Primary Source Resources for American Literature Beginnings to Civil War on the Internet

I’ve collected and annotated these for my students in my American Literature I (Beginnings to Civil War) course.  It is by no means complete, and (as with all web pages) it is subject to change.  If you have a site that you think is useful, please share it with me.  Alternately, if a link is dead, please let me know.

For the Digital Document activity, I strongly recommend that you start with one of these sources. Based on the experiences of previous students, I recommend against using a general search engine like google for this part of the assignment.   Remember that before you proceed with your write-up, you must check with me for document approval.  Send me an e-mail describing the document briefly, along with a link to your proposed document.

As always, if you need help, ASK!

Using Primary Sources:

Making Sense of Evidence
This web site is an excellent resource if you have any questions about what to do with the specific document you find. It covers a variety of document types, from maps to photographs to letters to diaries and more. Scholars suggest the kinds of questions you should ask of a primary source, and also how to evaluate an internet primary source. If you're stuck at any point in the process of this assignment, this site will help!

General Primary Source Sources

Library of Congress American Memory Project
This is an excellent source of primary resources.  Some also appear at the National Archives.  You can click on a “topic” to view collections, or go to “Browse,” where you can choose a time period, type of document, or geographic area.  The collections include both images (artwork, photographs, maps) and reproductions of historic documents.  The search mechanism can be challenging, but allows you to delimit by date.  African American and Native American collections are particularly strong here.  You will find several curious and quirky collections.  For example:  An American Ballroom Companion: which offers a series of ballroom dance manuals from c. 1490 – 1920.

The National Archives
Some of the databases are difficult to navigate.  I highly recommend the “Exhibits” area, where there is great detail and useful contextual information. 
A few specific exhibits include documents from our period:
The Charters of Freedom:
Declaration of Independence, etc.
American Originals:
Voting record of the Constitutional Convention, text of the Emancipation Proclamation
Designs for Democracy:
200 years of drawings and graphic images from the National archives.  Includes maps, images of buildings and ships, etc.

Picturing U.S. History
This is a new site produced by the American Social History Project at CUNY Graduate Center. It will be adding more forums/exhibits that feature Art Historians and Historians. There may be some useful documents here. You might also consider a piece of art -- a painting for instance -- as a possible "document" for your project. There is currently an interesting series on Race in America, and there is a forthcoming forum on Colonial America.

The Morgan Library and Museum

The Morgan has a great group of online exhibits on a variety of themes. One notable one is for diaries. Many of the resources cover non-American events and authors, but even some of these can be used for the project.

American Antiquarian Society
Located in nearby Worchester, Massachusetts, the AAS has huge holdings in American cultural artifacts.  The website offers several online exhibits on interesting topics, as well as a journal, CommonPlace

Making of America
From the site: “Making of America (MoA) is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The collection currently contains approximately 9,500 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints.”  It reproduces the original pages, providing both the images and the text-searchable versions.  The search engine works well if you keep trying some creative search terms.

Open Library Project
Reproduces full books, with a nifty feature that makes it look like you’re turning pages.  The selection of books at the moment is small, but there are curiosities and rare books, including a collection of children’s stories by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

This long-standing site at the University of Virginia houses a multitude of resources, including both text and images.  Of particular interest:  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl hypertext version:

Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Literature
The site is small, but offers quite a few curiosities, especially for any one interested in popular culture and children.

Internet Modern History Sourcebook
This link specifically will take you to “Colonial North America,” but note that the menu bar on the left side allows you to navigate to other periods.  Note that many of these links will take you to transcriptions, rather than reproductions of these documents.  Nonetheless, the transcriptions may be useful to you, and some links may get you to primary documents.  Some links are dead.           

Early Americas Digital Archive
This site, at University of Maryland, is a collection of texts written in or about the Americas from 1492 to 1820.  Most of these are text-only transcriptions, however, they provide SEARCHABLE text, which may be particularly useful if you're search for a term or theme within a particular document or a group of documents. If you've found your digital document image, but want help with transcription, this site may have already provided this.

Historic American Sheet Music
Provides access to digital images of 3042 pieces from the collection, published in the United States between 1850 and 1920.

