Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

A Guide to Understanding Primary Sources

Explanation of Answers for Practice #1: The Siege of the Alamo

Note: You may have received the sources in a different order during your interactive practice.

  1. "1999 encyclopedia. Overview of topics related to Alamo and TX Rev'ln." The correct answer is that this is a SECONDARY source.

    In encyclopedias, modern scholars synthesize and condense all the most important facts about a person, place, or topic into a short essay (between 1 paragraph and 1-2 pages). A lot of details are excluded, and quotations from primary sources (the first-hand experiences) are rarely included. The scholar writing the encyclopedia article may consult primary sources, or may predominately consult secondary-source books and articles.

    - Was NOT written by someone who experienced the Siege of the Alamo in 1836.
    - Was NOT written at or near the time and place of the Siege.
    - Does NOT present copies of documents that were written by first-hand witnesses/participants or documents that were written at or near the time of the Siege.

     
  2. "Handwritten 1836 letter from Cmdr William Travis at Alamo to the U.S." The correct answer is that this is a PRIMARY source.

    - WAS written by someone (Commander William B. Travis) who experienced the Siege of the Alamo in 1836.
    - WAS written at the time and place when the Siege occurred.

     
  3. "1936 Dallas newspaper article on Alamo anniversary celebrations." The correct answer is that this is a SECONDARY source. This article was written 100 years after the Siege took place.

    To keep things in perspective, however: If your paper was going to investigate the way that the Siege of the Alamo was remembered and commemmorated in the 20th century, THEN this article might be a primary source for THAT paper.

    - Was NOT written by someone who experienced the Siege of the Alamo in 1836.
    - Was NOT written at or near the time and place of the Siege.

     
  4. "1990 book by historian. Overview & interpretation of events at Alamo." The correct answer is that this is a SECONDARY source.

    When historians write comprehensive overviews of a historical event like this, they consult a wide variety of both primary and secondary sources. They synthesize the information from all those sources into one coherent story line and usually integrate their own interpretations along with the "facts."

    - Was NOT written by someone who experienced the Siege of the Alamo in 1836.
    - Was NOT written at or near the time and place of the Siege.

     
  5. "1998 book by historian. Accounts of Mexicans at Alamo & author notes." The correct answer is that this source has BOTH PRIMARY AND SECONDARY content.

    The personal accounts from the Mexicans who were at the Siege of the Alamo would be primary content for your research paper. The notes added by the modern historian author would be secondary. Both pieces might yield useful information and quotes for your paper.

    - Accounts of Mexicans: This part of the book WAS written by those who experienced the Siege of the Alamo in 1836.
    - Accounts of Mexicans: This part of the book WAS written at or near the time and place when the Siege occurred.
    - Author Notes: This part of the book was NOT written by someone who experienced the Siege of the Alamo in 1836.
    - Author Notes: This part of the book was NOT written at or near the time and place of the Siege.

     
  6. "Retyped version of Travis' 1836 letter from the Alamo, in 1963 book." The correct answer is that this is a PRIMARY source.

    Remember, the question of "primary" or "secondary" is a question of CONTENT--not format! Whether you have the original letter with Travis' fingerprint smudges on it, or a digital photograph of the original letter posted on a website, or a retyped version in a book -- the content is still the same and, for the purposes of this research paper, is still primary in all those formats.

    KEEP IN MIND: it is true that someone who retyped the original letter could make a mistake, or might read and interpret a word differently from someone else; this is why it is so important to CITE which version/format you consulted.

    Nevertheless, because the source intends and attempts to faithfully recreate the original document and does not contain another person's added commentary, interpretation, etc., we still consider it to be primary if the content of the original document itself is primary to our research question.

    - WAS written by someone (Commander William B. Travis) who experienced the Siege of the Alamo in 1836.
    - WAS written at the time and place when the Siege occurred.

     
  7. "1836 Nashville news article. Discusses New Orleans report about Alamo." The correct answer is that this is a SECONDARY source.

    This is an example where looking only at the date and format can easily mislead you. Yes, this is a newspaper article, and it was written in the same year (actually, nearly the same exact date) as the Siege of the Alamo. However, you must also look at the rest of the information you are given. The article was printed in a Nashville (Tennessee) newspaper: far away from where the siege occurred in San Antonio, Texas.

    In our times, a Tennessee television station might have a reporter live on the scene in Texas (who might be able to generate live coverage that could qualify as primary). But in 1836, the spread of news from Texas to Tennessee had to take place through people. In some cases, this might involve a participant or an eyewitness directly relating what they experienced, but in many more cases, it will involve a non-witness relating what they have heard (often, what they heard from someone who heard from someone who witnessed). This is second-hand information at best, perhaps even third- or fourth-hand information!

    In this case, someone in New Orleans heard something about the Alamo and reported on it; then someone in Tennessee picked up on that report and is passing it along. (Did you ever play the game "Telephone" in elementary school...?)

    - Was NOT written by someone who experienced the Siege of the Alamo in 1836.
    - Was NOT written at the time and place of the Siege (it was close, but not close enough).

 

Newton Gresham Library | (936) 294-1614 | (866) NGL-INFO | Ask a Question | Share a Suggestion

Sam Houston State University | Huntsville, Texas 77341 | (936) 294-1111 | (866) BEARKAT
© Copyright Sam Houston State University | All rights reserved. | A Member of The Texas State University System