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Using Primary Sources

How to read primary sources

Turning Points in Wisconsin History is not like a school history textbook. There are no multiple choice questions at the end of the documents, names and dates to memorize, or chapter summaries. Instead, each topic has a brief essay on the subject, introducing the primary sources that are the main focus and the real story behind the broader topic.

What do we mean by the “real story?” Think of primary sources this way. Imagine a primary source as a movie and the textbook as a summary or review of the movie heard from a friend. While he or she may describe the movie in great detail and tell you how great it is, hearing about a movie is not the same as seeing it for yourself. There are parts that you will notice that your friend might not have, for example, or characters that might seem a lot like yourself. Wouldn’t you rather see a great movie than just hear or read about it?

Primary sources work in the same way. While textbooks provide a good overview of what happened, they are not the same as reading the words of people who actually lived through a particular event. Textbooks offer an interpretation of a historical person or event by those who did not witness them or live during that time period. Reading primary sources allows us to judge whether we agree with that interpretation because we will have read or seen the same primary sources as the textbook author.

If you have not read primary sources before, you might be surprised to find that it is not like reading from a textbook. Primary sources do not speak for themselves—they have to be interpreted. You do not just simply read about the past, you must investigate the past by asking questions.

To help you interpret primary sources, you might think about these questions as you examine the source:
A. Place the document in its historical context
1. Who wrote it? What do you know about this person?
2. Where and when was it written?
3. Why was it written?
4. Who was it written for? This is called the “audience.” What do you know about this audience?

B. Understanding the document
1. What are the key words and what do they mean?
2. What point is the author trying to make? Summarize the thesis.
3. What evidence does the author give to support this thesis.
4. What assumptions does the author make?

C. Evaluate the document as a source of historical information
1. Is this document similar to others from the same time period?
2. How widely was it circulated?
3. What problems, assumptions, and ideas does it share with other documents from the time period?

Asking yourself these questions as you read will help you understand and interpret the document for yourself. It is very tempting to use the textbook as a source of interpretations, especially if you encounter a primary source you do not completely understand. A critical part of the process of reading and using historical sources is figuring out what the documents can tell you about a past event, and to decide whether you agree with the interpretation offered by the author of your textbook. Primary sources support the author’s interpretation of the event, so without primary sources, he or she has no basis to make a conclusion about the past. Reading primary sources allows you to interpret Wisconsin’s past by providing the tools and evidence needed to make informed statements about the world around you.

Primary Sources in the Classroom

Primary sources--diaries, manuscripts, journals, images, drawings, memoirs, and maps—created by those who participated in or witnessed past events reveal something that even the best article or book cannot. The use of these documents in the classroom exposes students to historical concepts and perspectives that are vital to understanding not only the past, but also the present. By reading primary sources, students become aware that all history is the author’s interpretation of past events based on his or her own opinions and biases. This allows students to recognize the subjective nature of history. Moreover, primary sources allow students direct access to the lives of people in the past. For many students, history is nothing more than names and dates. Reading the words of those who lived in the past provides the color and excitement so often missing from textbook accounts.

Using primary sources changes the way students view their textbooks. They begin to see their textbook as only one historical interpretation and not as absolute truth. Students see its author as an interpreter of the very same evidence they themselves have read. Reading the diaries and memoirs of Wisconsin’s early white settlers like James Duane Doty or Mary Ann Brevoort Bristol allows students to compare these accounts to the broad generalizations made in textbooks, such as that provided by The Wisconsin Adventure: “Early explorers told wonderful tales about the land between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.” Through primary sources, it becomes clear that life in territorial Wisconsin was, perhaps, not all so wonderful! The primary sources allow students to evaluate for themselves what life was like in the land between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Students begin to understand that even generalizations represent one view of past events, but not necessarily the only one. Primary sources force students to consider the subjective nature of all accounts.

As students read and begin to summarize their findings from eyewitness accounts of events during the Black Hawk War and the letters new immigrants wrote to their families back in Europe, or examine artifacts from Aztalan, students realize the subjective nature of their own interpretations and conclusions. Each student brings his or her own biases to the source, reflecting the situations and social environments in which the student lives. The disagreements that result among student interpretations will be similar to those among the professional historians that wrote their textbook.

