Historical Thinking and Online Primary Sources

Historical Thinking Skills

National Archives Learning Curve, National Archives, Great Britain

Though this site primarily presents lesson plans, its “Focus On” section is “designed to develop skills in history using original sources” through in-depth examinations of six topics. The “How to Read a Document” topic is the most developed and asks users to imagine that they are historians attempting to “discover the full meaning of the document.” Users record their answers to specific questions in “Notepads” which they then gather together at the end to draw a broad overall conclusion based on their observations.

Digital History: Doing History, Steven Mintz, University of Houston

Focusing on slavery, ethnic history, private life, technological achievement, and American film, this site provides multimedia resources and links for teaching American history and conducting basic research. It presents more than 600 documents pertaining to American politics, social history, diplomacy, slavery, Mexican American history, and Native American history. The site is searchable by author, time period, subject, and keyword, and is annotated with essays of 300–500 words each. The site offers a full U.S. history textbook and more than 1,500 searchable and briefly annotated links to American history-related sites. It also includes a “Doing History” section targeted specifically at “Kids and Teens,” which presents 13 topics through which users can “do history,” including Advertising, Beauty and Style, Food, Film, Propaganda, and Slavery.

The Digital Classroom, National Archives and Records Administration

Activities, primary documents, lesson plans, links, and worksheets designed to help teachers use archival documents in the classroom are available on this site. It also has 20 thematically oriented teaching activities and 35 lessons and activities organized around constitutional issues.


David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, Cartography Associates

This site consists of more than 4,400 historical maps of North and South America. Most of the maps were made in the 18th and 19th centuries; many are notable for their craftsmanship. It is searchable by country, state, publication author, keyword, date, title, event, subject, and name of engraver or printer. Users may also browse by categories including antique atlases, school geography, wall, children’s, and manuscript maps. This site vividly conveys how certain locations have changed over time.

Campaign Atlases, Major Robert Bateman, United States Military Academy

Visitors will find more than 400 color maps of military campaigns from American colonial wars to U.S. involvement in Somalia in 1992–1993. Most maps are of conflicts in which the U.S. played a role, but the collection also includes maps of the Napoleonic Wars, the Chinese Civil War, the Falkland Islands War, and Arab-Israeli wars. Maps are indexed by war and may be enlarged, but are not annotated. A bibliography lists eight atlases, published between 1959 and 1987, from which many of the maps were taken. The site will be useful for research in military history.

The American Revolution and Its Era: Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, 1750–1789, American Memory, Library of Congress

This site records the mapping of North America and the Caribbean from 1750 to 1789 through images of more than 500 maps. The online collection allows researchers to compare editions, styles, and techniques of mapmakers from Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Holland, Italy, and the United States, and to follow the development of specific maps from the manuscript sketch to the finished, printed version. A descriptive note (100–150 words) accompanies each image. The site also includes a 1500-word essay on mapmaking during the American Revolutionary era and links to 12 other sites containing related materials. Researchers can browse this site by geographic location, subject, creator, and title, and can search the site by keyword. This site is ideal for students and teachers interested in mapmaking in the 18th century and in exploring how maps illustrate early American culture.

American Shores: Maps of the Middle Atlantic Region to 1850, New York Public Library

This attractive site explores the mid-Atlantic region and history through more than 840 maps created before 1850. In addition to numerous regional and state maps, these include land surveys, coast surveys, nautical charts, military maps, ornamental maps, and city maps. An overview provides historical context for reading the maps of the geographic regions. Users can click on thumbnail images to view enlarged maps. The collection is keyword searchable and an outstanding resource for studying the political and social history of the U.S. to 1850.

Quantitative Evidence

United States Historical Census Data Browser, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, University of Virginia Library

Data gathered by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research from census records and other government sources for a study entitled “Historical Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: The United States, 1790–1970” is accessible through this website. For each decade, users can browse extensive population- and economic-oriented statistical information at state and county levels, arranged according to a variety of categories, including place of birth, age, gender, marital status, race, ethnicity, education, illiteracy, salary levels, housing, and specifics dealing with agriculture, labor, and manufacturing. Users may select up to 15 variables when conducting searches and the site will generate both raw figures and statistical charts.

Selected Historical Decennial Census Population and Housing Counts,
Department of Commerce, Census Bureau

More than 40 historical census reports, including decennial reports dating back to 1790, are available for download on this website as PDFs. Historical statistics address topics such as population totals by race, urban or rural populations, educational attainment, and means of transportation to work, among others. There are also histories of the 21 U.S. census questionnaires produced from 1790 to 2000, including instructions to census marshals dating back to 1820. Comparative tables show which censuses included specific questions on subjects, such as ancestry and mental disabilities, and whether respondents were deaf, blind, insane, feeble-minded, paupers, literate, or convicts. Additional information includes state and territorial censuses, mortality schedules produced for a number of 19th-century censuses, population at the time of each census, and supplemental censuses taken at various times on free and slave inhabitants, Indian populations, unemployment, and housing. Because of the PDF format, the reports take a number of minutes to download.


Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850–1920, Digital Scriptorium, Duke University

This site contains images of more than 9,000 advertising items and publications dating from 1850 to 1920. Selected items illustrate the rise of consumer culture in America from the mid-19th century and the development of a professionalized advertising industry. The images are grouped into eleven categories that include: advertising ephemera (trade cards, calendars, almanacs, postcards), broadsides, advertising cookbooks from food companies and appliance manufacturers, Lever Brothers Lux (soap) advertisements, outdoor advertising. Each category contains a brief (250-word) overview of the subject matter. The site also includes a timeline of the history of the advertising industry from the 1850s to 1920.

When They Were Young: A Photographic Retrospective of Childhood, Library of Congress

These 66 photographs capture the diverse experiences of children from many different parts of the world. The collection includes early 19th-century daguerreotypes, turn-of-the-century studio portraits, and 20th-century prints and stereographs.


African American Sheet Music, 1850–1920, American Memory, Library of Congress and Brown University

This collection presents 1,305 pieces of sheet music composed by and about African Americans, ranging chronologically from antebellum minstrel shows to early 20th-century African American musical comedies. Includes works by renowned black composers and lyricists, such as James A. Bland, Will Marion Cook, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Bert Williams, George Walker, Alex Rogers, Jesse A. Shipp, and James Weldon Johnson. In addition, sheet music can be studied to examine racial depictions, both visually, on sheet music covers, and in lyrics; styles of music, such as ragtime, jazz, and spirituals; and a variety of topics of interest to popular audiences, including gender relations, urbanization, and wars. Much of the material is disturbing due to its heavy dependence on racial caricatures; however, students can gain insight into racial attitudes through an informed use of this site.

Historic American Sheet Music, 1850–1920, American Memory, Library of Congress

This extensive collection provides a window on American culture between 1850 and 1920 by offering more than 3,000 pieces of sheet music from Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. The collection is particularly strong in antebellum Southern music, Confederate imprints, and Civil War music and includes a large collection of piano marches, opera excerpts, waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles as well. The site also offers a 750-word essay, a 1000-word essay that defines sheet music as a cultural medium and outlines the history of music publishing in the U.S., and a bibliography of more than 150 works on the history of sheet music, composers, musicians, and performers in the U.S.

Letters and Diaries

George Washington Papers, 1741–1799, American Memory, Library of Congress

This collection of approximately 65,000 documents written by or to George Washington includes correspondence, letterbooks, diaries, journals, account books, military records, reports, and notes written from 1741 through 1799. Because of the wide range of Washington’s interests and correspondents, including ordinary citizens, his papers are a rich source for studying almost every aspect of colonial and early American history.

Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society

Images of manuscripts and letters coupled with digital transcriptions from the Adams Family Papers are available through this site. The collection includes over 1,100 letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams beginning during their courtship in 1762 and continuing through 1801, 51 diary entries, financial accounts, copies of letters, drafts of essays, and notes on books and legal cases kept by John Adams between 1753 and 1804, as well as John Adams’ autobiography; divided into three sections: “John Adams,” “Travels, and Negotiations,” and “Peace.” Users may search for specific words, dates, people, places, or ships. Users may search the entire collection or narrow their search to John Adams’ Autobiography, Diaries, or the letters between Abigail and John Adams. This website is an invaluable resource for anyone studying diverse aspects of colonial, early American, and women’s history.

Trails to Utah and the Pacific: Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869, American Memory, Library of Congress; Brigham Young University; and Utah Academic Library Consortium

Diaries documenting the westward treks of 45 men and four women during the period of the California Gold Rush and rise of Mormonism are offered on this website. Although most of these travelers took either the California or Mormon trails, a few diaries provide accounts describing life on trails to Oregon and Montana. 82 photographs and illustrations and 43 maps, including an interactive one displaying trails, cities, rivers, and landmarks, complement the diaries. There are seven published guides, two essays on the Mormon and California trails (9,100 words; 5,500 words), brief biographies of most of the diarists, and a list of suggested readings. This is an excellent collection of materials that documents 49 individual perspectives on a movement that encompassed an estimated 500,000 people.

The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society

John Quincy Adams began keeping a diary at the age of 12 and continued until just before his death in 1848. Comprising more than 14,000 pages, this website presents images of the 51 volumes of Adams’ diary. Though there is no transcription available, the diary can be searched by date or by using a detailed timeline that includes brief summaries of each entry. This website also provides links to the MHS Teacher and Student resources page, including four sample lessons on the Adams family and early American history.