This month we asked our contributors:
What is your favorite digitized collection of primary source material?
There is a treasure trove of resources available to researchers!
Bettina A. Norton
The Smithsonian Institutions’s Inventory of American Paintings. Like everything about the wonderful Smithsonian, it is free.
The Hathi Trust Digital Library. If there is a digital copy of a source I need, chances are Hathi Trust has it, for free! I don’t necessarily search the trust library, I just do a Google search of whatever title or topic I am researching and if it has been scanned, Hathi Trust typically has it. Diaries, orderly books, compilations of letters, you name it, they have scanned it all. It’s a wonderful resource!
I like the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Robert N. Fanelli
The Revolutionary War records on Fold3 is the thing I use most often. They present digitized and searchable records from the National Archives, including Muster Rolls, Pension Application files and Military Service records, as well as a large number of other records from the period. (Also recommended by William W. Reynolds and Matthew Reardon)
John K. Robertson
The Massachusetts Archives Collection containing records from 1629 to 1799, in 328 volumes, is available on-line for free at Family Search. An overview of the collection (and links to the contents of the 328 volumes) is available at https://www.sec.state.ma.us/arc/arccol/colmac.htm. There is no on-line index to individual documents, but each volume is arranged chronologically. The first 239 volumes can be found at https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/1055547 and volumes 240 to 328 at https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/1050952. The first 239 contain most revolutionary war items and cover the Provincial Congresses in 1774-1775, the period when the Council was the executive, 1775-1780, and the early statehood period 1780-1799.
Frank W. Garmon, Jr.
Lately I have been reading a lot from Farrand’s Records online through the Library of Congress memory.
Susan Brynne Long
The Library of Congress, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. This free resource is invaluable for research about the founding era, including the legislative records of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.
I rely on the free American Presidency Project at the University of California/Santa Barbara.
America’s Historical Imprints contains the full text of all the books, pamphlets, broadsides and other printed material listed in Charles Evans’s fourteen-volume Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets, and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America from the Genesis of Printing in 1639 Down to and Including the Year 1820, with Bibliographical and Biographical Notes. It also includes the items listed in Roger Bristol’s supplement and American Bibliography, a Preliminary Checklist, compiled by Ralph R. Shaw and Richard H. Shoemaker along with supplementary material from the American Antiquarian Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia. This includes virtually every book printed in America up to 1820—hard-to-find diaries and letters as well as books on all topics of early American life: law, cooking, science and technology, medicine, literature, business, shipping, etc. It is produced by Readex and sold to libraries. A similar product, also produced for libraries by Gale/Cengage Learning, is Eighteenth Century Collections Online which is based on the English Short Title Catalog. While there is some duplication, the two products together offer access to any book published in English in the eighteenth century. Using the two together, one can compare differences between English and American editions of the same work.
My go-to digital sources are three inexpensive online newspaper subscriptions:newspapers.com, Newspaper Archive (newspaperarchive.com), and Newspaper Archives (genealogybank.com). For a researcher that spent the entire 1990s rolling through microfilm and slowly turning very fragile mounted 1700s newspapers, it is a relief and a joy to do meaningful searches of these papers with a search engine.
Jason R. Wickersty
During the pandemic, the British digital database service Adam Mathew has offered free twelve-week trial subscriptions to the scanned documents of the Colonial Office 5 (CO 5) record series from the British National Archives at Kew. This series is the official correspondence between British commanding officers in America and officials in London, and includes casualty reports, provision and supply inventories, and strength returns of the British army. Except for the occasional snack break, I’ve been pretty much living there for the past few weeks!
My favorite online research collection is the Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters website. The site contains over 25,000 transcribed Revolutionary War pension applications, rosters, and other documents there free of charge. It is the go-to place for anyone researching the individuals and military units that served in the southern states during the war. Many statements capture important details and individual exploits that would have been lost to history had there not been a pension system. (Also recommended by Conner Runyan and J. Brett Bennett)
I really like American Archives. It’s online and free to use through Northern Illinois University. The collection was originally compiled by Peter Force (who was also the mayor of Washington, D.C.) in the mid-1800s. The collection covers the years 1774-1776 from many different angles, and contains the only surviving copy of many documents.
Being a fan of Thomas Paine, I use the digital collection of Paine’s writings provided on the website of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. https://www.thomaspaine.org. The association is digitizing all of Paine’s writings, based initially on Philip Foner’s Complete Writings of Thomas Paine.The TPNHA is also trying to determine just exactly what Paine wrote, and didn’t, since some of his writings were written anonymously. Major works by Paine are easily accessible online these days from multiple sources. But lesser known and newly attributed materials are also available on the website, by year. Free to the public!
