Reading Primary Sources
What Is a Primary Source?
A primary source is an account created by someone who participated in or witnessed an event. Primary sources can include diaries, birth and death certificates, letters, speeches, drawings, photographs, marriage licenses, and archaeological artifacts.
Why Are Primary Sources Important?
Primary sources reveal personal information rarely contained in books and articles of the time. They offer students a direct link to the lives of people in the past. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, students encounter important historical concepts and develop valuable analytical skills by using primary sources.Students sometimes see history as a series of facts, dates, and events, usually packaged as a textbook. As they use primary sources, they begin to view textbooks as historical interpretations. They realize that any account of an event, no matter how impartial the presentation, is essentially subjective.
This vehicle ticket for the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road is a valuable primary source because it gives the historian insight as to how people traveled in North Carolina in the 1850s. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives & History.
Print out a checklist for analyzing primary sources.
Go to the Exploring Primary and Secondary Sources activity in which students explore the life of Lunsford Lane by comparing primary and secondary sources.
What are Political Cartoons?
Open the main section of a daily newspaper and turn to the editorial page. You will probably find a political cartoon there. Political cartoons use exaggerated images, symbols, and words to represent particular views through humor.
Political cartoons have been a part of American journalism since 1754, when Benjamin Franklin created a cartoon urging the colonies to join together in their common defense. Needing a symbol that would evoke a broad response, he drew a snake divided into eight parts and labeled each part of the snake as a separate colony. He added the words “Join or Die” to make his point that the colonies should unite against the French and their Indian allies. The snake became a symbol that was later used to raise support in the colonies during the time of the Stamp Act and again before the Declaration of Independence was written.
1844 political cartoon outlines the failures of the Whig Party's campaign promises made during the election of 1840. This image originally appeared in the Democratic Union published in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (vol. 1m no. 18 July 6, 1844).
More than one hundred years passed before political cartoons appeared widely in newspapers. Because early newspapers were printed using woodblocks and engraving, drawings were hard to reproduce and were not used frequently. When technology improved in the 1880s and drawings could be printed more easily, cartoons began appearing regularly in daily newspapers. Over the years political cartoons have played an important part in journalism. Jeff MacNelly, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, won three Pulitzer Prizes for his political cartoons.
Some of our national symbols began as figures in political cartoons. Uncle Sam has changed since he first appeared in the 1800s, but he still represents the United States. The elephant was first used to represent the Republican Party in an 1874 cartoon. The Statue of Liberty has symbolized American values since 1889. The imagery of cartoons changes but always includes elements that readers recognize. Caricatures—exaggerated representations of famous people—are frequently used. Today’s cartoons often include images from television, movies, and advertisements.
Political cartoons remain popular today, but fewer full-time cartoonists work for daily newspapers. According to one North Carolina political cartoonist, the odds of making it into the National Basketball Association are better! Becoming a political cartoonist involves more than being able to draw. Dwane Powell, award-winning political cartoonist for the Raleigh News and Observer, points out that a cartoonist must read a lot and develop a social conscience so that he or she can form and express opinions about current events. John Cole of the Durham Herald-Sun says that drawing skill is secondary. He advises aspiring cartoonists to read and pay attention to the news because the most important part of drawing a political cartoon is understanding and developing ideas.
Examine the political cartoons in your local newspaper to see what opinions are being expressed about current events and issues. Do you agree with these opinions, or do you have other ideas?
Go to the Analyzing Editorial Cartoons Worksheet
Using Artifacts as Primary Documents
Since the mid-1960s, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have slowly changed the field of history from the “great men, great deeds” approach to one that focuses on the everyday lives of all Americans. As part of this change, researchers now consider historical artifacts, landscapes, clothing, and buildings as relevant sources of historical information. There are many reasons for introducing students to the study of material objects as well as documents. Because analyzing objects is self-generated discovery, students develop confidence in observing, analyzing and drawing conclusions while learning about history. The many significant aspects of objects can also stimulate active classroom discussion and debate.
This blouse was sewn by enslaved women at Lee Plantation in Johnston County for James Madison Lee. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.
Objects can be more honest than written or oral sources. Objects can provide reliable clues as to how they were created, who created them, and why they were/are important. For example, historians once believed that enslaved people in America had relatively few possessions, and what they did have were merely castoffs from owners and overseers. Analyses of slave quarters by archaeologists, however, reveal that enslaved people purchased some things for themselves, recycled castoffs from owners, and made household objects from available materials. Handmade objects sometimes reflected African design motifs. These findings helped change the role of enslaved people as consumers from passive to active.
Studying objects provides valuable information about how things were made. In many old homes, wood beams, window styles, and nail types give clues about the kinds of tools used to build structures. Ceramics often have special marks from the kiln or from an artisan’s tools. This information is important in learning about technology, individual skills, and the values of a particular culture.
Objects can teach us about the “forgotten” people in history. For a long time historians used mainly written records (diaries, inventories, journals) to learn about the past. People who existed before written records were virtually left out of history, as were the majority of Americans who could not or did not write down their experiences. Enslaved people, new immigrants, women, and the poor were some of these people. Although they did not leave behind many written records, they did leave physical evidence of how they lived, what they did, and who they were. Archaeologists, prehistorians, historians, and natural historians often work together now to learn more about how these people lived based on the objects they made and used.
Learning about history through artifacts stimulates the visual and tactile senses. When students touch objects from the past and see the visual evidence of human existence, history takes on new importance. Using material culture in the classroom also helps students define their own cultural identity as well as their place in history.
Go to the activity A Study of Material Culture: Analyzing Artifacts, in which students can get experience in reading history through objects.
See the articles “Reading History from Quilts” and "Museum Detectives Use Solid Evidence," both geared for students, for more on analyzing artifacts.
African American Odyssey
A Library of Congress site that offers primary sources important to African American history.
AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History
Links to many important digitized American documents, from 1492 to 1917.
American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library
Over 7 million digital primary sources from the Library of Congress.
American Women's History: A Research Guide: Digital Collections of Primary Sources
An extensive list of digitized American women's history primary sources.
Documenting the American South
A digitized collection of sources on Southern history, literature, and culture from the colonial period through WWI from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Information on using primary sources in lesson plans.
Primary Sources and Activities
A site from the National Archives and Records Administration that provides primary documents and teaching activities for major events in United States history.
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
A comparison of primary and secondary sources.
Smithsonian: History and Culture
Online exhibits from the Smithsonian Institution tell history through artifacts.