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HIST 1310: U.S. History to 1877: Primary Sources

Professor Deirdre Lannon, Ph.D.

Primary Sources-Video

Locating Primary Sources

The library has many databases that include primary source materials. 

List of databases containing primary sources for historical topics

Good places to find  articles on most topics on Dr. Lannon's list.-

America's Historical Newspapers: Early Colonial to Articles of Confederation (1690-1789)

American Antiquarian Society: Historical Periodicals  (contains magazine articles published between 1684 and 1912)

HathiTrust Digital Library (digital repository of books and journals from  major research libraries in the United States.1500-present.  Modify search results by publication date to see primary sources on topics) 


Here are some suggestions of primary source databases, paired with specific topics-

17th and 18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers (British Newspapers & Pamphlets)

King Phillip's War, Bacon's Rebellion

Proquest Civil War Era (newspapers and documents)

Underground Railroad, antislavery,secession, Bleeding Kansas

American West

Trail of Tears, Lewis & Clark, Sacagawea, Gold Rush

19th Century U.S. Newspapers

Seneca Falls Convention, Lowell Mills

Sabin Americana (sort results for "oldest first") to see primary sources and then Limit by language as needed on right)

Cabeza de Vaca,  Lowell Mills

Slavery and Antislavery: A Transnational Archive

Antislavery, Underground Railroad, Middle Passage

Lowell Girl Mill Letters (Collection of letters from University of Mass. Library/Lowell)

Lowell Mill Girls Go On Strike 1836 ( From History Matters project at Geo. Mason University)


What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources, for historical purposes, are most often defined as eye-witness accounts of events/historical periods. Those accounts written or created at the time, not with 20/20 hindsight.


These sources reflect the point of view of a participant or observer at a particular point of time. There are a wide range of source materials available for historical research. For example:

    • Magazines, newspapers, books, and pamphlets written and published during a particular time period
    • Diaries, letters, or papers usually written for personal reasons. Some of these may have been published later, usually after the writer’s death.
    • Reports and records such as census data or other government documents. 
    • Autobiographies and memoirs often written long after the events took place and therefore, may be somewhat less reliable.
    • Photos, audio recordings, movies, buildings, and other physical objects may also reveal information about the time period and popular culture

Compilations of primary sources such as a book containing many short excerpts from primary sources may not always be as useful as the original sources themselves.

Source materials may have a bias or purpose which you should be aware of. For example, an article from a northern paper during the civil war will read much differently than an article from a southern paper. When reading primary sources, think about why the piece was written, when it was written, and what it tells us about the writer and the time period.