Skip to main content

United States History: Finding Primary Sources

Table of Contents

The Library subscribes to numerous databases which index or provide full-text access to primary resources.  The ones listed are a sample of those particularly useful for research in the field of U.S. history. Don't see what you need?  Don't hesitate to contact me. Want to explore on your own?  Check out our list of primary source databases. Note: Links to online newspapers can be found under the newspapers tab. Note: Unless indicated, these databases are restricted to Duke users.

Finding Primary Sources in the Online Catalog

The Duke University Libraries contain a wealth of primary materials for the researcher in U.S. history. The collections housed in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library should not be overlooked.  The holdings on the American South are particularly strong.

There are also many resources outside of the materials in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  In the collections of the libraries outside of the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, primary resources take the form of published letters, diaries, and papers.  To identify these resources in the online catalog, look for the subdivisions, correspondence, interviews, sources, diaries and personal narratives. Any of these terms can be used in the keyword search mode; for example, vietnam and personal narratives.

17th Century and Earlier

Sabin Americana contains works about the Americas published throughout the world from 1500 to the early 1900's. Included are books, pamphlets, serials and other documents that provide original accounts of exploration, trade, colonialism, slavery and abolition, the western movement, Native Americans, military actions and much more.

Early American Imprints I (Evans) is the digital version of the Early Amerian Imprints, a microfilm set based on the American Bibliography by Charles Evans and enhanced by Roger Bristol's Supplement to Evans' American Bibliography.  The databases includes more than 37,000 broadsides, pamphlets, and books published from 1639 to 1800. 

Early English Books Online (EEBO) reproduces over 125,000 books, pamphlets and broadsides published in English between 1475 and 1700.

Colonial America contains primary sources related to all aspects of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American history and the early-modern Atlantic world from 1606 to 1822.

Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice is a digital collection documenting the key aspects of slavery worldwide. One focus area is slavery in the early Americas. Coverage is 1490-2007.

Slavery and Anti-Slavery documents the history of slavery in America and the rest of the world from the late 15th through the early 20th century through books, pamphlets, legal materials and more. 

Jewish Life in America, c1654-1954 provides access to materials related to the history of Jewish communities in the United States from the 17th century to present.

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 examines United States women's social movements from colonial times to present through primary source documents.

North American Women's Letters and Diaries contains over 2000 sources from North American women from colonial times to the 1950. It includes records from close to 1,500 women. Like The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries, the indexing is outstanding.

18th Century

Sabin Americana contains works about the Americas published throughout the world from 1500 to the early 1900's. Included are books, pamphlets, serials and other documents that provide original accounts of exploration, trade, colonialism, slavery and abolition, the western movement, Native Americans, military actions and much more.

American Periodicals provides access to full text images of popular American newspaper, professional journals and magazines that began publication from 1740-1900.

American Antiquarian Society (AAS) Historical Periodicals Collection provides access to articles from American periodicals from 1684 to 1912.

Early American Imprints I (Evans) is the digital version of the Early American Imprints, a microfilm set based on the American Bibliography by Charles Evans and enhanced by Roger Bristol's Supplement to Evans' American Bibliography.  The databases includes more than 37,000 broadsides, pamphlets, and books published from 1639 to 1800. 

Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) provides access to the complete works of many 18th century authors, women writers of the 18th century and French Revolution collections are included.

Colonial America contains primary sources related to all aspects of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American history and the early-modern Atlantic world from 1606 to 1822.

Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice is a digital collection documenting the key aspects of slavery worldwide. One focus area is slavery in the early Americas. Coverage is 1490-2007.

Slavery and Anti-Slavery documents the history of slavery in America and the rest of the world from the late 15th through the early 20th century through books, pamphlets, legal materials and more. 

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 examines United States women's social movements from colonial times to present through primary source documents.

North American Women's Letters and Diaries contains over 2000 sources from North American women from colonial times to the 1950. It includes records from close to 1,500 women. Like The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries, the indexing is outstanding.

Jewish Life in America, c1654-1954 provides access to materials related to the history of Jewish communities in the United States from the 17th century to present.

The American West provides access to manuscripts, maps, ephemeral material, and rare printed sources from the Graff Collection about the American West, including tales of frontier life, Native Americans, vigilantes, and outlaws, and the growth of urban centres and environmental impact of westward expansion and of life in the borderlands. Coverage is 1722 to 1939 with the heaviest concentration on the period of 1830-1939.

Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution Digital Edition provides access to thousands of documents which illuminate the ratification process/debate in each of the thirteen states' conventions.

