Reading the Record | Documents, Images, and Photographs

Cover of The Exploration of the Columbia River by W.R. Broughton, October 1792, ca. 1926. Image courtesy of the Longview Daily News

Historians systematically analyze primary sources–the firsthand or eyewitness accounts and observations of actual events, people, and places–to piece together accounts of past events and ways of life.

Historians use primary sources to construct secondary historical narratives. Primary source documents include manuscripts, letters, diaries, government documents, treaties, photographs, and maps. Observers or insiders at the time of the event or period studied by historians often created these sources. This makes them valuable for understanding the past; however, the same characteristics that shape a document’s worth may limit its usefulness. First-hand written records are not necessarily accurate, complete, or balanced. Because they are products of the time period that influenced their creation and their intended audiences, such sources can reflect the biases, perspectives, or misunderstandings of those who created, read, or preserved them.

Written accounts that tell us about Chinookan history in the 18th and early to mid-19th centuries came exclusively from Euro-American explorers, fur traders, missionaries, and settlers. Because these accounts are one-sided, historians must consider more than the information that primary sources contain. They must also think through what is not recorded, whose voices are absent, and the attitudes and motivations of the authors of documents. Such considerations require corroboration with additional sources and other kinds of inquiry, such as oral history and archaeology.

Chinook in the Written Record

Descriptions of the Chinook began to enter the written record in the late 18th century. The individuals writing these documents were mostly explorers or merchants, and so their accounts primarily concerned trade and navigation. Consequently, visitors to Chinookan homelands emphasized the size and location of communities and their potential utility for trade with Euro-Americans. They sought to document information about the region and its peoples primarily for future economic development. Language differences and cultural misunderstandings clouded the accuracy of written reports that frequently carried value judgments about indigenous behaviors and often reflected negative assumptions about Native people and their communities.

To acknowledge limitations in various sources, historians engage in a practice that has been described as “reading with or against the grain.” They read texts with a series of questions in mind about the author’s purpose, intended audience, and message. They seek to uncover ideas and assumptions inadvertently produced in the text. Historians seek to understand the context of document creation and comprehend more about the specific time, place, event, or people the source informs.

Images and Photographs as Historical Documents

Goose Point, 2011. Bay Center’s “Indian Village” stood here until the early twentieth century. Smartphone image courtesy of Donna Sinclair

Invented in the early decades of the 19th century, photography permitted global distribution of images. Nineteenth and early twentieth century photographers often staged pictures of Native people, creating selected versions of reality that matched and shaped the public imagination. As with written records, historians must analyze the creation of a photo and the technology that produced it as closely as the content. Early photographs required subjects to hold poses for extended periods of time, and the technology did not capture subtle distinctions in color and brightness. Candid images were only possible as cameras became more user friendly and widely distributed among the masses. How would your photographs change if you had to spend fifteen minutes or an hour to take one, rather than instantly with your phone?

Reading the Record through photographs is similar to the process used to examine primary documents, and many of the same biases and misrepresentations apply. Posed images often say more about the photographer’s artistic interpretations than of the individual in the image. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, photographers typically staged group photos, which could imply a closeness that did not exist or, conversely, present aloofness between close friends. While photographs may be problematic as primary sources, they are also invaluable in understanding time and place. The very fact that an image exists denotes some degree of importance to the event or people captured on film. And, while one can read about a place, manner of dress, or mode of transportation, as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”