Using Primary Sources to Understand History

Do you think of yourself as a historian?

No reason why you shouldn’t. 

Historians do two things.  First, historians read primary sources before they write books or articles.  Second, historians carefully analyze primary sources (also called documents) to make sense of events in the past. 

The lessons in North Dakota: People Living on the Land contain many primary sources for you to read along with short texts that identify the people and events of the time period you are studying.  The short reading pieces will give you some context (the background information) that will help you understand the documents.  Once you read the primary sources, you can analyze them to come to a better understanding of our history.

Primary sources can be many different kinds of things.  Photographs, plants (yes, the kind that grow), letters, maps, bones, tools, food, clothing, election ballots, places, laws, rocks, and soil are all examples of primary sources if they are examined for their historical meaning. 

Rocks?  Yes, even the study of rocks (geology) reveals how North Dakota came to be part of the Great Plains. Our soil and climate are perfect for grain crops in the east, and the rocky hills are good for grazing in the west.  Of course, some of our rocks deep below the surface contain oil.  Rocks, along with soil and plants are primary sources for the study of North Dakota’s history and culture. 

Rocks are actually pretty easy to use as primary sources because they tell a very clear story.  Letters, diaries, and newspapers are more complicated primary sources because they can tell many stories about humans and how they lived their lives.  All primary sources are the evidence historians use to understand how people lived in the past. 

The best thing about reading primary sources, whether they are rocks or letters, is that you get to figure out what they mean.  Historians call this analysis, but actually we all do it every day.  Open the refrigerator.  Do you see something to eat?  Is it what you want to eat?  If you eat it, will you get in trouble?  Is there nothing in there that you want?  Should you go grocery shopping?  These questions and their answers are part of an analytical process about food.  We can do the same thing with historical primary sources. 

After reading an old letter, we might ask these sorts of questions.  Who wrote this letter?  Who read the letter?  When was the letter written?  What is the subject of the letter?  Is this letter part of a long exchange of letters, or is it the only one?  Does the location of the letter writer have something to do with the subject?  Why is this letter important to your study? 

Analysis can be very exciting.  It is like sitting down to have a conversation with someone who lived a long time ago.  Analysis of primary sources puts us in touch with people and connects us to our past.  This is how we find out how we came to be who we are. 

Why bother? 

Why not let a historian take care of all of this thinking for you? 

Doing analysis yourself is a lot more fun than letting someone else do the thinking for you.  The answers you come up with will be more meaningful to your life than someone else’s analysis.

Historical analysis also helps you remember historical events.  If you work with primary sources, you will learn about history in a more natural and orderly way than if you just read a textbook.  You probably won’t have to spend a lot of time memorizing stuff just to pass a test. 

When you analyze primary sources, you will find out that resources sometimes conflict with other primary resources.  Conflicting views are a necessary part of life in a democracy like ours.  Working with primary sources will help you understand conflicting views in your own lives. 

And there is a bonus:  you will become a better reader, writer, and thinker if you spend some time reading and analyzing documents.  You can use these skills in every part of your life. 

Read, analyze, and become your own historian!