Primary sources humanize history by allowing students to enter the lives of the people about whom history is written. Students confront the language, beliefs, and emotions that invoke fascination and provide excitement to history, linking students directly to the cast of historical characters in a more fundamental way than any secondary account ever could.

This encounter with the past can produce some tough questions though. Students may ask, “How could they think that?”, or, “How could they say that?” when presented with offensive content or statements that appear completely against their knowledge or common sense. These questions are vital to the process of historical study and interpretation, and should not be discouraged. Attempting to understand how someone could have reached certain conclusions about the world around him or her encourages students to seek a more comprehensive view of the past and to reflect upon the source of their own beliefs and knowledge.

Most importantly, primary sources allow students to participate in the process of history rather than passively accepting the conclusions drawn by others. Reading, evaluating, and interpreting primary sources allows students to learn, test, and apply important analytical skills that extend beyond the classroom. The ability to understand and make appropriate use of multiple sources of information is an essential skill that extends beyond the classroom. Primary sources make Wisconsin’s history come alive for students, changing the way they look at the world around them by personalizing the past.

Interpretation: The problem of worldview

Historical texts are not a clear lens that faithfully zooms in on the past to tell us how the world really was. Rather, as lenses they are chipped, cracked, and fogged, laced with errors, omissions, prejudices, silent assumptions, and preconceptions. They do not reflect the past so much as refract it. Early primary sources are more like a kaleidoscope than microscope: they fragment and rearrange the past rather than transparently reveal it.

Native Americans and the first Europeans in Wisconsin saw through eyes spectacularly different from our own. They surveyed the landscape and experienced the world through different beliefs, desires, and values than our own. Lacking our modern information and frames of reference, the first white explorers and settlers viewed the world and other cultures through a blend of fear, reason, superstition, and magic. We, on the other hand, tend to see them in terms of scientific fact.

In using textual sources, one must be on guard for such differences in outlook. The point is not to say who is right and who is wrong. The point is not to take our own assumptions for granted. To project our worldview onto the past tells us more about ourselves than about history. To properly understand the words of the people who lived in Wisconsin long before us, we need not just the scientific method but also (and more importantly) imagination.

We need to imagine what an author from the past must have believed or desired or considered valuable in order to understand what they did. We cannot go back and interview them or experience their world personally. The best we can do is look carefully at the language surviving from the past. In doing this, the techniques of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and literary criticism can be as valuable as those used in science. We should look into historical texts not just for facts, but also to see the stories into which our predecessors made their observations. We need to understand the metaphors with which they grasped or created relationships, the names with which they organized and made sense of their world, and the values they held as they attempted to transform it.

To do this, we need not just to accept or reject these texts but to interrogate them. How could the author believe that? Where did those ideas come from? What else must he or she believed to think that was accurate? What must he or she have desired to think that such a thing should be done? Questions like these will ultimately lead students to ask where their own beliefs, desires, and values have come from, and what stance they should take not just toward their past, but toward the Wisconsin that surrounds them today.

Sensitive Content: The problem of offensive content

The first-hand evidence of history is not always pretty or politically correct. Scattered among the pages of Turning Points in Wisconsin History are many passages that may make your students or their parents uncomfortable. Be prepared to encounter such moments and to use them to help students understand their own beliefs and values, as well as to learn how complex history is if they look beneath the usual textbook simplifications. Here are some examples of objectionable content and how you might respond.

Racism. When African Americans and Native Americans appear in these early texts, white authors often reflect the prejudices and misconceptions prevalent at the time. Your students may come across objectionable comments, remarks, or descriptions, for example, when reading about Native American children enrolled in mission schools in northern Wisconsin, or about the increased settlement of African Americans in Wisconsin in the 20th century. Racist stereotypes of Native Americans are particularly widespread in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century documents.

To help your students grapple with these passages, ask them to consider a few questions. Where did the information come from? Who wrote down the offending words? What values and motives may those authors have had? Why did they not share our modern values? How might Native Americans or African Americans have described the same event differently? What is the proper stance of a reader or historian toward them? Perhaps most importantly, why did only the white version of history survive in print?