Albert Louis Zambone
Probing the Past: Virginia and Maryland Probate Inventories, 1740-1810. A collaboration of George Mason’s Gunston Hall and the Roy Rozensweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. If you want to know what people of the revolutionary era in Virginia and Maryland kept in their homes, and what material possessions they considered valuable, this is the place to find it.
Robert S. Davis
The Mordecai Sheftall Collection of Georgia Revolutionary War accounts, Center for Jewish History.
William H. J. Manthorpe, Jr.
Anyone dealing with naval topics relies on Naval Documents of the American Revolution (NDAR), published by the Naval History and Heritage Command. Begun in 1964 with volume 1 covering parts of 1774-1775 the effort reached volume 13 in 2019 covering parts of 1777-1778. The effort continues. (Also recommended by Eric Wiser and James Kirby Martin)
Joseph E. Wroblewski
William S. Stryker, Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey, Second Series, Vol. 1- 5 (Trenton: The J.L. Murphy Pub. Co., 1901 -1917). Series 2, was published at the request of the New Jersey Historical Society. This series contains extracts from American newspapers that are presented chronologically, from 1776 to 1782. These extracts contain everything from proclamations of the New Jersey’s Provisional Government, reports on military activities to advertisements for the sale of prizes taken by privateers to rewards for runaway slaves or deserters. For anyone who is interested in New Jersey’s Revolutionary history this series is invaluable.
With over six million digitized records, one of my first on-line research stops is the Harvard University Library Digital Collections. In addition to documents pertaining to almost all Revolutionary leaders, there is a special curated collection for the papers of Artemas Ward. One of the best attributes of the site is reading the original, not transcribed versions of documents. The inventive spelling of Israel Putnam is well worth the transcription trouble! The site is free to all including document downloads.
One resource that I have used extensively online is the Newspaper Archive section of GenealogyBank.com. I have successfully used it for research and to find interesting articles. A subscription is required, but it is well worth the expense.
Todd W. Braisted
The New York Public Library has a fantastic collection of images, maps and manuscripts on line, of particular note the Thomas Addis Emmet Collection, which includes pre, and post Revolution material, as well as a wealth of material on the war itself. And all free.
John L. Smith, Jr.
David McCullough once said, “The best part of being a historian is that you get to read other peoples’ mail.” Well, if reading the digitized letters of Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and Madison are your thing, the greatest gift to Americans is the free-to-use website “Founders Online” of the National Archives. For ten years now and through federal funding by The National Endowment for the Humanities and an absolutely stellar list of national major funders and educational organizations, Founders Online is truly a national resource for both amateur and professional historians. It is a Primary Source Bonanza! (Also recommended by Tom Shachtman, Kim Burdick, David Head, and David O. Stewart.)
Mary V. Thompson
The digitized collections of primary source material that I use most frequently can be accessed on the Mount Vernon website: http://mountvernon.org/library/research-library/.
Richard J. Werther
The Online Library of Liberty has many writings including the papers of John Adams. One other hint: Many colleges allow alumni access to databases for which their libraries have memberships. I have leveraged my Bucknell University credentials to access many books and articles in databases such as JSTOR that are available only to paying members. Try this!
The online resource that I find myself using most frequently these days is the Annual Printed Army Lists of Officers on the British Army from 1754 to 1879 in the British National Archives. These official lists give the names of the officers of the several regiments with the dates of their commissions, etc. Lists have been officially posted up with manuscript promotions, transfers and other changes and corrections. The records within this series are available to download free of charge.
The Washington Papers are wonderful to see on the Library of Congress’ website in their original state, but their transcribed and annotated versions on Founders Online are one of the critical research aides for students of the American Revolution and American founding period. Someone else’s handwriting isn’t always easy to read, so Founders Online’s work to digitize readable versions of these important documents allows for better research without first trying to decipher the words. The notes attached to most letters include necessary background information on officers, events, and earlier letters that give a clear view of the broader picture of the text. Best of all, this is a free, searchable website that is open to all without cost- perfect for college students and seasoned historians alike.
Derrick E. Lapp
The Archives of Maryland Online is a treasure trove to mine for Revolutionary-period information such as Maryland muster rolls, journals and correspondence of the Maryland Committee of Safety, acts of the General Assembly, even the Maryland Gazette newspaper.
