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American History: Primary Sources

Primary Sources in History


"Primary sources are materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration, either as participants or witnesses." Secondary sources, on the other hand, "comment on and interpret primary sources".*

Examples of Primary Sources

  • Diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, letters, interviews, oral histories, personal narratives
  • Contemporaneous newspapers, magazines, and journals
  • Manuscripts, archival materials
  • Vital records
  • Government documents
  • Government records
  • Laws, cases, transcripts, minutes, hearings
  • Maps
  • Statistical data, including census data
  • Photographs, films, film scripts
  • Music, sound recordings, musical scores
  • Research data
  • Art and graphics
  • Realia, e.g. tools, needlework, etc.

*Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 4th ed. (Boston: Bedford, 2004), pp. 5-6.

See Primary Sources in American History for details on primary sources and how to find them.

Special Collections and Archives

George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, located on the third floor of HL Library, has an extensive collection of old and rare published materials, family papers, documents and manuscripts. Many Special Collections materials are recorded in the Library Catalog, but some are not yet cataloged, so consulting the Special Collections staff and their card file is important. The Archives area contains materials relating to the history of the college and its graduates, many of whom have been prominent in U.S. history, such as George J. Mitchell and Thomas Brackett Reid. The manuscript collections are strong in the early history of Massachusetts and Maine, the Civil War and Reconstruction, 19th century American literary life, and Arctic exploration.

Explorations and Surveys

Selected finding aids for reports of explorations and surveys. The Library has many of the reports in print in the Serial Set or available online via the U.S. Congressional Serial Set database. Please ask us for assistance in locating the reports.

Warren, Gouverneur K. Memoir to accompany the map of the territory of the United States from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean : giving a brief account of each of the exploring expeditions since A.D. 1800, with a detailed description of the method adopted in compiling the general map. Washington, DC, 1859. 768 S.exec.doc 78, vol. 11, 33-2. Via HathiTrust.

Wheeler, George M. Report upon the Third International Geographical Congress and Exhibition at Venice, Italy, 1881 : accompanied by data concerning the principal government land and marine surveys of the world. Washington, DC: GPO, 1859. SuDocs: W 7.5:W 56. 2293 H.exec.doc. 270, 48-2.
Bowdoin Spec Coll/Archives. Via Internet Archive.

Hasse, Adelaide R. Reports of explorations printed in the documents of the United States. Washington: GPO, 1899. SuDocs: GP 3.5:2. Via HathiTrust and Google Books.

Schmeckebier, Laurence F. Catalogue and index of the publications of the Hayden, King, Powell and Wheeler surveys. USGS Bulletin 222. Washington: GPO, 1904. SuDocs: I 19.3:222. 4684 H.Doc. 606, 58-2. Online and via Internet Archive

Ladd, Richard S. Maps showing explorers' routes, trails & early roads in the United States, an annotated list. Library of Congress, 1962. Govt Doc LC 5.2:Ex7

Historical Government Publications

Bowdoin College Library has an excellent collection of government publications from the early republic to the present. Some of the major U.S.historical series are listed below. For other historical government documents, please ask us.

Annual report of the American Historical Association (online, print, microform)
Govt Doc SI 4.1

Writings on American history
Main Ref Z1236 .W69
These annual reports, produced by the Smithsonian, consist of lengthy essays on historical topics. Access is by bibliographies and short indexes.

Congressional Record (online and print)
Govt Doc X1- X100 1789-present
The name of this publication has changed over the years, but the Congressional Record remains a daily record of the debates taking place on the floor of Congress. In the 1st to the 31st Congress, the Government Publishing Office published summaries of the debates and proceedings. From the 32nd to the present Congress, the GPO publishes full text of debates and proceedings.

Historical Statistics of the United States.
Comprehensive, searchable collection of statistics, including 37,000+ data sets that can be downloaded. A historical supplement to the Statistical Abstract of the United States. A great place to start looking for data. Footnotes to tables lead you to more detailed or more current data. The introduction to each section provides a helpful summary of major sources. Previous editions are available from the Census Bureau, HathiTrust, and elsewhere online and in print.

Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789
Govt Ref GS 4.20 247/2
Collection of letters, documents, and proceedings of the delegates to the Continental Congress.

A compilation of the messages and papers of the presidents.
Main Ref J81 .B96g

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (online and print)
Govt Ref AE 2.114:, Govt Index AE 2.114:
Together, these sets publish the public statements of all the presidents except Roosevelt, whose papers were privately published.

The territorial papers of the United States (print)
or online via HathiTrust or HeinOnline.

United States Congressional Serial Set (online)
Govt Doc Y1.1/2 1789-1994 (print)
The U.S. Congressional Serial Set is comprised of thousands of sequentially numbered volumes containing congressionally-produced reports and documents. In the 19th century, many executive agency documents were published in the Serial Set as well. A key source of primary source documents for American history.

Guide to American Indian documents in the Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1899
Main Ref KF8201.A1 J63 1977
Fulltext of the documents in this guide are freely available through American Indian and Alaskan Native Documents in the Congressional Serial Set: 1817-1899, University of Oklahoma, College of Law

United States statutes at large (online and print)
Govt. Docs. AE 2.111:
An annual compilation of laws passed by Congress, arranged chronologically.

Treaties and other international agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949.
Govt Doc S 9.12/2:, 1776-1949
Govt Docs S 9.12:, 1950-
Chronological compilations of the treaties to which the U.S. is a party.

Microform Sets

Below is list of links to often-overlooked sets of primary documents for American history that the Library holds in microform. To facilitate better use of these collections, this guide lists the names of the collections and their corresponding indexes/guides.

