Working with Historical Sources

History | Grades 6-12

This is the third in a series of eight resources on historical argumentation written especially for the Lesson Study Group at Mills College by educator Stan Pesick. These resources are designed to be used individually to help define inquiry questions for use in Lesson Study cycles or in sequence for background research in the Study phase of a cycle. An ordered list of the sequence can be found in part one.


Analyzing historical sources is an important skill with applications far beyond social studies classes. Historical sources, whether accounts like newspaper articles or memoirs or artifacts like photographs, speeches, or ruins, are the building blocks of an historical argument. This resource demonstrates how to use sources to support arguments, as well as common pitfalls students encounter in the process.

Key Questions & Concepts

How Do We “Make” History?

History is more than just the recording of facts, but ideas of the study of history differ. Some students believe that history is a given, where other students believe what we call history is just competing versions of events that cannot be judged as true or false. Neither view is correct, but in finding an alternative, students must confront key questions at the heart of studying history: How do we know about the past, and what do historians do?

We start to answer these questions when we recognize that history is a reconstruction of past events based on the analysis of sources from the past. Evidence from the past does not merely speak for itself. Historians and students can only reconstruct the past by working with those sources to explain, interpret, and create an historical argument. However, to do this requires both a methodology for using source materials and prior knowledge about the time, place, and creator of the sources.

Guiding Principles for Historical Sources

Working with historical sources to develop and support an historical argument is a challenging task for students. However, from the above, we can glean three concepts that students can use as a guide:  

  • An historical source does not speak for itself. It is not a fact just to be reported, but a piece of the past to be interpreted
  • Analyzing an historical source requires knowledge of the historical context in which the source originated
  • To use a source as evidence requires a close reading of that source and application of the disciplinary process of “sourcing.”

A Common Stumbling Block

The following example shows a very common misunderstanding about how to use historical evidence. In developing a response to the question “Is John Brown an American hero?”, an 8th-grade student was asked to work with a number of historical sources. This is how the student used one of the sources to support the argument that Brown should not be considered an American hero:

Historical Sources Excerpt from Student Essay

“…old Brown will be hung! That is the decree, of the PEOPLE of Virginia, without a dissenting voice…The miserable old traitor and murderer belongs to the gallows, and the gallows will have its own.”

from Editorial from Richmond, VA’s ”Daily Dispatch.”   

“On November 18, 1859 a Virginia newspaper addressed the John Brown issue. ‘Old Brown will be hung. That is the decree of the people of Virginia, miserable old traitor and murderer belongs to the gallows, and the gallows will have its own.’ Enough people agree that John Brown isn’t a hero to get an article published. The violence that Brown committed was intolerable. This helps prove that he isn’t a hero because he was a traitor, for he killed innocent people of his own race, and a murderer for the same reasons.”

We see here what happens when a piece of evidence is allowed, without question, to speak for itself. This piece of evidence could certainly be used to to support the claim that John Brown is not an American hero, but the analysis is incomplete. The writer does not ask what political, social, historical, or economic perspectives might be guiding the editorial and how those perspectives might have influenced the editorial’s position.

Introducing “Sourcing”

In other words, what the writer didn’t do in the context of historical investigations was “source” the document. Sourcing identifies the most important information about a document’s origins and uses this information to understand and analyze its meaning, perspective and reliability to strengthen arguments.

Put practically, “sourcing” a document means asking who created it, for what purpose, in what place and time, and for what audience. As stated previously, answering these questions requires background knowledge, including knowledge of this source’s historical context. When reading the source, students might ask:

  • Where is Richmond, VA?
  • What does its location connect to slavery in America?
  • How do we define the term  “traitor?”
  • Does a newspaper editorial require the support of many people before it is published?

It does not appear the writer considered these questions. As a result, the writer took the editorial at face value, as a “fact” which “proved” Brown a traitor. Failing to question and interpret sources proves to be a common error for students.

Reading Sources Critically

In contrast, consider this work from an 11th-grade student responding to the following question: “Imagine it’s April 1963. Should Dr. Martin Luther King encourage school-age children to participate in the continuing demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama?”

In this example, we see the student grappled with a number of historical sources to support the argument against Dr. King’s call for children to participate:

Historical Sources Excerpt from Student Essay

“Knowing that bail funds were already low, they (the white legislature) drafted a bill to raise the maximum appeal bond in misdemeanor cases from $300 to $2,500, applicable only to Birmingham.” – from Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters.


“A boy in high school, he can get the same effect of being in jail…as his father, yet, there is no economic threat to the family because the father is still on the job.” – From Reverend James Bevel, April 12, 1963, “Appeal to Adults and Youths in Birmingham.”

“By allowing children to join would mean heavy costs for the rest of the family. In terms of financial problems, it was declared that bail funds were raised from $300 to $2,500.  The cost to bail their children from prison, where they were almost certain to go, would be devastating for the mostly lower-income African American families of the south. In addition, despite Reverend Bevel’s idea that the parents’ job would be safe if their children participated instead of themselves, it would be uncharacteristic of radical southerners not to place the blame on the parents. The parents would most likely lose their jobs and have trouble finding new ones based on their new reputation, placing the family in a bad economic position.”

Why Is This a Better Analysis?

Here we see that the student analyzes and interprets a piece of historical evidence instead of treating it like a fact to be reported. The student goes beyond just stating bail costs to explain why the amount might be “devastating” to low income African American families, and then uses this analysis to develop and support of the paper’s position. The student interrogates the statement by Reverend Bevel to develop a counter-argument that incorporates an understanding of racial dynamics in the segregated South.

Discussion Questions

After reading this resource, let the following questions guide your thinking as a team:

  1. What ideas about teaching and learning about reasoning with historical sources strike you as important to your setting?
  2. How does your curriculum currently support students in developing this key historical thinking skill?
  3. What experiences have your students had in working with historical evidence?
  4. How might this disciplinary skill be developed as students move from one grade to another in your school? Is there a developmental progression based on age and grade?

About the Author

Stan Pesick taught U.S. History and American Government/Economics in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Oakland, CA, for eighteen years (1976 – 1994). Between 2001 and 2011, he co-directed OUSD’s history/social studies department and directed three federally funded Teaching American History (TAH) projects. Between 2011 and 2014 he co-directed the Oakland Unified School District/Mills College History-English Language Arts (ELA) Collaborative on Writing the Argumentative Essay. Since 2014 he’s worked as a curriculum consultant to the National Japanese American Historical Society and National Park Service. He currently works with both the Bay Area and National Writing Projects.