Creating Your Own Primary Sources
A few months ago I received an envelope in the mail from a friend that I have known for almost twenty years. She had sent me an instant message a week or two before that asking for my mailing address. She told me she had found something that she was sure I would be interested in seeing. I had no idea what she was sending so I eagerly awaited its arrival. I was definitely surprised to open the envelope and find a letter that I had written her 18 years ago enclosed inside.
Like any good budding antiquarian, I had made sure to date the letter so I knew what was going on in my life around the time that I wrote it, but I’ll get to that later. The missive was exactly what you would expect from a bubbly 16 year old girl: big loopy handwriting with smiley faces, effusive details about my newest crush, and lamentations about how boring my small town was. Knowing about the tragedy I had experienced only three months prior to that letter’s creation, my thirty-three year old self was rather surprised and taken aback by its cavalier tone. I recalled being heartbroken and terribly sad, this letter definitely did not reflect the emotional state I remembered being in at that time.
I shrugged it off, thinking maybe I was being too dramatic. I was a teenaged girl after all. Maybe it didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it had. I tucked the letter away after refusing to let my husband read it. I did not like the shallow ditz that letter portrayed me as and I definitely didn’t want him to see how boy-crazy I had been.
A few weeks ago I got another instant message from my friend. She had found something else to send me. I waited with dread for the embarrassment I was about to be confronted with. I gingerly opened the envelope as if it were a ticking time bomb I was trying to diffuse. I sensed instantly that this letter was different just by the change in handwriting. It was still perfect cursive (I’ve always tried to be a bit fancy), but no more flourishes. This letter had been written a little over a month before the other one…only a month after my world had turned completely upside down….October 1997.
In this letter, I saw the truth of my experience. It was sad, but hopeful. There was definitely no talk of boys and only a few hints of my struggle to fit in and move on with my life. Instead, I was more curious about her life. What was she doing? How had things changed since I left? What little I did say about my new life felt more like observation; as if it were all happening while I was on the sidelines.
So, what happened in September 1997? My seven year old sister, Megan, died in a car crash. I won’t go into details, but my mother was deemed negligent in the crash so I was uprooted from my home in Oregon and sent to live with my father in rural Montana only a few days after her funeral. I was an emotional wreck and my father’s side of the family had no idea what to do with me. Somehow, between the October letter and the December letter, I had learned that no one wanted to hear the sad stuff so I buried who I was and became the person people thought I should be.
As I stood in the kitchen comparing the two letters in my hand, it struck me that I was looking at my own primary sources.
Primary sources are like gold to a historian. They are the letters, documents, and eye witness accounts of the people who saw events firsthand and they help us feel what it was like to live in the past. We know what Anne Boleyn said in her scaffold speech because a witness took the time to write it down in such a descriptive way that we can see it unfold in our imagination. We ache at the pain and frustration that Francis Knollys felt at his separation from his wife, Catherine, because it transcends through his letters. We can sense the thrill of Henry VIII’s hunt as he chases down his quarry with his dogs, Ball and Cut because of inventories referencing them.
When we look at primary sources, we can often infer things about the writer without even reading the document. We can tell if the writer was in a hurry because the letter was scribbled in haste or know that the writer had a pet because of the cat paw prints immortalized in ink across the page. These primary sources are filled with emotion and give us a sense of time and place.
Secondary sources are great because someone else took the time to analyze all the contemporary documents and place them in context with what was going on in the world at the time, but they will never have the same impact. Secondary sources also have a tendency to remove the historian from the events taking place.
You may think that primary sources belong to the past, but every day we are creating these vital documents. Of course wills, medical records and property deeds fall into this category, but in the 21st century, every email, text or Facebook post also becomes a primary document for your life. Try to imagine what people, centuries from now, will think when they write about our history. Chances are good that they might get an inkling of what it was like to walk in our shoes.
As for my friend, Breeanna…well she is every historian’s dream. I like to compare her to the great Secretary William Cecil, Lord Burghley. He was known for keeping excellent records and because of him, we have a little taste of what life was like in Elizabethan England. I just hope and pray that she doesn’t unearth anything else embarrassing on me!
Adrienne Dillard, author of “Cor Rotto: A Novel of Catherine Carey” is a graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies with emphasis in History from Montana State University-Northern.
Adrienne has been an eager student of history for most of her life and has completed in-depth research on the American Revolutionary War time period in American History and the history and sinking of the Titanic. Her senior university capstone paper was on the discrepancies in passenger lists on the ill-fated liner and Adrienne was able to work with Philip Hind of Encyclopedia Titanica for much of her research on that subject.
“Cor Rotto: A Novel of Catherine Carey” is her first published novel.
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