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MCHA's Primary Source Workshop

The Importance of Primary Sources

Primary source documents are firsthand accounts of a topic or event from someone who had a direct relationship with it. They are invaluable pieces of information because they represent the closest connection to the focus of study.  Examples of primary sources include letters, journals, account books, photographs and newspapers. 

Sometimes primary sources tell us exactly what we need to know. Other times they give clues that point us in the right direction, or generate more questions that lead us to a deeper focus of study we had not considered when we began. This workshop will teach you to analyze the world of primary sources to extract their hidden information. 

Negro Woman Clarissy had a molato child Matilda.jpg

     This is a farm account book entry made by John Taylor that tells us Matilda, daughter of Clarisse, was born in 1806. We know Clarisse was enslaved by the Taylors at this time, so this is why we believe Matilda was very likely born at Marlpit Hall. This is called deductive reasoning - it is a logical conclusion based on the available information that we have. 

     Matilda would eventually be free, but was required to work for Clarisse's owner for a term of 21 years due to the Gradual Abolition Act of 1804.

May the 5th 1806 - Negro woman Clarissy had a Molato Child born a girl female named Matilda

Making Connections

Comparing and Contrasting Perspectives

1. First consider the type of record this is. Look at the wording carefully. How do you think John 

    Taylor viewed the birth of Matilda?  How might Clarisse have felt about Matilda's birth?​ Explain your


2. Why might John have replaced the word "girl" with "female" instead?

Archival Documents


These documents were used to research the material presented in the Beneath the Floorboards: Whispers of the Enslaved exhibit.

Runaway Ads

Runaway ads were placed in newspapers when an enslaved person made a break from their enslaver. While seemingly small notices, the ads were shrewdly crafted 18th-century tracking devices that used a variety of important identifying details.

You will be analyzing actual ads found in 18th and 19th century newspapers. Due to the era in which they were produced, you will notice the use of words such as "negro," "colored," and "mulatto." This is historical language that belonged to that era. We no longer use certain terms in favor of more appropriate terminology today. For example, "mulatto" has been replaced with "biracial." 


Using the chart in your student packet, extract the details in each ad that could be used for identification and tracking.


Sale Ads

These ads were placed in the newspapers when an enslaver was looking to sell off one of their enslaved persons. Monmouth County papers are full of ads trying to make profits from human bondage.

Making Connections


1. Note the language of these ads. How       

    are they different from the runaway ads? 

2.  What might be considered "selling                     points" and why?

3. Does anything strike you about some of

    the information provided?

The Subscriber will dispose of one very likely active NEGRO fellow, twenty years old, for $150 in specie, and two likely active NEGRO girls, fifteen years old, for $120 aforesaid, or the value thereof in current money. They are not to be sold for any fault, but the want of business: They are all country born, and understand most kinds of business... 



Or put out for a term of years,

A NEGRO GIRL, about four years old. Inquire of             Wm. TINDALL

Trenton, December 10, 1793.

New_Jersey_State_Gazette_1793-12-18_[3]to be sold or put out.jpg



Gourd fiddle_edited_edited.png

Gourd Fiddle, c. 1800s

National Museum of American History

Deep Down in My Heart...
The Influence of African Music Then and Now

African rhythms came overseas with the first slave ship, and were passed down through generations of enslaved persons. Music was used for communication, celebration, in rituals and expressions of self. The most common type of African song was known as "call and response." A singer would call out a line and a response was called back. This style can still be heard in the music of today. Listen to the following audio clip to hear an authentic African call and response example, and then listen to the modern examples the follow. Can you think of any other examples of call and response songs today?

Painting titled The Old Plantation

Analyzing Art 

Visual imagery can be a powerful source of information, expressing emotions and ideas that can be hard to convey with words. Artwork can be analyzed in the same way that documents are. Attention must be paid to even the smallest elements, and sometimes what we find can be open to interpretation.

There is often sensitivity and sometimes criticism of images depicting "happy slaves." However, spending recreational time together was as much a human need for the enslaved as for any other.  They incorporated their ancestral traditions of African music, dance, and cooking. In doing so, the enslaved celebrated their culture and took back their joy during these times. This in itself could be looked at as resistance in their refusal to be broken.

What elements do you see in this image, and why are they important?

slaves dancing.jpeg
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