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History 369: Race and the Law in American History

Primary Source Databases


Public websites

General interest

Library of Congress: Digital Collections: Curated collections on a wide array of topics, such as photographs relating Japanese American internment, political pamphlets by African Americans, documents from the Constitutional convention, and much, much more.

Library of Congress Web Guides: Research guides and links relating to specific topics and individuals.

State Digital Resources: The Library of Congress’ list of state digital collections

Many Pasts: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web: Large collection of sources by History Matters at George Mason University. “Advanced search” feature lets you select time periods, topics, or type of source.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers: Digitized historic newspapers, including many that were in print in the 1840s. The easiest way to explore what is available is to click on the “All Digitized Newspapers” tab. This collection includes Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.

Smithsonian Open Access: Includes images and data from across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo.

Law and the courts

Slaves and the Courts 1740-1860

Avalon Project: Legal and diplomatic history documents from Yale Law School.


Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

New York Public Library Digital Gallery

American Antiquarian Society: Digital Image Archive

Native American history

Images of Native Americans: An exhibit on paintings, advertisements, and various other visual representations of Native Americans from Berkeley’s Bancroft library 

Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties: Contains about 30 some laws and treaties concerning Indians affairs.

African American history

Documenting the American South: A wonderful collection from the University of North Carolina Library, featuring digitized copies of numerous books and pamphlets, many of them by African American authors or relating to African American history. Do not be misled by the title; not all the documents are from the South.

Freedmen and Southern Society Project: An ambitious project to document the experiences of freedpeople through primary sources from the National Archives. This website includes a subset of the 50,000 documents selected for publication; for a larger collection, see the multiple volumes published in print and listed on the homepage.

Gilder Lehrman Collection: Large collection of documents and images relating to every period of American history, but with particular emphasis on the history of slavery and emancipation and the century from the Revolution to Reconstruction.

Immigration history

Immigration in the United States, 1789-1930: A collection of historic materials from Harvard’s archives on immigration issues ranging from the Irish Immigration to the Gold Rush. (Check the “Timeline” for direct links to primary sources related to these events.)  

The American West

California Digital Newspaper Collection

Online Archive of California: A collection of digitized sources from pretty much every museum, university, and library in California.


Harvard Maps Collection Digital Maps

Library of Congress Maps Collection: The Library of Congress’ collection of maps on cultural landscapes, military battles, cities and towns, discovery and exploration, transportation and communication, and etc.

David Rumsey Map Collection: A collection of U.S. maps, and includes maps from the Gold Rush and the Mexican-American War.

South Asian American history

Finding primary sources in print

Finding primary sources in print

Online sources are bountiful, but books are still the place to go for many primary sources. Here are a few categories of books in which you might find useful primary sources.

Documentary histories are collections of primary sources or excerpts of primary sources, usually focusing on a particular topic or time period. Often these collections include introductory essays or brief contextualizing information for each source. Examples: Ronald H. Bayor, ed., The Columbia Documentary History of Race and Ethnicity in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, 3 vols. (New York: Citadel Press, 1951)

Published editions of manuscript primary sources transcribe and print (again, often with scholarly apparatus) sources that were originally created in manuscript (handwritten) form. Examples: Charlotte L. Forten, The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, ed. Brenda E. Stevenson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, ed. James Morton Smith (New York: Norton, 1995).

Exhibit catalogs and illustrated histories are excellent sources for finding visual sources or material objects. These books (which are often found in the “oversize” section of the library) include photographs of artifacts and images, but they are only useful insofar as they clearly identify whatever is known about the provenance of these items. Examples: David Bidman, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Karen C. C. Dalton, The Image of the Black in Western Art (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010-) [multi-volume illustrated history]; Coco Fusco and Brian Walls, Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self (New York: International Center of Photography, 2003) [exhibition catalog].

Tips for using the library catalog to find primary sources:

Look for items with subject headings that end with the terms “Sources.” For instance, at the broadest level, doing a subject search for “race United States sources” turns up multiple relevant documentary histories. Subject headings for museum exhibit catalogs may end with “Exhibitions” or “Catalogs.” Other subject terms that indicate that the item may include primary sources include “Manuscripts,” “Correspondence,” and “Archives.”

If you are interested in putting your case into context of a particular place and time, particularly useful headings include “[Place name]—History” and “[Place name]—Description and Travel.”

Be sure to search the Summit catalog as well as the Reed catalog.