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
The “Treasures of the Collection” hits the highlights, but there is a vast repository here, so it’s worth a search. The site offers excellent presentation of the original documents, including programming that shows the original (handwritten) document and then a roll-over that transcribes the handwriting into easy-to-read type.
Also features online exhibitions, notably,
Battle Lines: Letters from America's Wars: 
Alexander Hamilton: The man Who Made Modern America:
John Brown: The Abolitionist and his Legacy:

Archiving Early America
Note that this is a “dot com” and features some very annoying banner ads.  The “Pages from the Past” menu along the side features some documents of interest, including pages from a Massachusetts newspaper from 1790 and from Ben Franklin’s newspapers.  For many of the images, you can see a small version, but must pay for the rights to full versions.  There are numerous freely available documents out there, so don’t feel you should pay for this service.

Digital History
The “Exhibits” and “Documents” areas are particularly useful.  The majority of documents provided are transcriptions (rather than images of original documents); however, there are still some useful images here.  One feature is a series on court proceedings and trials:

Hargret Rare Book and Manuscript Library: Rare Map Collection
This site features some fascinating maps; the navigation menu on the left side provides links to Colonial and Revolutionary era maps.  Based at the University of Georgia, the material is weighted towards the south, but nonetheless provides an excellent collection in high-quality document resolution.

Census Data
This is a great source for historical census data, beginning in 1790.  An invaluable source for numbers, although it won’t provide primary documents, it will give you numbers, and lots of them!

Focus: Women

Emma Spaulding Bryant Letters
As the site explains, this is a collection of ten letters that Emma Spaulding Bryant wrote to her husband, John Emory Bryant, “in the summer of 1873. They recount Emma's activities during that summer when she and her daughter, Alice, were visiting relatives in Illinois and Ohio while her husband tended to his political affairs in Georgia.”  There is good contextualizing information, as well as both transcripts and images of the original documents.

DoHistory: Martha Ballard’s Diary Online
This site provides many resources, but most useful in this context will be the collection of “Primary Documents.”  Martha Ballard, born in Massachusetts in 1735, was a midwife in rural Maine.  She kept a diary, which was turned into a fascinating book, “The Midwife’s Tale” by historian Laurel Thather Ulrich.

Godey’s Lady’s Book
A selection of materials printed in Godey’s
Ladies' Book, a popular magazine for women published in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1878; it was the most popular journal of its time. Of particular popularity (and perhaps contemporary interest) are the full-color fashion plates.

Focus: Exploration and Conquest

1492: An Ongoing Voyage
The frontpage is not very impressive, but there is a wealth of information here.  Many of the images are borrowed from the Library of
Congress American Memory project, but the contextual info is useful.  You can follow through the full text of the exhibit story, or skip to the “Outline” where you will find links to individual pages and documents.

American Beginnings: The European Presence in North America 1492 - 1690
This site from the National Humanities Center is mostly text-based, but does feature some images, and will certainly provide useful contextual information for documents from this period. The inforation is broken up into four "eras" of "Exploration, Settlement, Permanence and Power."

Focus: Colonial Period

Cultural Readings: Colonization and Print in the Americas
This exhibit from University of Pennsylvania library provides an interesting collection of documents from the early explorers of the Americas.  Provides useful contextualizing information.  It’s a relatively small collection, but usefully documented, organized, and contextualized.  Particularly interesting to some may be the documentation and dictionaries for indigenous languages.  The images are not very large, but are readable.

17th Century Colonial New England:
An annotated list of web sites that provide images and content.  It has handy descriptions of the materials on the site, and also a listing of many direct links to specific documents (the Bay Psalm book, and much much more).  The site is weighted heavily towards witchcraft cases.

The Goody Parsons Witchcraft Case:
OK, here’s a plug for my own work.  This site features primary documents for a witchcraft case in Western Massachusetts.  It was created (by me and others) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Early Massachusetts Currency
A small group of images of some of the first paper currency in the colonies.  Not a lot of images or information, but they are interesting, and provide fairly high-resolution images.

Virtual Jamestown
This site provides great resources about the Jamestown Settlement, including some advanced interactive programs. The original document selection is small but has some great items, including some interesting maps, as well as an original contract for an indentured servant.

