Finding and Interpreting Historical Threads and
Patterns through Archival Research

Primary Source Documentation: A Primer Focusing on the Underground Railroad

Deborah M. LaFond and Karen L. Starr

[Research Process] [Search Process] [Piecing Together the Past: Reference Tools]
[What Are Primary Sources?][How Do I Find Primary Source Documents?]
[Local and Regional Collections] [Online Collections] [Other Important Collections]
[History Sources][Related Background Links]

Research Process: Where to Start?

Maybe you have a primary document you want to find the story for? or You have a hunch or a question? Perhaps you want to verify information? Maybe you would like to know more about a particular person, or situate a person within a historical debate or controversy? Maybe you're wondering if you know enough to develop a research question? Perhaps you have a theory but are unsure how to get enough background information to substantiate or test the theory?

How can you find out if your question has already been researched? How might your interpretation of the same sources differ from those that have already been discussed? What if you found a document or source that could influence previous understanding of a subject and its meaning to a particular community?

There is no one best place to start!

It depends upon the approach. Techniques will vary when working with oral histories, genealogy, archaeology, anthropology, cultural, social, political or legal history perspectives.

However, it is useful to work with "informed conjecture" until one can make a historically significant argument. The goal of making “historically significant” arguments should not prevent us from imagining possible scenarios and following those leads. This page will focus on a few examples of scholars who have pieced together and interpreted the past through their research on the lives and resistance of enslaved Africans. We invite you to explore!


Search Process Exploration, Organization and Good Scholarship

Get ready to enjoy the discovery process and the practice of sharing your steps! Keep your own process diary, note search terms you come across, find your own method to value and note your ideas, questions that emerge, and sources you have used to lead you to other sources. Try using the quilt metaphor to piece together and document your process.

Respect all the threads! Remember, history is a conversation! If your reader cannot follow the steps you made through your sources, the conversation could end!

Cite sources you have used whether they be from direct oral statements, published documents or unpublished sources.


Citing Electronic Sources

Piecing Together the Past: Reference Tools and Guides

Formulating a question, finding search terms, developing a search strategy, or advancing a theory requires some background history on a topic. Those who create indexes and bibliographies of resources on a topic can provide you with a backdrop or sketch of what is out there so that you get enough of a sense to start working. Sources that address methodology or historiography indicate perspectives on a topic.

Sometimes research guides are available on the Web such as the Underground Railroad site done at Colgate University Library. However, these guides often refer you to both print and Internet sources, often they are more promotional than in-depth. Not all refererence tools are available on the Web. Some of the best ones for this field are not available electronically. Here is a more comprehensive example of a reference source not available on the Web.

The Harvard Guide to African-American History
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks editor-in-chief; Leon F. Litwack and Darlene Clark Hine, general editors; Randall K. Burkett, associate editor.
REF E 185 H326 2001 University at Albany

This exceptional guide includes state and local studies under the topics slavery and race relations. It highlights repositories, historiography, bibliographies, key primary and secondary sources and collections. Most importantly it is indexed chronologically from 1492 to present by topic. Starting here can lead you directly to key sources related to a particular period.

Timelines are useful for providing historical context and gathering search terms. Tools which link these historical threads will become very useful when piecing together and interpreting your sources. Sometimes timelines are found in published and non-published books, in articles, reference sources and also now on the Internet. (Please remember, timelines are also interpreted through the selection of events noted. Perhaps you will notice or uncover something key that was not included and therefore create a need for another timeline which may include what you noted as significant by its absence.)

Timelines - Toward Racial Equality

Chrononolgy on the History of Slavery and Racism

What Story or Pattern Emerges As I Gather Terms, Sources and Background?  

Search Strategies   

Ask Questions of the Material: Every perspective has a bias or point of view. However, as storyteller, you can ask for example, "Who is left out of this story?"

Evaluate Your Sources


What are Primary Sources? Why Use Them?

Primary sources provide first hand information for historical inquiry or interpretation. Researchers sometimes feel transported to a previous time through their use and interaction with primary source materials, helping to build a relationship with the past and to people not known to them.

Library Research Using Primary Sources

Primary sources vary a great deal which is why there is so often confusion about what is and isn't a primary document. Strictly speaking, primary sources are those written by someone who participated in or observed an event or time period. Such sources reflect the perspective of the individual and are valuable in trying to understand a personality, period, event, or a social movement such as the Underground Railroad. Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, and letters are examples of documents that are clearly recognized as primary. Memoirs and autobiographies, government records and legislation, photographs, and organizational records all qualify as well.