General American History

American culture 1493-1806; guide to the microfilm collection. [Series I, reels 1-26]
Accompanies the microform collection filed as Film 0750-0775 under various titles.
Main Micro Index Z1215 .A584

Presidential History

Microfilms of the Adams papers, owned by the Adams Manuscript Trust and deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society
Main Micro Film 1001-1608

Guide: Microfilms of the Adams papers, owned by the Adams Manuscript Trust and deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Main Micro Index E322.1 .A23 1954 guide

Records of the Department of State relating to internal affairs of Mexico, 1910-29 [microform]
Main Micro Film 2743-2985

Guide: Bowdoin Main Micro Index F1234 .U5 1961

Map room messages of President Roosevelt (1939-1945), [edited by Paul Kesaris]
Main Micro Film 0981-0989

Guide: A guide to Map Room messages of President Roosevelt (1939-1945): The presidential diaries of Henry Morgenthau, Jr. (1938-1945) / compiled by Joan Gibson
Main Micro Index E806 .M35 1981 guide

Confidential U.S. State Department central files. Cuba, 1955-1959: internal affairs, decimal numbers 737, 837, and 937 and foreign affairs, decimal numbers 637 and 611.37 / [project coordinator, Gregory Murphy]
Main Micro Film 2620-2644

Guide: A guide to the microfilm edition of Confidential U.S. State Department central files. Cuba, 1955-1959: internal affairs decimal numbers 737, 837, and 937 and foreign affairs, decimal numbers 637 and 611.37 / project co-ordinator, Gregory Murphy ; guide compiled by Blair D. Hydrick
Main Micro Index F1787.5 .C6 guide

The John F. Kennedy national security files. Africa: national security files, 1961-1963
Main Micro Film 3015-3026

Guide: A Guide to the microfilm edition of the John F. Kennedy national security files. Africa national security files, 1961-1963: microfilmed from the holdings of the John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts
Main Micro Index Z6465.U5 G8469 1993

The Lyndon B. Johnson national security file. Africa: national security files, 1963-1969 / general editor, George C. Herring
Main Micro Film 3027-3037

Guide: A Guide to the microfilm edition of the Lyndon B. Johnson national security files. Africa: national security files, 1963-1969
Main Micro Index Z6465.U5 G847 1993


Guide: Periodicals on Women and Women's Rights
Main Micro Index Z7964.U49 P4

Native Americans

Moravian mission records among the North American Indians / from the archives of the Moravian Church, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Main Micro Film 1901-1940

Guide: Guide to the records of the Moravian mission among the Indians of North America from the archives of the Moravian church, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Main Micro Index E98.M6 M6 guide

Iroquois Indians: a documentary history of the diplomacy of the Six Nations and their League / Francis Jennings, editor . . . [et al.] ; introduction written by Mary A. Druke Iroquois Indians: a documentary history of the diplomacy of the six nations and their league
Main Micro Film 1635-1684

Guide: Iroquois Indians: a documentary history of the diplomacy of the six nations and their league: guide to the microfilm collection
Main Micro Index E99.I7 I68 1984 guide

Historical Newspapers

America's Historical Newspapers
Includes Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922; African American Newspapers, 1827-1998; and Hispanic American Newspapers, 1808-1980. Search by title or place.

Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers

American Periodicals Series Online, 1740-1900

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, 1836-1922, from the Library of Congress

Accessible Archives, Primary source material from 18th- and 19th-century publications, including African-American newspapers and Civil War narratives.

Historical newspapers from Ancestry Library. From Ancestry Library, choose Search > All categories > Special Collections > Stories & Publications > Newspapers.

ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Historical access to Chicago Defender, Detroit Free Press, Hartford Courant, Los Angeles Times, New York Amsterdam News, The Atlanta Constitution, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian and The Observer, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post. Dates of Coverage: varies.

New York Times Archive, 1851-2009

Wall Street Journal Archive, 1889-

Boston Globe Archive, 1872-1982

Washington Post, 1877-1996

Los Angeles Times Archive, 1881-1990

Los Angeles Times (microfilm) 1974-2005
Main Micro

The Library’s Newspapers research guide lists many other nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers.

Historical Magazines & Journals

General databases

Bowdoin College Library has an unusually large collection of magazines and journals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The following databases and indexes are best for identifying specific articles in these older magazines and journals.

Specialized databases

  • Making of America. This digital collection currently contains approximately 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles from the antebellum period through reconstruction.

Individual publications

Slavery, Abolition, and Civil War

American Slavery Collection, 1820-1922 (online)
Materials addressing every facet of American slavery, including books, pamphlets, graphic materials, and ephemera, among them are a large number of invaluable Southern imprints. Over 3,500 works from the American Antiquarian Society's holdings of slavery and abolition materials.

American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922 (online)
Materials addressing all facets of the Civil War and its aftermath, including broadsides, lithographs, maps, books, pamphlets, photographs, political cartoons, stereographs, and more. From the holdings of the American Antiquarian Society.

See other primary sources listed on the "Africana Studies" research guide.


Overland journeys: travels in the West, 1800-1880 "Comprised of selections from the microfilm collections Travels in the West and Southwest and the Plains & Rockies, this digital collection provides a unique window on Western History. Selections are based on the bibliographies, The Plains and Rockies: A Critical Bibliography of Exploration, Adventure, and Travel in the American West, 1800-1865, and The Trail West: A Bibliography-Index to Western American Trails, 1841-1869."

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