tecumseh: Speech to Governor Willian Henry Harrison Indians of All Tribes Occupation of Alcatraz: Proclamation Andrew Jackson on Indian Removal Zitkala-Sa: Old Indian Legends Each in-depth chapter guides readers with historical insight and comprehension. Written by historians and teachers, several elements explain the document's historical impact and provide thoughtful critical analysis, including a Summary Overview, Defining Moment, Author Biography, Document Analysis, and Essential Themes. Plus, an historical timeline and bibliography of important supplemental readings will support readers in understanding the broader historical events covered. From the first meetings between Native Americans and European settlers to twentieth-century events, this set provides thoughtful analysis of documents and speeches allowing readers to gain a better understanding of this crucial topic in American history. An important resource for the history collections of high schools, undergraduate libraries and public libraries. Defining Documents in American History: The Emergence of Modern America (1874–1917) The text provides in-depth analysis of over sixty primary source documents to deliver a thorough examination of this important time in American history, including labor issues, westward expansion, suffrage, prohibition, civil rights, social respectability and more. Defining Moments in American History: American Indian Removal and the Trail to Wounded Knee Provides a detailed account of American Indian Removal policy and its culmination at the massacre at Wounded Knee, including its social and political legacy in modern America. Includes a narrative overview, biographies, primary source documents, and other helpful features. Defining Moments in American History: Plessy v. Ferguson Provides a detailed account of the legal drama that established the "separate but equal" doctrine. Details the postwar Reconstruction era the legal issues involved in Plessy v. Ferguson the spread of discriminatory Jim Crow laws the effects of segregation on African Americans and the efforts to overturn Plessy. Defining Moments in American History: The Dream of America: Immigration 1870-1920 Provides a detailed account of U.S. immigration from 1870 to 1920. Explores the forces that drove emigrants to the U.S. shows what they experienced when they arrived and reviews the history of U.S. immigration through the present. Defining Moments in American History: The Gilded Age Provides a detailed account of the Gilded Age. Explores the history of Americas post-war industrialization, the wealth it created during the population boom, and its lasting influence on society. Defining Moments in American History: The Spanish-American War Defining Moments: The Spanish-American War presents an authoritative account of the origins and progression of the Spanish-American War. It also explores the events lasting impact on Americas political and cultural landscape. Milestone Documents in American History : Exploring the Primary Sources That Shaped America Contains thirty-two full-text primary source documents that helped to shape American society from 1763 to 1823 including the Proclamation of 1763, Treaty of Fort Pitt, the Bill of Rights, the Missouri Compromise, and the Monroe Doctrine.
At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 70,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to soldiers’ letters from World War II and Vietnam. Explore primary sources, visit exhibitions in person or online, or bring your class on a field trip.
Contact our Collection staff: [email protected] (646) 366-9666 ext. 160
Visit our Collection (by appointment): 170 Central Park West, Lower Level New York, NY 10024
Online Primary Source Collections
It can be time-consuming to find and prepare primary sources for your lessons. On each of the below sites, you will find primary sources that address multiple topics in U.S. History. Many of the sites provide excerpts of lengthy sources and helpful annotations. Start at one of these sites to find primary sources to use in your next lesson!
100 Milestone Documents, from Our Documents at the National Archives: This collection of 100 milestone documents has been compiled by the National Archives and chronicles the history of the U.S. from 1776 to 1965. Sources include public laws, Supreme Court decisions, inaugural speeches, treaties, constitutional amendments, and other documents that have influenced the course of U.S. history. Both original and transcribed copies are available.
The Avalon Project, from the Yale Law School: This collection, which can be viewed chronologically from the fifteenth century to the twenty-first, includes documents selected for their importance in American legal history. Sources can also be searched by themed “Document Collections”.
Docs Teach, from the National Archives: This collection of over 3,000 primary documents is organized by historical era, from the nation’s founding to the present. Documents, including maps, charts, graphs, audio, and video, have been selected by National Archives Staff, and are photographic reproductions of historical sources.
Many Pasts, from the History Matters project of CUNY Graduate Center and George Mason University: This feature of George Mason University’s History Matters project features prepared and selected primary documents in text, image, and audio about the experiences of ordinary Americans throughout U.S. history. The “full search” feature on the site allows users to choose resources by historical period, topic, type of resource, etc.
Smithsonian Source, from the Smithsonian Institute: This collection of primary sources can be searched by keyword, type, or topic, and includes documents on Westward Expansion, Transportation, Civil Rights, Invention, Colonial America, and Native American history. Each set includes selected and excerpted documents.
You can also visit this entry for places to find online sets of primary sources.
Finding Primary Sources for Teachers and Students
Primary Sources from DocsTeach Thousands of online primary source documents from the National Archives to bring the past to life as classroom teaching tools.
National Archives Catalog Find online primary source materials for classroom & student projects from the National Archive's online catalog (OPA).
Beginning Research Activities Student activities designed to help you navigate the National Archives resources and web site.
Online Exhibits Exhibits featuring online documents, photos and primary sources from the National Archives
Our Documents 100 Milestone Documents of American History
Getting Started with Research How to start researching records at the National Archives. Finding your topic, identifying records, planning a visit, and more.
Online Research Tools & AidsIntroduction to catalogs, databases, and other online resources.
Citing Primary Sources Citing Records in the National Archives of the United States
Find and create interactive learning activities with primary source documents that promote historical thinking skills.