Using Historical Record

Sometimes primary sources are used to establish facts of a particular period. However, not all primary sources can be considered to be evidence. For example, a diary may provide a perspective and an interpretation of the events of a particular period but may not be considered factual evidence. Where a government document such as a birth certificate could be considered to be historical evidence of that birth. Accounts or records of experience, events from a particular period enable the researcher to re-construct and interpret the meaning of events.

Other sources which may sometimes be used as primary resources include: newspaper articles, period journals, advertisments, opinon polls, letters to the editor, and artifacts such as badges worn by slaves who were permitted to "hire" out.

Making Sense of Evidence

Historian, William Kelleher Storey reminds us, "You may have a hunch that space aliens helped the Egyptians to build the pyramids, but after careful review of primary sources and secondary works, you will find no evidence to support your hypothesis. Don't expect too much from your sources and try not to read into them what you hope to find." Writing History: A Guide for Students, p.53

You may have to recognize the limits of your sources and possibly move on to others or re-define your questions. or You may find something so compelling that you will want to change your topic.

Using Primary Sources in the Classroom

Evaluate a Primary Source

Written Document Analysis Worksheet


How Do I Find Primary Source Documents?

Identifying Historical Records

Archives USA

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC)

Method 1: Once you find an appropriate collection, go directly to primary source materials, allow themes to emerge from your study and interaction with them. Utilize people with knowledge. Ask reference librarians to identify sources and/or refer you to people who may have the subject expertise you are looking for. Archivists and librarians often enjoy the chance to guide you when doing in-depth research but they need to schedule the time. You will need to feel that your inquiry is heard and respected. To benefit both parties, it is best to acknowledge the time, patience and determination this work requires by asking to make an appointment. Ask for any "finding aides" that will help you locate materials within collections.

Method 2: Go to secondary sources first, works that interpret or reflect on earlier times. One good method of finding primary sources on a topic is to find those who are also interested in your initial topic or research question! Check their bibliographies and notes! While this approach begins with secondary sources, it may lead you to primary sources that have not been mined! Respect all the threads, cite all your sources! Remember that there are many published sources that have yet to be used and interpreted.

Examples: Tracing Steps of Scholars Who Have Used and Interpreted Primary Sources

Starting from oral histories...
Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. (1999). Hidden In Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. "We memorized Ozella's story and looked to related sources for evidence connecting quilts to the Underground Railroad." Authors state, "That since the field of African American quilt history is relatively new, Jacki and I acknowledge that ideas and theories might not always be conclusively proven as much presented for serious consideration. Our methodology will open the field to further exploration and to the piecing together of ideas and the making of connections. Because the Quilt Code was recited in story form, we began our research by considering the relevance of storytelling in the African American community, and by examining well-known stories about quilts and the Underground Railroad to determine what clues they might contain." p. 26

How did their questions develop? What is the author's thesis? How do they support their thesis statements through the use of primary and secondary sources? What collections did they use to find materials?

Using historical documents...
Leslie M. Harris. (2003). In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. "The construction, destruction and recovery of the Negroes Burial Ground, renamed the African Burial Ground in 1993, encapsulates the ways New York City's early black history has been forgotten, but also how this history may be recovered in unusual places. In this book, I uncover the early history of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans in New York City between 1626 and 1863. To do so, I have relied not only on documents produced by black men and women, such as newspapers, literature and organizational records but also documents produced by whites that reveal, perhaps unintentionally, the contours of life for New York City's blacks from seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. As we know, black men and women left few of their own sources. But the descriptions left by non-blacks, read and interpreted carefully, can provide a wealth of information. " p. 2

Investigating social movements...
Milton C. Sernett. (2002). North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom. Sernett discusses the origins and varieties of abolitionism in upstate New York(the "burned over district"), the impact of religious revivals of the 1820's such as the Great Awakening which the author claims, motivated abolitionist activity.

