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The EvidenceWeb

Primary Sources That Emote the Value and Significance of Using Personal Accounts in Your Research

By John Fielding, educational consultant

How did the Fathers of Confederation feel about their efforts to create a greater united Canada? We know how George Brown felt about their plan on December 22, 1864 because he sent a letter to John A. Macdonald from Great Britain. In reading Brown's comments, one cannot help but feel his sense of pride in what he was doing: "Our scheme has given prodigious satisfaction here. The Ministry, the Conservatives & the Manchester men are all delighted with it -- and everything Canadian has gone up in public estimation …."

We also know from Brown's letters that his relationship with Macdonald was often a rocky one. Before the issue of Confederation brought them together as allies, the two men were bitter political enemies. On March 15, 1864, Brown wrote to his wife Anne: "John A. was especially mean and contemptible. He attacked Mowat and myself very bitterly …."

Sources such as George Brown's letters are invaluable because of the information they provide about the past. Writing a history essay or report is not easy. Without a time machine, it is absolutely impossible to recreate the entire past in every detail. All we can reasonably hope to do is to try to find sources that can tell us about particular events, people and places, so that we can begin to understand and interpret what took place.

There are two major types of documents that we can access to write history: primary-source documents and secondary-source documents. (To learn more about these sources read Michael Eamon's "Defining Primary and Secondary Sources", available in the Learning Centre toolkit.) Secondary-source documents, such as textbooks, biographies and newspaper editorials, help us to understand the big picture or context of an historical event. They also allow us to begin putting together facts and opinions about what happened. Secondary-source documents however, must be checked for accuracy and interpretation. Because we are looking at a second-hand source, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. How thorough was the research of the writer/historian? Were the writers biased in their selection of facts and how they viewed their original sources?

Factual errors can appear in the most surprising places. I was once asked to organize a celebration for a small city in Eastern Ontario. I decided that the key day of celebration should be held on the same day that the community was first incorporated, in 1832. To find that date, I went to the plaque hanging in city hall that commemorated the event. Sure enough, there was the date and I began my planning. Fortunately, I decided to go to the National Archives in Ottawa to review the original documents of incorporation. Much to my surprise there was a different date on the original documents; different by no less than 5 months! We celebrated on the correct day and the city's plaque was corrected; a happy ending thanks to research and finding the primary-source document. The moral of this story is that whenever possible, a researcher should go to the original or primary source.

There are many forms of primary-source documents, such as official government documents, certificates, maps, interviews, newspaper reports, etc. These documents can provide most of the facts a researcher needs, but they do not capture emotions. How did people feel about an event? Were they happy, angry or even indifferent? Where can you find personal expression of feelings for the people involved? One of the best sources to discover this is letters, diaries and journals.

To discover the reactions and feelings about Confederation and the events leading up to 1867, we need to look at the correspondence of people of various backgrounds. The politicians, George Brown, Joseph Howe and Sir John A. Macdonald -- to mention only a few key movers and shakers -- wrote many detailed letters to a whole range of people. Their wives wrote letters too. We also have the diary of Lady Agnes Macdonald to call upon to find out how the politicians felt and what they believed. Famous historians of the day, such as François-Xavier Garneau, expressed their opinions in correspondence. Library and Archives Canada even has a letter from a young militia soldier; Alexander James Christie wrote to his father about the battle to drive back the Fenians who had invaded Canada from the USA and attacked Fort Erie. He described how citizens were rallying to the cause of defending the country: "In this City nearly 500 men were enrolled last night for a similar duty and three new companies are today being formed. And these are the scenes all over the country which I believe is completely aroused and perhaps dangerously excited." The Canadian public's reaction to the event was strongly against the Fenian raids. This attitude helped to unite Canadians and ultimately consolidate Confederation.

Official documents and records present the facts, but it is letters and diaries that bring the story alive with character and emotion. From these wonderful personal and individual accounts, we can learn about the turmoil, conflicts and compromises behind the historical events and the successes and failures of the leaders of the day.

Letters and diaries are also the most important single source for learning about women, immigrants and daily life in early Canada. We don't have "Mothers of Confederation," since women were kept out of politics and most positions of power. How can we learn about the history of half of the population? Our most important resource is personal accounts such as letters, journals and diaries.

To reconstruct a history of the life of an immigrant to Canada in the first half of the 19th century, there are no better sources than the writings of such women as Eleanora Hallen or Susanna Moodie and her sister Catharine Parr Traill.

Eleanora Hallen began her diary in 1833, when she was only 10 years old and living in England with her parents and nine siblings. In 1835, the family moved to Canada, a 6-month trip that took them by sailing ship to New York, then north by coach and barge up the Erie Canal to the St. Lawrence River, past Kingston to the newly named city of Toronto, and finally to Penetanguishene on Georgian Bay.

Unlike Eleanora, Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Trail were married women and established writers before they immigrated to Canada in 1832. Between them, the sisters wrote hundreds of letters, and dozens of manuscripts, as well as journals. Catharine wrote over 300 letters between 1845 and 1899. Their stories of how they roughed it in the backwoods have been read by thousands of Canadians and have established the women among Canada's most important and best-known early writers.

These women were just some of the thousands of hard-working immigrant settlers who cleared the land, built homes and created communities. Women, at that time, did not run for public office and could not vote in elections, but they did the day-to-day work in the home and community that created Canada and made it the country it is today.

It is only by piecing together the day-to-day picture presented in the diaries, journals and letters of people like Eleanora Hallen, Susanna Moodie, Catharine Parr Traill, François-Xavier Garneau, Alexander James Christie and hundreds of other people, that we can truly understand and appreciate our heritage and our history.