Comparing Regional Sources in American Women's History (May 1996)

Query: From Rachel Barrett Martin Univ. of Minnesota 3 May 1996

Given some recent postings on "southern " history, I'm wondering if anyone out there could help a late-20th century historian's unfamiliarity with regions and sources in U.S. history. I recently had a student submit an essay in response to Patricia Nelson Limerick's first two chapters of The Legacy of Conquest; in which she confidently argued (even after my content-comments on a related assignment and on a draft) that Western history suffered from a dearth of sources that neither Southern nor Colonial historians faced. I find this extremely difficult to believe, but Limerick was synthesizing and her main cites are secondary work. Can anyone educate me about comparisons between, say extant women's diaries, letters, and other primary sources, in Western, Southern and Colonial regiosns/periods/sources? There are some things I'm trying to figure out here, pedagogically, in terms of how to bridge s/his perspective with mine. Thanks!

Responses: From Joan Gundersen 4 May 1996

Primary sources for western history are VERY extensive. It's not my field, but I can actually think of as many primary sources for western women, as I can for southern women (which is part of special areas of expertise). Thinking just of women's sources, I can identify several hundred memoirs, diaries and journals for the 19th century alone. Women migrants to the west KNEW they were making history and kept records. For earlier periods and the records of those who were already in the west, the record is spotty, but then so is the record for the colonial period in the U.S. east. Scholars are finding a wide range of sources, however, that are primary. All you have to do is check the notes of the secondary sources Limerick used to get a feel for the range of sources. Limerick, however, is writing about INTERPRETING history, and thus uses secondary accounts to help build her case in the beginning.

>From Cathy Spude 6 May 1996

In reply to Rachel Barret Martin's question about the relative abundance of Western history sources compared to those of the South or the Colonies: Dr. Limerick was not only using secondary sources; but she was writing ABOUT secondary sources. If the student of history is simply counting numbers of sources, numbers will always be greater the longer the time one has to collect sources, and the greater the populations in the areas being studied. Massachusetts and Virginia no doubt have larger archives in their states than do Idaho and Nevada.

Does this mean the quality and information content of sources are any better in the South, Colonies or West? That may be the more important question here.

>From Maria Elena Raymond Maria Elena Raymond

3 May 1996

Realizing you will receive far more educated responses to your query than mine.. I just will comment on what I have observed. Re: sources about women in western areas I've found that due to the diligence of many historians, particularly in the mid-west, we have a great deal of information available, and more being made available almost daily. In my own research, it seems there is more danger of lost or unavailable records from the south or colonial areas simply due to the age factor. That is not to imply a dearth of records from those places, but there has been some record loss due to fires, war and passage of time. I rather surprised that a good argument could be mounted to the contrary, but I guess if a person is gifted, they can successfully argue any side of a question. FWIW, Maria Elena

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