Using historical newspapers to construct history of societies, organizations...
Elizabeth McHenry. (2002). Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. "In providing this 'public channel' through which to communicate, they created for the black community a social and cultural space in which to articulate their opposition to white oppression while also providing an invaluable lesson in literary interaction and the power of print. In the pages of Freedom's Journal reading was not portrayed as passive or solitary activity; rather, it was an invitation to participate, a means of orienting the individual towards social and communal models of exchange, be they written or oral, that would enhance civic life and facilitate involvement in the public sphere." p. 102

Discussion of the role of newspapers...
Gilbert Anthony Williams. (1989). The Role of the Christian Recorder in the African Emigration Movement, 1854-1902.


Local and Regional Collections

University at Albany, State University of New York

University Libraries

"Albany's University Libraries are among the top 100 research libraries in the country. The University Library and the newly opened Science Library on the uptown campus, and the Thomas E. Dewey Graduate Library for Public Affairs and Policy on the Rockefeller College campus contain more than two million volumes, subscribe to 5,410 periodicals, and provide access to over 2.8 million microform items." Several resources pertaining to Abolitionism and the Underground Railroad can be found in printed reference sources, reprinted primary sources in the stacks or as microform in the general collection in the main library.

On-site community access to books or the Minerva Catalog (where journal and book titles can be searched). Access to reference sources, historical Black newspapers and relevant databases which index secondary sources (and some primary sources). Examples include America History and Life, African American Newspapers, the 19th Century, African American Studies, Black Studies on Disc, International Index to Black Periodicals, Harper's Weekly, JSTOR(full-text journal articles), and Lexis-Nexis Primary Sources in History(also includes microform collection finding aids).

M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections

Archival holdings focus on the Twentieth Century. Resources for African American History - list of Internet sources and online collections. Historical childrens books Current Exhibit - children's books about the Underground Railroad. Main Library Periodicals Room, Threads of Scholarship Exhibit.

New York State Archives

Records Relating to African Americans in the New York State Archives
"From the first Dutch settlement of New Netherland to the most recent session of the State Legislature, the history of New York State is documented in the records preserved in the New York State Archives. While it is often difficult to access records on individuals and groups by race or ethnic group, there are several dozen record series in the Archives that provide retrievable information on African-American residents of New York during the past 350 years. These record series pertain to several broad subject areas: slavery and emancipation; military service; confinement in State institutions, performing arts, political radicalism, human rights, and education." The Black Aboltionist Papers microfilm set is held here.


Albany Institute of History and Art

Library Collections
"A non-circulating library, the library collection of more than 1 million items includes extensive collections of primary source material such as photographs, manuscripts, architectural drawings, ephemera, maps and scrapbooks in addition to more than 14,000 history and art reference volumes and 125 periodicals and newsletters." There are only a few specifically African American artifacts and posters including a "run-away negro" broadside from 1809, a plaster statute of Frederick Douglass, and an 1863 emancipation proclamation poster.

Rennsselaer County Historical Society

Research Library
" RCHS manages and administers the largest local history library, archives and research center in Rensselaer County. These collections, comprising more than 30,000 items, are the fastest-growing and most well-used collections at RCHS."

Schenectady County Public Library

Schenectady Digital History Archive
Impressive collection of links to Vital Records sites and other local research resources.

Albany County Hall of Records

Index to Historical Records
Records Series including Slave Manumission Register M, Court Records, Tax Rolls, Property Records and More. Materials begin with 1650s.

Albany Public Library

Local History Collections
"The Albany Public Library’s local history collections contains materials concerning the City of Albany and Albany County and to a lesser extent, there are materials relating to the entire Capital Region of New York State and New Netherlands. The collection also contains copies of works with local Albany imprints. An extensive collection of local newspapers beginning in 1788 is available on microfilm. The library does not collect manuscript collections or family papers. A large vertical file of clippings was closed in 1988 and microfilmed. There is an indexed collection of pamphlets and ephemera from local organizations. Local newspapers are available on microfilm."


Troy Public Library

Local History Collections
"Troy Public Library traces its history to 1799 when citizens formed a public library. In 1835 the Young Men’s Association was formed and carried the library banner until 1885 when it merged with the Free Reading Room to create a free public library for Troy. The present historic building was opened in 1897. The local history collection of the Troy Public Library includes local history monographs, genealogical materials, vertical files, manuscript collections and the archives of the library. The collection covers the city of Troy, Rensselaer County and some neighboring areas in Albany and Saratoga counties. The library also has a unique collection of paintings, sculpture and memorabilia."