This page was last reviewed on April 6, 2018.
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General History Resources
American Experience Access to PBS series about American history. Many programs are available online. American Historical Association As the professional organization for historians, the AHA advocates for the profession and provides information, awards and grants, and resources for educators. Archiving Early America This site provides historical documents from 18th century America. A Biography of America This site was designed to be a self-contained college-level history course. Resources include access to videos covering 26 topics, and content mirroring that of most U.S. history text books. Center for History and New Media Links to general history resources as well as specific events. Discover History The National Park Service offers links to Features of People, Places & Stories and Features of Preservation, Guidance & Grants. History & Social Studies This site from the National Endowment for the Humanities provides lesson plans about American history. History Collection University of Pennsylvania Libraries' links to resources with text archives and image sites. National History Day Provides resources for educators. National Museum of American History Access to information about the museum's extensive holdings as well as online exhibits. Naval History & Heritage Command Offers information about the "history, legacy and traditions of the United States Navy." U.S. Army Center of Military History Features information about the Army throughout American history.
Histories of Government Agencies
National Archives History This page provides a brief history of NARA along with links to a timeline, a list of Archivists of the United States, a history of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC., and Online Resources on the History of the National Archives. A Brief History: The U.S. Department of Labor A look at the functions of the Department of Labor since its founding in 1913. The FBI: History Links to such topics as Famous Cases & Criminals, Ten Most Wanted Fugitives History, and Hall of Honor. Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress Digitized version of the book by John Y. Cole. NASA History Program This office was organized shortly after NASA's creation to preserve the history of this agency's accomplishments. Postal History Tracks the history of the United States Postal Service from 1775 with links to Stamps and Postcards, Postal People, Photo Galleries, and more. Supreme Court Historical Society Founded in 1974, the Society is "dedicated to the collection and preservation of the history of the Supreme Court of the United States." U.S. Census Bureau History Provides many resources, including an agency history, programs, and an explanation of the "72-Year Rule." U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian This site features Historical Documents, Department History, Key Milestones, and Guide to Countries. United States Senate: Art & History Access to such resources as Origins & Development, Exhibits, and Senate Stories.
Selected Specific Topics
The Declaration of Independence Includes "The Declaration of Independence: A History," "The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence," the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and links to other web sites. From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond A site of the Department of Alfa-Informatica at the University of Groningen dedicated to the pre-World War I history of America. The Star-Spangled Banner This site from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is an online resource about the "flag that inspired the National Anthem." Meeting of Frontiers This site focuses on the experiences of the United States and Russia in exploring, developing, and settling their frontiers, and the meeting of those frontiers in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The project resulted from a collaboration between the Library of Congress, the Russian State Library, and the National Library of Russia. First Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920 This site features a compilation of printed texts from the libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The documents include diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives. Exploring the Life and History of the "Buffalo Soldiers" Published in The Record in March 1998, this article details a history of the United States Colored Troops. The Valley of the Shadow: Living the Civil War in Pennsylvania and Virginia This project interweaves the histories of two communities on either side of the Mason-Dixon line during the era of the American Civil War. Great Chicago Fire An online exhibition produced by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University Information Technology (NUIT) to recall one of the most famous events in American history. Run for Your Lives! The Johnstown Flood of 1889 The National Park Service's web site provides lesson plans for teaching about "the most devastating flood in the nation's history." Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers Part of the Library of Congress' Manuscript Division, this site contains correspondence, scientific notebooks, journals, blueprints, sketches, and photographs. The Titanic in Documents and Photographs An article in the NARA publication The Record in March 1998 highlights the records of the Titanic in the National Archives. Rescuing Records in the "Cradle of American Labor" Information about the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, which collects documents related to the history of labor and working people in New York. Oral Histories of the Civil Rights Movement Transcripts and audio of interviews with "people that participated, in small and large ways." The Sixties A PBS web site dedicated to the most controversial decade of the twentieth century. The Wars for Viet Nam This site was developed around the course materials for Robert Brigham's senior seminar on the Viet Nam War at Vassar College. Apollo 11 Mission The Lunar and Planetary Institute provides information about the first manned landing on the moon.
Photographs & Audio Recordings
- : Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945 : Vaudeville & Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 : Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey : 1850-1920 : Selections from the Federal Theater Project, 1935-1939 : Recordings from World War I and the Election of 1920
This Day in History
African American Women Writers of the 19th Century This digital collection of some 52 published works by 19th-century black women writers is part of the Digital Schomburg Collection at the New York Public Library. Avalon Project Yale Law School's Avalon Project includes digital documents from ancient times through the 21st century. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation The Library of Congress "brings together online the records and acts of Congress from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention through the 43rd Congress, including the first three volumes of the Congressional Record, 1873-75." Documenting the American South This site is a collection of sources on Southern history, literature and culture from the colonial period through the first decades of the 20th century. Historical Publications of the United States Commission on Civil Rights The Thurgood Marshall Law Library provides access to the historical record of civil rights in the United States. Making of America A digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. Nuremberg Trials Project Harvard Law School Library provides a digital document collection of the Nuremberg Trials. Our Documents Digital versions of 100 milestone documents of American history. U.S. Historical Documents Transcriptions of major documents relating to American history, from the Magna Carta to President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address. Virginia Center for Digital History Based at the University of Virginia, VCDH projects include many online digital history initiatives.
This page was last reviewed on August 15, 2016.
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