Vocabulary. These pages are laced with terminology that has acquired objectionable connotations over the centuries. By far the most common example is the word “savages” used in places where we today would say “Native Americans.” This usage derives from an early (and bad) English translation of the French word “sauvage” which meant uncivilized—“without religion, laws, or fixed habitation”—rather than violent, brutal, or cruel. Other offensive terms that your students will encounter include “squaw” for an Indian woman and a variety of archaic tribal names, such as “Winnebago” for the modern “Ho-Chunk.” Many find these terms as offensive as white readers would if they discovered their ancestors constantly referred to here as “rednecks” and “honkies.” To help them in this situation, encourage your students to interrogate the text. Who wrote down the offending words? What values and motives did those authors have? Why didn’t they share our modern values? Where did our own values come from?

Sex. Although graphic details are usually not given, there are many accounts in Turning Points describing sexual habits and practices because these were differences that stood out dramatically when cultures made contact. Some authors frequently commented on how differently another community dealt with pre-marital relations, marriage, divorce, and adultery. There are occasional discussions of homosexuality or cross-dressing. Given the normal prurient interests of many adolescents, you may discover certain pages printed out and passed around your classroom for entertainment value rather than for serious research purposes. Because every teacher, parent, school, and community has different standards and ways of dealing with such situations, we simply call your attention to this possibility without offering advice on how teachers should deal with them.

Slavery. Given the geographical and historical scope of the documents, African slavery is touched upon only slightly. Obviously the documents related to the abolition movement deal most directly with slavery, though Wisconsin’s geographical location placed the state on the periphery of much direct engagement with a large slave population. Far more common are descriptions of the enslavement of Native Americans by both Europeans and other tribes. Descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves or the separation of parents and children could upset some students, who may find it easier to identify with the young victim rather than with the adult narrator. It may be useful to point out that at the time that many of these documents were written, slavery was a common practice in societies all over the world. This is not meant to validate the enslavement of other peoples, especially since the United States was one of the last places to formally abolish slavery, but to encourage students to ask what made slavery possible and acceptable. What beliefs, desires, motivations, and standards of value had to be embraced by a person to act as the text describes? What changed and why do we have different beliefs and values today?

Violence. Nauseating descriptions of violence are also scattered throughout the pages of Turning Points. European cruelty to Native Americans was common from the very beginning of cultural contact, and it is often narrated with a moral blindness that is scarcely comprehensible today. Similarly, the torture of prisoners, sometimes including innocent children, is occasionally depicted in gruesome detail. As students deal with these passages, it is important to remind them that no culture has a monopoly on savagery, even today. Native Americans burned the French, the British set villages of non-combatants on fire, Americans gunned down unarmed Indian Christians, and African Americans faced often brutal attacks and segregation. Violence was especially common in earlier times, and it may be useful for students to consider why it is no longer. Why do we no longer believe that that it is appropriate to treat others in the ways described? It may also be useful to ask under what conditions is violence still acceptable: Why might they believe that it was morally wrong to fly an airplane into a skyscraper but not to drop an atomic bomb on Japanese civilians?

Sexism. The record of women’s rights, like that of race, is tortured and complex. Some students may be offended by passages showing women as sexual commodities, those describing Native American women as brute laborers, those suggesting an association between female suffrage and immorality, or those depicting women in other demeaning roles. There may also be concern that there are fewer accounts written by women in Turning Points than men. In all cases, it may be useful to encourage them to interrogate the text: since most of the male authors also had wives or female partners who occasionally appear in these documents, why were the surviving words almost all written by men? Who could write, speak, edit, and publish narratives? What forces kept other voices from being heard? It is important to mention that while European women may have been scarce in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Wisconsin, Native American women played an integral part in these early years—a role changed, but not diminished, with time. Additionally, it may be useful to consider the differences between groups of women and their treatment in the documents. Which women are better represented in the text? Why were some women able to write and be heard?

In all these examples, the most useful response will be to validate the student’s outrage and then to turn his or her intellect back on the text through questions such as those suggested above. Instead of suppressing or avoiding these offensive passages, exploit them as uniquely powerful occasions for learning and thinking about the past.

Worksheets for analyzing primary sources

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