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Complex Encounters, Continuing Exchanges: Exploring Varied Stories of Immigration Using Primary Sources

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This post is adapted and excerpted from the Library of Congress article of the same title in the 2016 National History Day Theme Book.

Primary sources have tremendous power to complicate seemingly straightforward stories, and are an essential part of every National History Day project.

One view of exploration, encounter, and exchange is fairly linear. A group or individual designates a location to explore. When the explorers reach their destination, they encounter indigenous peoples, flora, and fauna. In the best-case scenario, these encounters result in a mutually beneficial exchange of goods or information. A close look at the historical record, however, reveals more complex examples of encounters.

How can primary sources help us examine one cultural or ethnic group’s exploration of the United States as a new home and the ensuing encounters and exchanges with those already living here? This political cartoon published in Puck magazine in 1880 offers one starting place.

Welcome to all!
Welcome to all! From Puck, 1880 April 28

Select questions from the Analyzing Political Cartoons Teacher’s Guide  to prompt analysis and build skills in visual literacy. Students might also consider:

  • How has the artist represented people from different nations and cultures? Why? Who is included in the cartoon? Who is missing?
  • How does our view of the cartoon today differ from how it might have been seen in 1880?

Students could note the nations and cultures represented by the cartoon, and then choose one to explore further. For example, they might analyze additional primary sources to gather information about immigrants from China as a way to trace their experiences and deepen student understanding of encounters and exchanges.

Composition of the foreign-born population: 1890
Composition of the foreign-born population: 1890

The process of encounter can also be documented through representations of numerical data. In these pie charts based upon the results of the eleventh [1890] census, for example, note the numbers and areas of the nation in which Chinese immigrants were settling.

Ask students:

  • What does this information add to what was gleaned from the political cartoon?
  • What other resources might we look for to investigate the encounters and exchanges in areas where Chinese immigrants were living?

Analyzing and gathering information from the political cartoon and pie charts encourages students to examine responses to immigration on a national level. However, primary sources can also provide opportunities to investigate encounters and exchanges on a local level. For a model exploring local encounters and exchanges, consult the complete version of this article in the 2016 National History Day Theme Book.

Visit the Library of Congress collections at to find primary sources related to the experiences of immigrants to America throughout history and other topics. In addition, resources for teachers working with National History Day students can be found on the Library’s web site for teachers:

Why is it important to consult a variety of formats and consider varied points of view when constructing a National History Day project?


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