Friday, May 15, 2009

Sharing a Primary Source

Primary source documents are the historian's building blocks. These treasures of the past come in many forms. They could be period photographs, letters, journals, diaries, newspaper accounts, court transcripts, or even recordings. Primary sources of course are those things that are first hand accounts of the people of the past. I am fortunate to get to work with primary sources almost everyday. It doesn't take much to get me excited about history, but running across a document that unusually catches your attention and that helps puts you in a historic personality's shoes is still something special each time it happens.

Today, while doing some research on African American Kentuckians in the Civil War, I came across an affidavit taken from one William Jones, a former slave that ran away and joined the 124th United States Colored Troops (USCT) at Camp Nelson, Kentucky (Jessamine County). I will provide the document for you and you can judge for yourself how much this document helps us understand this moment in history. All spelling and punctuation is as was taken down by the recorder.

"Before enlisting I belonged to Newton Craig, Scott County, Ky. (Georgetown) My wife belonged to the same man. Desiring to enlist and thus free my wife and serve the Government during the balance of my days I ran away form my master in company with my wife on Saturday March 11 between nine and ten O'clock at night. Our clothes were packed up and some money we had saved from our earnings we carried with us. On our way to Camp Nelson we arrived in Lexington about three O'clock next morning Sunday March 12th 1865 where we were accosted by the Capt of the night watch James Cannon, who asked where we were going. I told him I was going to see my daughter. He said I was a damned liar, that I was going to Camp Nelson. I then told him I was going to Camp Nelson whereupon he arrested us, took our money from us taking Fifty eight (58) dollars from me and eight (8) dollars from my wife. I told him that the money was my own that I desired to have it. He told me that he would send it with the man who would take us back to our master and when we got there we should have it. I said that I would rather die than go back to master who said he would kill any of us niggers who when to Camp [Nelson]. Cannon made no reply but locked us up in the Watch house where he kept us all that day and night and on Monday Morning March 13 1865 he sent us back to our master in charge of an armed watchman whose name I believe was Harry Smith. When we arrived at my masters master was away from home and Smith delivered us to our mistress. I asked Smith to give me my money. He said Cannon had given him none but had kept the whole to himself. I ran away from home that day before master came home. I have never received a cent of the money which Cannon took from me. I have three sons and one son-in-law now in the Service of the United States. I want to get my money back."

The problem with primary sources is that you can't ask follow-up questions. If you are fortunate, then additional letters or information come to light, but more often than not the primary sources you get end in a dead end. I suppose that I should be content to find this little nugget of history and be satisfied that I now know more about the African American experience from having read it. But, I want to know more. Did his wife run away with him the second time? Did he end up fighting in any battles? Did he reunite with his sons and son-in-law while in the army? I guess I'll never know some of these answers, but that's something that historians come to expect when working with topics of the distant past.

Primary sources have to be weighed just like any piece of evidence. They can be biased or unreliable based on the author's point of view or circumstances in which they were produced. The historian has to be part detective and determine if what he has found is reliable and accurate and what inferences can be drawn from the document. Being that is was a sworn affidavit I would feel safe in making the determination that this document was indeed this man's thoughts and words.

Taking documents from the past and helping people better appreciate and understand them is about as good as it gets for me. It is very rewarding to help others make connections with the past and realize that the past still affects their lives today.

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