Where does history come from? Historians use a great many different sources to assemble information on the past. Evidence comes in many forms.
To think like a historian, we must concern ourselves not only with what people did, but also with what they thought they were doing. In every act that humans perform, however simple or banal, they are looking toward the future. Nations don’t go to war for the sake of war; they do so to obtain more territory or to secure borders or to chasten a neighbour in the future. Likewise, individuals make personal choices, such as emigrating or postponing marriage until they are older, because of how their decisions will “pay out” later on.
Peter Moogk, an accomplished historian of New France, encourages us to develop an deep understanding of past societies: “If a historian is not immersed in the culture of the time being studied and has not grasped its internal logic, then that scholar’s reconstruction of past human behaviour will inevitably be superficial and anachronistic.” To study history properly, we must creep around behind people in the past and try to look at the future through their eyes. In order to do so, we must become open to the institutions and instincts of earlier eras and then consult the detritus and records of our predecessors.
The sources that historians rely upon are grouped under two headings (which sometimes overlap). The first group is primary sources, which are original materials that come to us directly from people in the past. Diaries, letters, and reports of government inquiries are good examples of primary materials. The other group is secondary sources, which generally are documents that examine primary documents and provide an interpretation. Both types are discussed below.
Primary sources are often held in archives, and sometimes in museums. (Often the archives are in a museum.) Archives may be private or semi-private, but the principal archival institutions in Canada are public and are organized by levels of government. The National Library and Archives of Canada is housed in Ottawa, every provincial capital has its own provincial archives, and most cities have one too. Most universities have their own archives, which are sometimes called “special collections,” and large public libraries very often have a room dedicated to primary documents.
In this electronic age of ours, many public archives are available online through Archives Canada. As well, increasingly, historical photographs and maps are available online. Still, there are times when a visit to the physical place is called for. It is typically in an archives that historians do the painstaking detective work that leads to new discoveries about the past.
Exercise: Find the Archives
Wherever You Live, There’s an Archives
The town or city in which you live has one. Local museums usually have some kind of archives or a set of local records, as do churches, military regiments, schools, and universities. It costs nothing to get into the archives.
Where is the provincial archives nearest to you? How many local archives are attached to museums? To churches? Regiments? Take a look at the online catalogue of any one of them. What kinds of things do they have? Pick a topic — the local breweries, the street on which you live, a home-grown artist you like — and see what they’ve got.
If possible, drop by and take a closer look. Ask the archivist about the collections. Tell him or her you’re interested in learning what kinds of materials are collected and what most excites them. Describe in a couple of paragraphs the assets and, broadly, what makes them important resources for historical and/or community knowledge.
Finally, share what you’ve found with others. Go to Wikipedia or a community website and add that knowledge.
Reading the Records
Primary documents can get you closer to actual participants in past events, but they are not without problems. Think about it: Has anyone ever lied or embellished a story in his or her diary? Has there ever been an inquiry without a political agenda in the background? Have you ever read a letter and wondered if it reveals the writer’s thoughts or what the writer thinks you will understand by it? Take the Jesuit Relations, for example. These are reports submitted by Jesuit missionaries in New France to their masters back home. There are many truths contained in them, but you have to keep in mind that the Jesuits who prepared the Relations knew that they would be read by people who had the power to cut off their supplies or to send them the reinforcements and materials essential to success. In the reports, were they overly optimistic about the likelihood of religious conversions among the First Nations? Did they dramatize or downplay daily life? Both?
Salt and pepper: comparing two paintings
If letters and reports can be duplicitous, what about paintings and maps? Take a look at Benjamin West’s famous 1770 work, The Death of General Wolfe (Figure 1.6), which hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Clearly it is a very romantic interpretation of what actually took place in 1759, but what truths does it reveal … despite itself?
The pepper to West’s salt is The Death of Montcalm by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, painted in 1800. It, too, hangs in the National Gallery. It shows Montcalm dying on the battlefield, despite the fact that he died in a surgeon’s home.