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HIST 2000: Historical Methods (Lieberman): Primary Sources

Short cuts for Prof. Leiberman's HIST 2000 course, Spring 2013. With a focus on resources to support research on loyalists during the American Revolution.

How to Analyze a Primary Source

Once you've found a primary source, what do you do with it?    Take a look at the following handout and use the questions to help guide your primary source analysis. 

Library Books to Support Your Research

Terms to Search

Searching catalogs and databases sometimes requires that you get creative with the terms that you are using.  Here are some terms related to this subject that you might try: 

American loyalists.

United Empire loyalists.

United States - History - Revolution, 1775-1783

Exiles - United States - History - 18th century

For primary sources, add a second search such as:


Personal narratives



Research at the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass is the premier archival repository dedicated to print culture from colonial America to the Civil War.  You are encouraged to research their collections.  To do so, follow these steps:

1.  Register as a researcher at My Web AAS before you visit the library.  Click on the First Time User link and fill in your contact information.

2.  You don't have to schedule your appointment in advance, but if you know what you want to use you can request that the materials are ready for your research appointment by using the link above. 

3.  When you arrive, you will be required to show 2 forms of ID (one must include a photograph) and to have a brief (10 minute) orientation for doing research in the library. 

4.  Once in the library, you can access all of their digitized newspaper collection as well as materials from their print collection.  Just work with the reference librarian on staff to request and use the items. 

How to read an 18th Century Document

Characteristics of 18th Century English and American orthography (writing, spelling and printing) are distinctive. All personal writing was handwritten.  Reading and writing were taught as separate skills and one's literacy depended very much upon their class, occupation and gender.  Thus there are wide variations in personal communication skills.  Commercial writing could either be handwritten or printed with handset type on a press.

Become familiar with the differences in 18th century writing and printing so that you can effectively search and read primary sources from the time.

Historic Newspapers at Fitchburg State University Library

Our library here has a great collection of historic American newspapers on microfilm.  You can find them all shelved in the Early American Newspapers microfilm collection in Room 201 of the library.  You can find full details of these papers in the library catalog.

Some of the notable titles include:  

  • Boston News-letter (1704-1762) / Massachusetts Gazette & Boston News-letter (1763-1776)
  • Massachusetts Columbian Sentinel (1790-1840)
  • Independent Chronicle (1776-1840)
  • Massachusetts Mercury (1793-1800)
  • New England Chronicle (1776-1820)
  • Virginia Gazette (1736-1781)

Primary Sources available Online

Traditionally, you would have to visit an archive to get access to primary sources.  However, many libraries are digitizing their records and making them available online in subscription databases or via the web.  The following electronic collections are recommended for research for this course given their focus on the history of loyalists during the American Revoluation. 


These are available via the library Research Databases list. 

Annals of America

Historical Periodicals Collection  (see box below for search tips)

Social & Cultural History: Letters and Diaries

America's Historic Newspapers (via the Boston Public Library; see box below for how to set up an account)


Library of Congress:  American Memory

Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention

Atlantic Canada Portal Virtual Archives

Hathi Trust (search also for American loyalists, United Empire loyalists, etc.)


Searching Historical Periodicals Database

The Historical Periodicals of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) provides access to more than 500 Colonial America and American magazines and journals from 1691 through 1820 covering a broad base of topics and geographical areas. Almost every 17th and 18th-century American title is represented in addition to the majority of works published before 1821.


You're searching primary sources in this database so remember all of the tips above about printing in the 17th & 18th Centuries!


Search Tips:

Search Box - Start here when you are looking for a specific topic, event or person.  But remember - think about how they would have written about it at the time.  (Ex.  The term "American Revolution" is a historic one; take a look at newspapers and journals of the period and pay attention to the terms they are using when they write their accounts.)  Be creative with spelling, grammar, names, etc. 


Search by Date - Interested in starting with a time period instead of a topic?  In the Search screen, make sure that you have your "search options" on.  Instead of entering a term in the bar, enter your date range below in the "Published Date" fields. 


Publications - At the top left of the page, choose Publications to search the full list of journals and magazine included in the database.  Click on a title that sounds interesting and search just the contents of that one periodical.


Dictionary - Confused about some of the words you're reading?  Look them up in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Pre-19th Century Terms & Definitions.  At the top left of the page, click on Dictionary to gain some insight.




Historic Newspapers at the Boston Public Library

Historic Newspapers from the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) collections are accessible for free for Massachusetts residents via the Boston Public Library with a membership.  

Follow these steps to get access: 

1.  Head over to the Boston Public Library and register for an "ecard".

2.  Click on the "Electronic Resources" tab, then on "A-Z list of resources".

3.  Choose "America's Historical Newspapers (1690-1922).  

4.  When prompted, enter your BPL card number and pin for remote authentification.  

5.  Once in the database, enter your search terms and limit to specific collections as needed.