Analyses of Primary Documents


You are required to write analyses of primary documents from the collection, The Great Plains at the Grassroots, assigned in relation to lectures. The idea in this assignment is to cultivate the habits of a historian: focusing on primary documents, and reading them critically. What does it mean to read a document critically? Usually what is meant is to examine it skeptically, weighing its authenticity and veracity, making sure we are not being fooled. That is only part of critical reading, however. Critical reading by a historian also entails judgments about the value of the document to historical knowledge. A document may be authentic and reliable, but still we ask, what can we learn from it? What is its significance, that is, what makes it historical? Finally, there is another dimension to critical reading, which has to do with understanding where the author of the document is coming from. A good historian strives for an empathetic reading of a document, so as to acquire an understanding of the writer’s perspective on events. Put yourself in the place of the writer.


Guidelines for Analysis

·         Study the document carefully, repeatedly.

·         Do some background research on the document, using online or other available sources.

·         Write an analysis, a critical assessment, of the document. Target length, 300 words.

All that sounds a little too general, and so here are some specific considerations to apply. All or some of these may apply to the critical assessment of a particular document, or may be feasible according to information available.



Provenance (chain of evidence)

Context, external evidence for comparison

So – is this a source we should trust?


Examination of the document itself


Factual consistency and feasibility

Internal evidence of reading

External evidence for comparison


What facts, peculiar to this source, are disclosed?

So – is this a source we should value?


What point of view, peculiar to this source, is presented?


Why should we care, as historians, about this stuff?


Strive to write your analyses in an informal, but correct style. It is OK to use first person, but be careful not to become self-indulgent; remember the document is your subject, and when you express opinions, they should be directly pertinent. Here is a rubric for evaluation of your analyses (10 points possible).



Tell us what the document is.


Authenticity & Veracity

Provide a critical evaluation of the source.


Historical Significance

Assess the value of the document.


Appropriate Length

Target length: 300 words


Matters of Style

Composition, grammar, and punctuation are important to communication.


Points Possible for Assignment



Analyses are submitted via the designated forum on the HIST 431 Facebook page.


Deadlines for primary document analyses: one week after conclusion of lecture (with which the document is assigned) in class.


You will receive the evaluation of your analysis as a Facebook message.


The Great Plains at the Grassroots


This is a collection of primary documents of regional life being assembled for course use and, eventually, for facsimile publication. These documents enlighten or illustrate the history of the Great Plains. The emphasis in these documents is on the lives of ordinary people - hence the label "grassroots" in the title. All documents assigned this semester are available online. You are expected to write analyses of these documents - see Analyses of Primary Documents. The documents are assigned in connection with specific lectures. You should read and analyze the documents at the appropriate time in relation to the lectures with which they are associated.


 Criteria for inclusion (selection of primary documents remains a work in progress):


1.      Textual documents – some images OK, but predominantly text

2.      Visual impact – hand-written documents are good, as are print documents that convey the feel of the times – avoid dense text

3.      Specific significance to the Great Plains, preferably to a lecture in HIST 431

4.      Manageable length


Primary Documents for Reading & Analysis


See study pages for individual lectures to find documents specific to the lectures. Here is a link to the working Excel file of primary documents, unorganized.