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A Research Guide: From the Secondary Source to the Primary Source

United States History Sources

The sources gathered under this heading will provide you with brief summaries of information about topics in American history. The information contained in these sources aren't bound by subject or time, but contain comprehensive listings of information across the expanse of the historic record of the United States. Sources like these are useful for gaining basic factual information and suggestions for further reading about any given topic.


The Dictionary of American History

Similar Sources to Consult:
Oxford Companion to American History

The Dictionary of American History is arranged by subject so that each topic related to American history is given an entry, which is designed to describe the basic elements of the event - when, where, who and the outcome. Each entry contains a brief overview or summary of the event. At the end of the entry, the author provides a bibliography for further reading. Both the summary and the bibliography will be useful for your research. Within each entry, there are many clues or key words that may be helpful to you; write them down on note cards and keep track of where you get the information you write down. You may want to go back to these reference sources later in the research process. By using note cards, you can keep the information you find organized and maintain a list of sources you have examined. Use the four sections outlined below to arrange the information on your note cards:

Things To Look For:

  1. Names of people
  2. Place names - towns, cities, geographic features, bodies of water, mountains, lakes, rivers, etc.
  3. Dates and Statistics
  4. Outcome Statements - what was the end result of the event?

Here is a list of terms taken from the Bunker Hill entry in the Dictionary of American History broken down by sections:

People: Colonel William Prescott, Major General Israel Putnam, Brigadier General Sir William Howe, John Stark, Major Pitcairn, Joseph Warren

Place names: Bunker Hill, Boston, Charlestown, Breed's Hill, Mystic River, New Hampshire, Lexington

Dates and Statistics: Day of the battle - June 17, 1775

1200 American militia were sent to Charlestown to seize Bunker Hill - June 16, 1775

British casualties: 1054

American casualties: 441
Battle lasted 2 hours

Outcome Statements (summary):

After an engagement lasting less than two hours, the British were masters of the peninsula, but with heavy casualties of 1054, while the Americans lost, in killed, wounded and prisoners, but 441.

At first regarded by the Americans as a defeat, Bunker Hill, Because of the way in which militia resisted regulars, came to be regarded as a moral victory, leading to a dangerous overconfidence in unpreparedness.

Research Activity - Choosing the Next Step in the Research Process

Now it is time to choose the next step in your research. You can go directly from sources like the Dictionary of American History and the others listed below to the recommended reading on the topic given in the bibliography section of the entry. Within the entry for the Battle of Bunker Hill, in the Dictionary of American History, the author recommends two secondary sources related specifically to Bunker Hill for further reading. If you choose to go directly to a secondary source, then you should have a look at the Using Secondary Sources as a Reference Tool before moving forward.

Research Activity -- Bunker Hill - Finding Evidence within the Exhibit

There are conflicting reports of the precise timeline of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The evidence is not conclusive regarding the exact time of day the Battle began or ended. Ask yourself these questions: What type of evidence can answer these questions? Can you find evidence in any of the letters used in the exhibit that reveals what time of day the Battle began? How long it lasted? What the weather was like the day of the Battle? Does what Peter Brown said about the time of the Battle differ from what the Dictionary of American History entry says? Which is more accurate? Why?

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