Skip to Main Content

HIST 3373: U.S. Women's History to 1877: Primary Sources

Hist. 3373A- Dr. Damiano (Fall 2020)

Primary Sources-Video

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.