Focus: Revolutionary Period

Spy Letters of the American Revolution
This small collection of private letters reproduces the original documents and easier to read transcripts.  Many of the letters are quite the curiosity pieces, including a letter intended for Paul Revere that was intercepted by a spy, and a letter originally written in invisible ink. The site was created by William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  It’s a nicely designed, user-friendly site.

Library of Congress Web Guide: The American Revolution and the New Nation
From Washington's first inaugural address to his Farewell address, as well as numerous treaties, this page from the Library of Congress will send you off to see all the major documents of this period. There is some useful contextual information, and the image quality is high.

Focus: Slavery, Civil War & The South

There's a wonderful feature at the New York Times that has a terrific annotation of one of Walt Whitman's notebooks. It's a must see!

The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War: This site from the Virginia Center for Digital Humanities adn the University of Virginia Library focuses on two towns (one Northern and one Southern) from the years 1859 to 1970. It hosts an incredible number of documents, including letters and diaries, newspapers, church records, maps, images, census and tax records, and information from the Freedmens Bureau.

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record site, from the University of Virginia Library, offers over 1,200 images related to the Atlantic Slave Trade. Note that there is little contextualizing or background information on these images. The vast majority are images without text; however, many of these could be used for the assignment. Some possible items of interest are the advertisements for runaway slaves and some of the early maps.

Third Person, First Person: Slave Voices: This small exhibit from the University of Virginia includes some interesting images of documents related to the slave trade and the lives of slaves.

The Crisis of the Union
This site from the University of Pennsylvania’s History Department offers “an electronic archive of documents about the causes, conduct, and consequences of the US Civil War.”  It is searchable by title, author, date, and subject, but also has a handy browse function.  It’s easy to navigate, and offers clear PDFs of the original documents. Includes images from
newspapers and political cartoons.  Period ranges from 1850 – 1874.

Civil War Women
Letters, diaries, and papers from Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Sarah E. Thompson, and Alice Williamson, all with a focus on their experiences during the period of the Civil War.  Provides both images and transcripts, as well as useful contextualizing information about these women.  If you’re interested in private letters and the lives of women, this should be an interesting source.  Excellent quality reproductions of the original documents are offered.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture
This site provides a huge wealth of information on the cultural reception and redistribution of the images from this book.  In the “Browse” mode you will find groupings of pieces of the collection in an easy-to-navigate format.  If you have any interest in Stowe, abolition, and popular culture, this site is a must-see.

Documenting the American South
Although slim in pre-1850 holdings, the ones that are here are interesting, particularly the selection of personal letters.  The site offers annotated and hyperlinked transcripts of the documents, with links to PDF images of the originals.  You can “Browse Collections” to find useful parts, including “True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina,” which “presents 121 edited and transcribed primary documents from 1795 to 1868,” or “The First Century of the First State University” which “presents hundreds of primary documents about the creation and development of the University of North Carolina, from 1776 to 1875.”

Native Americans

Native American Images
This site from Berkeley's Bancroft Library has an amazing collection of images and text about Native Americans. It is "a digital companion to an exhibit of rare books, photographs, illustrations, and other archival and manuscript materials that debuted in the Fall of 2000." The centerpiece of the exhibit is a a book of portraits of American Indian chiefs: James Otto Lewis’ Aboriginal Port Folio, published in 1835-1836. A selection of these images, along with the information provided by this site, could make an excellent Digital Document paper.

Some other Local History (for various areas in the Northeast) that may be of interest:

You might want to look into the historical society for your home town (or other location of personal interest to you). I'm listing here some sites that students have submitted and/or that I have found that may have some primary documents of interest for particular locations or themes:

Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea (Connecticut): If you search through "finding aides" --> "manuscripts" you are brought to many logs, journals, and letters. Almost all of them have been transcribed but there are also quite a few that have been digitally uploaded:

Some other listings of sources:

Digitized Primary American History Sources
Note that some of these links do not work.

American Literature Sites
This is a list complied and annotated by another professor.

Some Specific Document Samples:

The Bay Psalm Book:


This list was last updated on April 5th, 2011.

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