In my research of tracing the evolving nature of radicalism during the Imperial Crisis, The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr., available free of charge through The Massachusetts Historical Society have been a lifesaver! Unlike some digitized archival sources, the Dorr papers are extremely easy to navigate, and while this collection is naturally very Boston-centric, reprinted articles and contributions offer insight into how other regions of British North America were coping with imperial measures on the eve of the Revolution. As such, the Dorr papers continue to be an invaluable staple in my primary research endeavors!
Philip D. Weaver
I recommend the Philip Schuyler Papers on the New York Public Library’s website. Difficult to work with, there are alternative ways to get the information, so you may have to stumble around some. The good news is the material is free and now considered public domain. Unfortunately, some of the military stuff is not there yet, so you might need to access some material on microfilm. The collection is a must for New-York (Separate) and Northern Department types—A big help to me on my upcoming book, The 3rd New Jersey in New-York: Stories from “The Jersey Greys” of 1776.
Patrick H. Hannum
While there are many fine internet resources available for researching online, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/index.php, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, hosts a fine collection of historic books and provides access to many other digital resources. Books published before 1923 are available for free download, many other items are available with free access. The search feature associated with this collection works very well. They continue to build their collection, and according to their web page, scan 1,000 books per day into digital form from locations around the globe.
I have to say The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, which was edited by King’s grandson, Dr. Charles Ray King, in the 1890s and early 1900s. Dr. King’s involvement raises one issue: as a family member he held valuable insights but an inevitable lack of objectivity. One wonders if any incriminating material may have gotten excluded. That said, Life and Correspondenceis an extraordinary resource, Ironically, it is so indispensable that even half a century ago one biographer was calling it a “literary coffin” because scholars have mined it so extensively. Thus, one uses the work in conjunction with other source material.
Gregory J. W. Urwin
The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, has added its extensive collection of Revolutionary War orderly books to its Digital Library, which is available free to the public. As a devotee of the British side of that conflict, I am most grateful for easy access to orderly books from the 17th Regiment of Foot and 71st Fraser’s Highlanders, but the collection also contains a wide selection of Continental Army orderly books covering the conflict from 1775 to 1783.
I am personally very fond of the website Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800. As it reads, the site is devoted to digitizing what documents remained following the fire that decimated much of the department’s archives in November 1800. And the research is continuing as we speak, adding an extra air of intrigue and excitement.
Don N. Hagist
I make extensive use of the British army pension and discharge documents available on fold3.com. These papers retained by the pension office are some of the only surviving records of the age, place of birth, and other details of individual British soldiers. Fold3 is a subscription service, but the extensive assortment of material available there makes the cost well worth it for researchers.
J. L. Bell
Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. Don’t be distracted by the alphabet on the home page, which leads only to highlights. Use the “Page View” function to find the exact page where your word falls.
For easy navigation of Madison’s Notes, I use Yale’s Avalon Project. Max Farrand’s Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (3 volumes) includes not only Madison’s notes but also those taken by other framers, as well as the official journal. The Founders’ ConstitutionI s a potpourri of background material for each clause (save for Article II, Section 4—removal of the president—which is strangely absent). The most comprehensive collection is the Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource). There are multiple ways to navigate this site, but the search command is most rewarding.
Benjamin L. Huggins
The American History Collection at University of Virginia Press’s Rotunda site (full content only by subscription but some content is free) includes Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, Adams Papers, Alexander Hamilton Papers, John Jay Papers, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Dolley Madison Digital Edition, James Madison Papers, John Marshall Papers, Diaries of Gouverneur Morris, Pinckney-Horry Papers, Picnckney Statesmen Papers, and George Washington Papers among others.
One of my favorite online sources is the Evans Early American Imprints collection digitized by the University of Michigan. It contains a large collection of pamphlets from the colonial and Revolutionary era, is free, searchable, and full of great information.
Samuel A. Forman
My favorite on-line digitized primary source database is America’s Historic Newspapers. It is a collaboration of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), Worcester, Massachusetts, and Readex. Anchored on AAS’ extensive collection of North American newspapers dating to the late seventeenth century, the on-line collection has drawn on the print periodical collections of virtually all of the major American archives and university collections. In recent years the collection has extended beyond the original cutoff year of 1876. Afro-American, Caribbean, and several other specific-interest newspaper collections can now be searched from a single portal. In my research I use extensively the text searching capability and visualization of articles of interest as they originally appeared. This is a pricey subscription database best accessible to individuals via university library affiliations and some historical and genealogical societies. Some of these organizations permit remote access to their members.