The ABCs of Reading a Primary Text

In Sweden, according to the dear woman who told me the story, her grandmother was derisively branded “läsare”  –a reader —because she read the Bible for herself. In that time and place, the Bible was viewed as the province of the clergy alone, not ordinary people.

Primary sources used to be viewed the same way: as the province of professional historians. Their job was to digest the primary record and regurgitate it in a form the rest of us could understand.

Today the world doesn’t work that way today. Primary sources are increasingly accessible to everyone. But not everyone knows how to read a primary source to discover its author’s intent.

Why is that important? That’s why we seek out primary sources: we value the perspective of people who were there.

“Did you see what she wrote? That’s exactly what I think! I am SO right!”

It is intuitive to do the opposite: read our modern perspective into historic words. In exegesis this is called “proof-texting:” parsing sources to validate a point of view we bring to the text.

In history, it is a common, misleading use of primary sources.

The text of the January 2, 1862 letter I posted is an excellent example: It is long and dense. The subject matter is unfamiliar to many. And in New Ulm a few weeks ago, a speaker expounded with complete sincerity that if Congress had simply listened to the missionaries and passed this legislation, the Dakota War would have been averted. Dozens of heads in the audience nodded.

Really? I thought. I had mentally pegged that letter as speaking to several things, but had missed that one. I jotted a note: read the letter. That’s why it startled me when it popped up again last week; I’d just re-read it.


I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out how to explain how I read primary sources. Not because I’m a teacher. But ultimately because it seems fair. Remember how our teachers used to make us show our work in math class? You shouldn’t have to take my word for anything, but be able to check how I (or anyone else) arrives at a conclusion.

How, then, to read a primary source for the author’s intended meaning? Here’s an acronym that makes sense to me: the ABCs.

A: Author(s); Audience(s). Who was the author and who was she writing to? Was her audience private or public?

B: Biases; Beliefs. Bias isn’t a negative word. Every human has biases, often based in their beliefs (worldview). What are the author’s and how are they reflected in the text?

C: Claims; Conclusions; Call. What are the author’s claims? Her conclusions? Is there a call to action?

s: subjective. After you understand the author’s ideas, it is perfectly fair to ask subjective questions like, What does this mean to me?

In the acronym, A, B, and C are capitals because when we’re reading a primary sources, they are more important than “s;” our subjective opinion, lowercase. The main point is to figure out what the author thinks. After all, when she was writing, she probably did not have our concerns centuries later foremost in her mind.


Applying the ABCs to the January 2, 1862 letter, this is what strikes me:

Author # 1: Stephen Return Riggs: Presbyterian missionary, 25 plus years with Dakotas

Author #2: Thomas S. Williamson, Presbyterian missionary, 25 plus years with Dakotas

Audience: U.S. Congress, who the authors addressed, unsuccessfully, two years previously, c. 1860. That was a Democratic administration. Now Republicans are in power in Washington so they are trying again??

Biases:  Male. White. Republicans. Protestant Christians. Report to mission board and to mission supporters. Their mission schools partially funded by Federal government. Anti-slavery. Pro-temperance. Pro-education. Pro-acculturation for Native Americans. Advocate for the interests of Dakota farmers; see no future for Dakota traditionalists in Minnesota –except if they become farmers and tradesmen and citizens of the U.S.

Beliefs: Reformed (Calvinist) worldview; ethnocentric favoring white Anglo Protestant ways; strong worth ethic; view agriculture is a panacea for moral/social ills. The existence of this letter says they believe in the democratic process.


#1: Need to protect the rights of Dakotas who own property and who are being persecuted with impunity. Who is being harassed? Dakota farmers. Who is doing the harassing? Dakota traditionalists and white men. Why? The Agent is powerless to stop them; there are no meaningful penalties.

#2: A government-controlled monopoly on the Indian trade would be worse than the existing system. [Oddly, only one paragraph on this subject, at the end. Was this a late-breaking concern tacked on to their original plan for the letter??]

Conclusions/Call to Action:

On Claim #1: The existing law “ought to be repealed and it should be made the duty of all Indian Agents to adjudicate all claims against the Indians of their several agencies whether such claims be made by whites or Indians, and to render just satisfaction to the injured person so far as he can do so, from the annuities of the Indians and it would be well if he was required to prosecute whites who have stolen or destroyed the property of Indians.”

On Claim # 2: They “view the adoption of his proposition as a great calamity….it would be bad policy at this time to displease [the Indians] by interfering with the traders.”


  • They rightly point out the lack of meaningful depredations laws. The laws on the books dated back to the era when the War Department controlled Indian Affairs —a la Taliaferro at Fort Snelling –when a major objective was to simply keep white people out of Indian territory.
  • The suggested reforms would mostly benefit the Dakotas who were property owners, that is, Dakota farmers. Dakota farmers didn’t take the nation to war in 1862; it’s not obvious to me how enacting this legislation would have prevented the war.
  • The surprise in this letter is the last paragraph. The missionaries had caught the gist of the government’s plan for the trade in 1863. I’m not surprised that they disapproved; they believed in free enterprise.
  • But I am very surprised at “it would be bad policy at this time to displease [the Indians] by interfering with the traders.” Really?? Most people studying this today, including me, would generally say the government should have interfered with the traders’ mercenary ways –somehow.

This is exactly why we need to be willing to let a primary author lead us beyond the limits of our own concerns. That last subjective observation sent me back to the letter to re-read that last paragraph: Say that again? What do you mean?

Reading slowly, I saw they clarified at the very end, “The worst cheating the traders have practiced upon the Indians has been done by complicity with the officers of the Government who have aided the traders in getting pay for goods that many of the Indians say they had already paid for. We have reference to the money which the traders have received for debts due them at each treaty.”

BINGO: They were making a distinction generally lost in modern work. In 1862, there were “the traders” licenced to run businesses on the reservation–people like Andrew Myrick and his friends. The missionaries advised leaving that system alone to regulate itself.

Then there were The Traders. People like the “Hon. Henry H. Sibley” in the middle of the letter who worked the system from both ends: an old trader with alleged debts on his books who, as a delegate to Congress, passed legislation favorable to traders and who presided over the passage of the Treaty of 1851, which settled the books in his own, and in his cronies’ favor.

Obviously, legislation proposed in January 1862  could not have prevented the frauds of the treaty era a decade before. But the Treaty of 1851 was the do-over moment that might have prevented the Dakota War.

This entry was posted in Doing Historical Research, Primary Sources, Stephen R. Riggs, Thomas S. Williamson. Bookmark the permalink.

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