Primary Sources Online: The National Archive and Native American Treaties

The National Archive in Washington DC

Especially if you are writing nonfiction, but also for fiction, it is a good idea to include primary sources whenever possible.  Primary sources are first hand accounts.  Diaries, letters and even photographs are primary sources.  Primary sources are important because they are uninterpretted.  You get what someone at the scene observed.

This week when I was updating a lesson on primary sources, I popped over to the National Archives. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the archive of the US Federal Government. This is copies are kept of all documents that are legally or historically vital.  People use this material to research family history, veteran records and topics of historical interest.

Among other things, the Archive’s home page lists newsworthy items.  “Efforts Begin to Digitize 377 Native Treaties.”  What it comes down to is that efforts are underway to scan 377 treaties and supporting material.

One of the goals of the Archive is to make material as accessible as possible.  In this day and age, that means making it digital.

Pamela Wright is the Archives’ Chief Innovation Officer.  “The project boldly addresses three of our agency’s strategic goals: making access happen, connecting with customers, and maximizing our value to the nation,” Wright said. “We currently have over 65 million digital records available in the catalog. With over 12 billion textual records in our holdings, our big hairy audacious goal is to have them all available online one day.”

I have to admit that part of the reason this interests me is that it is hard to find unbiased material about early Native American history.  Because of this, anyone who writes about the contents of a treaty is going to pick and choose the parts that illustrate their own point-of-view.  This is why primary sources are so important and with treaties digitized I’ll be able to see, first-hand, what each of these treaties promised.

Spend some time at the digital archive.  You will find photos, senate and house records, military records and more.  My only warning – don’t do it when you are on deadline unless the research relates to said deadline.  The photographs especially tend to pull me in.


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