Atypical Sources for History Research

Historians often have a limited view of sources—newspapers, journals and scholarly articles are cited without fail. Obviously, these tried-and-true sources have great value, but it is a mistake to overlook less typical sources when researching a community. Buildings, Sanborn maps, graveyards, and historic register nomination forms are all examples of possible sources that are often overlooked. These sources are especially valuable when researching for local history projects where other sources aren’t readily available.

A great example of synthesizing atypical sources is Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush. Thrush “used sources typical of any ethnohistorical project” like oral histories, anthropologists’ notes, and archeological studies, but he didn’t stop there. (XV) He also utilized engineers’ reports, neighborhood studies, and indigenous topical names. In the preface of his book, Thrush discusses the process of “triangulating between these sources” to form a cohesive story. Reading between the lines is very important when using abnormal sources. For example, Thrush argues that in many documents “absences [turn] into evidence.” (XV) Drawing conclusions based on both information that is there and information that is missing can be vital to researching specific topics.

In Native Seattle, Thrush examines the native history that both precedes and continued after the arrival of white settlers in the Seattle area. His choice of topic was interesting to me because he selected two subjects that the general public doesn’t associate with one another—urban life and Native Americans. Showing how these topics overlap requires the use of many unusual sources because there aren’t a many sources that reference both subjects. For example, Thrush used Pioneer Square, which he described as “an archive of urban narratives,” as a source in his writing. (14)

Another interesting approach Thrush used was framing his story through the lens of a location. Thrush explained that his book is “about a place as much as it is a story about a people, and it is a story about us in the present as much as it is about historical actors.” (7) This was an interesting move on his part, and this choice helped keep his writing engaging because it continually brings the reader back to Seattle and its people. Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush is an interesting read as a history student, not only for its content, but also for its writing methods.

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