Imagine being at a family gathering, listening to elders trading stories about an event from their youth. How often do all the details agree? Constructing knowledge from historical primary sources is much like trying to figure out what happened based on what the various aunts, uncles, and cousins recount. You might need to:
- consider what you already know about the event;
- identify who was actually there and who is repeating what they heard others say about it;
- factor in the perspective of each person reporting on the event and how that might influence word choice.
In both personal and historical examples, when faced with conflicting accounts, understanding and evaluating the sources of information is crucial to discerning what might have happened.
Two articles about Patrick Gilmore’s June 1869 peace jubilee in Boston, an event many students and teachers may not be familiar with, might pique students’ interest in learning about the event and lend themselves to structured evaluation and analysis of each source of information. The Albany Register reported that:
The national air, “My country, ‘tis of thee,” was the last piece. It was sung by the whole chorus , with all the accompaniments, including the organ, full orchestra, big drum, chimes and artillery, and was the crowning success of the day.
Contrast that with the Democratic Enquirer statement that:
They shouted, sang, and made huge noises with anvils, cannon, and musical instruments, all in mockery of the woes of the nation at this time.
Although both articles begin with the tag “Peace Jubilee,” the descriptions are so different that they might be referring to different events.
To gain insights into why the descriptions vary so wildly, students might research to learn more about each source, considering the item’s bias and purpose, and developing understanding of events and the context of when it was written. Historical newspapers, like current media, publish from a particular perspective and bias. Each newspaper in Chronicling America has an “About” link, giving additional information about the newspaper.
The “About” page of the Albany Register notes that “the Register was a Republican newspaper.” The “About” page for the Democratic Enquirer indicates that “…J.W. Bowen established the Democratic-Enquirer to serve the Democrats of McArthur and Vinton County, Ohio. The paper ‘grew out of the disaffection of some Democrats with the Bratton Brothers for renting out two columns of their paper … for the use of the Republican Party.'” To make meaning of the information, students might activate prior knowledge about events that had preceded 1867. They might also refresh their understanding of party politics of the time, defining what would have been important to the Democratic party and the Republican party in the late 1860s.
Allow time for students to re-read each article and apply their knowledge of each paper’s perspective. How does the additional information shape their understanding? If time allows, they might browse surrounding articles to see what else was being reported at the time.
If your students explore these resources, please leave us a comment about their discoveries and wonderings.