Sometimes writing requires inspiration from real sources, and American Journeys helps to fill that need. American Journeys is a digital library created through a partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, National History Day, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Though it focuses on eyewitness accounts of early American exploration, the archive contains the perspectives of Native Americans, Vikings, and traders in addition to explorers and settlers.
For history buffs and for authors writing about the past, American Journeys is an invaluable resource. Since I can’t provide an overview of all 18,000 documents on the site, I want to highlight a few of the most interesting ones.
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This collection contains over 3,000 pages of illustrations, manuscripts, and books about Lewis and Clark’s expeditions westward. Some of the most fascinating pieces include letters and maps from the adventurers as well as communications between the group and then President of the United States Thomas Jefferson.
Though many people associate the arrival of Europeans in the Americas with Columbus, their migration occurred much earlier. Around the year 1000, Norwegian settlers – some would call them Vikings – landed on the shores of what is today Canada. The Saga of Eric the Red was written by an unknown author but is thought to reflect the oral traditions that describe the Norse colonization of part of the Americas. For people interested in this period of Norse conquest, the tale is an interesting one though its style distinctly reminds me of Central European epic poetry. (Which is not a bad thing. After all, who doesn’t want to read about how Earl Thorfinn, Skull-cleaver, got married?)
Hundreds of nations with distinct cultures, economies, and religions had occupied the Americas for nearly 10,000 years by the time Christopher Columbus reached the shores of the Caribbean. Though he did not discover the continents, Columbus irrevocably altered the relationship between Europe and the region and enabled European governments to begin colonizing the lands. This journal describes Columbus’s first voyage from Spain to the Caribbean in 1492. (Though at the time, Columbus believed he had made land fall in Asia.) The journal is intended to be public – it is addressed to the King and Queen of Spain – and as such, it gives the reader an idea of how Columbus was hoping his travels would be received. He was writing propaganda as much as he was writing about his discoveries. For people reading about the 15th century, this account provides a window into that world.
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As with much of history, the American Journeys archive reminds me that the past was not always a kind place. Though these works reveal the wonder and excitement of their authors, they also show biases that reflect their cultures. This means that racial stereotypes, violence, and sex as a commodity often appear in these readings. Rather than shy away from these issues, American Journeys has a page for teachers on how to use sensitive content in the classroom. It provides some good hints about how to incorporate such information without oversimplifying or avoiding it. I certainly appreciate that approach.
Regardless I hope you can make use of some of the pieces from the American Journeys digital library. I am constantly impressed by how much good information is freely available in digital libraries. Having that knowledge is vital to how we understand our past and present, and our lives would be poorer without it.
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Image Attribution: Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Assorted Illustrations of North America, Vol. 1, pg. 106a, Wisconsin Historical Society, 2003, http://www.americanjourneys.org/aj-145/
(D’Arce’s vision of a beaver is one of my favorite things.)