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Images from the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark Primary Source set
Images from the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark Expedition Primary Source set

Using Primary Sources to Reveal What’s Missing from the Story

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This post is by Colleen Smith of the Library of Congress. She is the newest member of our team and we look forward to her additions to the blog.

Teachers often look to primary sources as a window to better understand a particular time, place, issue, or people.

What if primary sources could also help students think about what or who is missing from the topic under investigation? When paired with appropriate context, primary sources are a powerful tool for helping students to observe, reflect and question about what is absent and why that matters.

Let’s model this strategy with a topic that frequently shows up in social studies curriculum across grade bands: The Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Louisiana Purchase.

Elementary: Students might be able to name Lewis and Clark as historical figures in American history. Use the image to introduce the idea that perspectives might be missing from stories about Lewis and Clark. Encourage students to look closely at this image and make observations about who is pictured and how they are depicted in the illustration. Use students’ responses to help them think about how Native peoples might have felt when explorers like Lewis and Clark came to their lands.

A drawing of a meeting with Lewis and Clark and a group of Native American males
Captains Lewis & Clark holding a council with the Indians. 1810

Middle: Students may describe and later analyze the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition in terms of their significance to U.S. territorial expansion. With some guiding context from their teacher, older learners could extend their reflections about who might be missing from accounts of the time and consider why those accounts are missing. Depending on learners’ prior knowledge and readiness, teachers can offer prompts such as:

  • Who created this item?
  • What do you think was happening when this was made?
  • Why do you think this was created?
  • Who do you think this source was for and why?

Questions like this can lead a learner to think about whose voices are not there and why that matters.

Lewis and Clark map, with annotations in brown ink by Meriwether Lewis
Lewis and Clark map, with annotations in brown ink by Meriwether Lewis

High School: Students might examine the Louisiana Purchase in terms of constitutional questions that arose from the Treaty of France. Students could look at sources that present arguments for and against the constitutionality of the purchase and ask questions about whose voices are not represented. Teachers might also remind learners that treaties are legal agreements between nations. Ask students to consider whether leaders of Native nations whose lands were taken as part of the treaty are represented and why that matters.

Using primary sources to reveal what may be missing isn’t limited to social studies classrooms. STEM teachers might use primary sources to examine or spark curiosity about bias in methodologies. ELA teachers could use primary sources to introduce or re-emphasize the significance of an author’s point of view or voice.

These posts have more ideas about ways to use primary sources to help students think about perspective and point of view. How do you use primary sources to help students recognize that there might be more to a story? Please leave a comment and let us know how it went—from your perspective.

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  1. Great post, Colleen! It made me want to learn more–particularly more about the illustration that you included. Clicking on it, and arriving at its LOC catalog record, I see that it was first published in a book written by Patrick Gass. Not knowing who he was, a quick search informed me that he was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Great reminder that while we “know” Lewis and Clark, primary sources can help us learn about–and want to learn about–others who were part of the story. Thank you!

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