Cornell University

Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection

"The Cornell University Library owns one of the richest collections of anti-slavery and Civil War materials in the world, thanks in large part to Cornell's first President, Andrew Dickson White, who developed an early interest in both fostering, and documenting the abolitionist movement and the Civil War. " Much of the collection is available online in digitized format.

New York Public Library

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

General Research and Reference Division
African, Caribbean and African American literature holdings are particularly strong, as are works on the history of the Americas and the New York metropolitan area. Texts on Harlem and Blacks in the performing and visual arts are also substantial. Additionally, the division maintains a strong retrospective and current collection of African American, Caribbean and African newspapers and other serials.

Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division
Subject and genre strength for the rare book collection include slavery and anti-slavery in the United States; fiction; travel narratives in the Americas and Africa; history of Blacks in the United States and Caribbean; biography; and, poetry. In addition, the collection has one of the finest representative collections of works by authors of the Harlem Renaissance, nineteenth century Black women authors, and monographs published during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by and about Black people.

Online Collections

This section provides examples of selected scholarly collections which include a significant number of digitized primary sources.

Library of Congress: American Memory

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1824-1909
"From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1824-1909 presents 397 pamphlets from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, published from 1824 through 1909, by African-American authors and others who wrote about slavery, African colonization, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and related topics. The materials range from personal accounts and public orations to organizational reports and legislative speeches. Among the authors represented are Frederick Douglass, Kelly Miller, Charles Sumner, Mary Church Terrell, and Booker T. Washington."

African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A.P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907
"The Daniel A. P. Murray Pamphlet Collection presents a panoramic and eclectic review of African-American history and culture, spanning almost one hundred years from the early nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, with the bulk of the material published between 1875 and 1900. Among the authors represented are Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Benjamin W. Arnett, Alexander Crummel, and Emanuel Love."

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
"Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves."

The Nineteenth Century in Print
"The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals now includes 955 volumes from twenty-two nineteenth century periodicals digitized by Cornell University as part of the original Making of America project. These include magazines of general interest, such as Atlantic Monthly and Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and titles catering to more specific audiences, such as Manufacturer and Builder, Scientific American, the United States Democratic Review, and the American Missionary. Articles in these periodicals provide additional perspectives on themes and personalities featured in other American Memory collections."

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries

North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920
"'North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920' documents the individual and collective story of the African American struggle for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When completed, it will include all the narratives of fugitive and former slaves published in broadsides, pamphlets, or book form in English up to 1920 and many of the biographies of fugitive and former slaves published in English before 1920."

Other Important Collections

This section provides examples of selected significant scholarly primary source collections, some of them are digitized, others are not.

Howard University

The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center
"MSRC is recognized as one of the world's largest and most comprehensive repositories for the documentation of the history and culture of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and other parts of the world. As one of Howard University's major research facilities, the MSRC collects, preserves, and makes available for research a wide range of resources chronicling the Black experience. Its collections include more than 175,000 bound volumes and tens of thousands of journals, periodicals, and newspapers; more than 17,000 feet of manuscript and archival collections; nearly 1000 audio tapes; hundreds of artifacts; 100,000 prints, photographs, maps, and other graphic items. The collections are used by scholars, museums, students, and other researchers from Howard University and throughout the world. Information provided by the MSRC is regularly used in exhibitions, video productions, news programming, and a wide range of publications."

Witchita State University Libraries-Department of Special Collections

Merrill Collection of William Lloyd Garrison Papers
"These manuscripts and rare books relate to William Lloyd Garrison, his family, his associates, and the anti-slavery cause. An American journalist and reformer, Garrison was the founder and publisher of the Liberator, a famous anti-slavery journal, and was one of the founding members of the Anti-Slavery Society."

Boston Public Library

Anti-Slavery Collection (Rare Books and Manuscripts) 617-536-5400 ext. 4432

The nucleus of this collection was presented to the Library in the late 1890’s by the family of William Lloyd Garrison and from other individuals involved in the anti-slavery movement. Artifacts, books, documents, letters, and pamphlets from Boston Reformer Wendell Phillips, 50 volumes of letters and papers of orator and abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, dating from the 1830’s through the 1870’s totaling more than 16,000 items. The collection also contains daguerreotypes of several abolitionists, the papers of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, the Weston sisters, Lydia Maria Child, Samuel Joseph May, and John Bishop Estlin are featured. Other items include the Liberator account book; records of the American, New England, and Massachusetts Anti-Slavery societies; scrapbooks concerning Anthony Burns and John Brown; and the files of Ziba B. Oakes, a slave broker from Charleston, South Carolina.