Periodicals Index Online indexes thousands of selected periodicals in the humanities and social sciences from their first issues to 1995.  This index is international in scope and coverage begins from 1770.  Book reviews are also indexed. 

19th Century

Sabin Americana contains works about the Americas published throughout the world from 1500 to the early 1900's. Included are books, pamphlets, serials and other documents that provide original accounts of exploration, trade, colonialism, slavery and abolition, the western movement, Native Americans, military actions and much more.

American Periodicals provides access to full text images of popular American newspaper, professional journals and magazines that began publication from 1740-1900.

American Antiquarian Society (AAS) Historical Periodicals Collection provides access to articles from American periodicals from 1684 to 1912.

Readers' Guide Retrospective (1890-1982) is an excellent source to identify articles from popular/general interest magazines.  It indexes over 200 magazines published in the United States.

The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries provides access to full text letters, memoirs, and diaries written from 1861 to 1865.  The indexing in this database is phenomenal.  You can restrict your search to the martial status, occupation, military rank, religion, and much more of the authors included in the database.

Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice is a digital collection documenting the key aspects of slavery worldwide. One focus area is slavery in the early Americas. Coverage is 1490-2007.

Slavery and Anti-Slavery documents the history of slavery in America and the rest of the world from the late 15th through the early 20th century through books, pamphlets, legal materials and more. 

Jewish Life in America, c1654-1954 provides access to materials related to the history of Jewish communities in the United States from the 17th century to present.

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 examines United States women's social movements from colonial times to present through primary source documents.

Women's Magazine Archive provides access to the full-text of popular women's interest magazines dating from the 19th to 21st century.

North American Women's Letters and Diaries contains over 2000 sources from North American women from colonial times to the 1950. It includes records from close to 1,500 women. Like The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries, the indexing is outstanding.

North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories contains sources from North American immigrants during the time period of 1890-1920.

Harper's Weekly provides access to images of all the pages in Harper's Weekly from 1857 to 1912.  Everything in this publication has been indexed.  You can even exclusively search the advertisements or illustrations.

The Nation (1865 to present, excluding the most recent 18 months) is a fully searchable, full-text database of the content of  The Nation, a liberal U.S. current affairs magazine.

20th and 21th Centuries

Sabin Americana contains works about the Americas published throughout the world from 1500 to the early 1900's. Included are books, pamphlets, serials and other documents that provide original accounts of exploration, trade, colonialism, slavery and abolition, the western movement, Native Americans, military actions and much more.

Readers' Guide Retrospective (1890-1982) is an excellent source to identify articles from popular/general interest magazines.  It indexes over 200 magazines published in the United States.

American Antiquarian Society (AAS) Historical Periodicals Collection provides access to articles from American periodicals from 1684 to 1912.

The Sixties (1960 to 1974) provides access to diaries, letters, government documents, memoirs and more for this time period.

NAACP Papers offers access to documents from two date ranges, 1909-1950 and 1955 to 1965. Note: the Library has a more comprehensive collection on microfilm.

Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century contains primary source materials on the freedom movement from governmental, organizational and personal perspectives.

Jewish Life in America, c1654-1954 provides access to materials related to the history of Jewish communities in the United States from the 17th century to present.

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 examines United States women's social movements from colonial times to present through primary source documents.

Women's Magazine Archive provides access to the full-text of popular women's interest magazines dating from the 19th to 21st century.

North American Women's Letters and Diaries contains over 2000 sources from North American women from colonial times to the 1950. It includes records from close to 1,500 women. Like The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries, the indexing is outstanding.

North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories contains sources from North American immigrants during the time period of 1890-1920.

The Nation (1865 to present, excluding the most recent 18 months) is a fully searchable, full-text database of the content of  The Nation, a liberal U.S. current affairs magazine.

Beyond Duke: Notable Websites

These sites are freely accessible.

The Library of Congress's American Memory site is one of my very favorites. This site provides access to digitized documents on American history and culture from the collections of the Library of Congress.  It is truly a phenomenal site.  I use it frequently to find images.

Documenting the American South is a fantastic site from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Covering Southern history, literature and culture from the colonial period through the first decades of the twentieth century, this site provides access to an outstanding collection of materials including first person and slave narratives.

The Making of America (Cornell) and the Making of America (Michigan) provides fulltext access to primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. This includes digitized books and long runs of journals. A collaboration between Cornell University and the University of Michigan, each site provides access to the other. 

The Valley of the Shadow, a collaboration between the Virginia Center for Digital History and the University of Virginia Library, explores in detail the life during the American Civil War era in two towns, one Southern and one Northern.