Broadsides Collection (Print Department, ext 2280; Rare Books & Manuscripts)
617-536-5400 ext. 4432

In the Print Department are 136 broadsides advertising 19th century theater productions which include the venue, date, time, cast members, and production titles. The collection includes broadsides for the Boston Athenaeum’s January and February 1863 productions featuring John Wilkes Booth as Othello and other characters. The 2,000 plus American historical and political broadsides (18th and 19th century) in Rare Books cover Boston theatre, the anti-slavery movement, fugitive slave law, and Boston imprints.

History Resources

New York History Net
"This site has a mission: to promote awareness of New York State's rich history resources, and to promote their enjoyment by the largest number of people possible. Toward this end, every effort will be made to meet the needs of scholars, writers, curators, avocational historians, tourists, and the people who serve them. A special purpose of this site is to promote the interpretation of New York's historical assets on the World Wide Web, and to promote the use of the Web by people with an interest in New York History. This site was developed to provide interested users with access to the full range of historical assets within New York State. An effort has been made to provide an integrated source of related information, crossing lines among academic, governmental, and commercial sources."


Related BackgrouRelated Background Links nd Links

Aboard the Underground Railroad: A National Register Travel Itinerary (National Park Service)

African American History of Western New York

African American Mosaic Conflict of Abolition and Slavery

African Americans in Early Albany

African-American Women On-line Archival Collections Special Collections Library, Duke University

Africans in America (PBS) Americans Journey through Slavery

African American Women Writers

Africans In America - Phyllis Wheatley


Afro-Lousiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820

All Aboard

American Visionaries - Frederick Douglass

Askeric Lesson Plans: Follow the Drinking Gourd

“Been Here So Long”- Selections from the WPA American Slave Narratives

Black Archives of Mid-America

Black Population in the U.S. (includes historical census, 1790-)

Colonial American History

Forging the Freedom Trail

Frederick Douglass Papers - Library of Congress and Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass and The Frederick Douglass Museum

Freedman's Bureau

Freedom's Journal, 1827-1829 (pdf access through the Wisconsin Historical Society)

George Washington's Census of Slaves at Mount Vernon

Gerrit Smith Biographies and Home Page

Gerrit Smith Broadside and Pamphlet Collection - Syracuse University Library

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Harriet Tubman (Library of Congress)

Harriet (Ross) Tubman

Henry Highland Garnet - The American Anti-Slavery Group

Levi Coffin House State Historic Site

The Life of Harriet Tubman

Making of America

Museum of Afro American History of Boston

Museum of African Slavery

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (National Park Service)

New York History Net: The Underground Railroad

Nineteenth Century Documents Project

The North Star - An Journal of African American Religious History

Ohio Historical Society: The African American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920

Oswego County Underground Railroad

Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad

Resources on Sectionalism and Slavery

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (PBS)

Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection (Cornell Univeristy)

Slave Narratives(Excerpts)

Slave Voices, "Third Person, First Person" (Duke University Library)

Steal Away: Songs of the Underground Railroad

Taking the Train to Freedom

Teacher Cyberguide: Freedom Train

Testimony of Canadian Fugitives

Threads of Scholarship: History and Storytelling in African American Quilts Exhibit Bibliography and Program

Uncovering the Freedom Trail in Syracuse and Onondaga County

The Underground Railroad - A&E Television Network

Underground Railroad: Movement and Context- Albany, New York (Conference and Website)

The Underground Railroad - National Geographic

The Underground Railroad - St.James African Methodist Episcopal Church

The Underground Railroad in Rochester New York

Underground Railroad: Niagara's Freedom Trail

Underground Railroad Years: Canada in an International Arena

Virginia Runaway Project

W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro American Research Harvard University

William Still Underground Railroad Foundation

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000

Updated JUNE 2004

Produced and Maintained by

Deborah M. LaFond
Social Sciences Bibliographer
University at Albany,
State University of New York
1400 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12222
[email protected]

Karen L. Starr
Archivist, Historian
M.A. History/M.L.S.
[email protected]