The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
Student Activity One: Comparing Primary and Secondary Sources


  • Classroom United States history texts
  • Student Notebooks
  • Transcriptions from The Albany Argus:
    • Document # 1 - July 17, 1877 front page report: Serious Strike
    • Document # 2A - July 20, 1877 editorial: The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Strike
    • Document # 3 - July 21, 1877 editorial: The Strike and The Troops


Classroom textbooks may be the first place you look for information about historical events, but they may not contain enough information, or present historical events in an unbiased way. That is because they are secondary sources; in other words, the authors themselves were not witnesses to all the events included in the books. In addition, they or their editors have made certain choices regarding what to include or leave out of the texts. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, Internet Web sites, biographies, historical non-fiction books are other examples of secondary sources.

Because textbooks must contain a great deal of historical information, events that were important when they occurred may be described in a paragraph or two in the texts, due to space considerations. The choices made by editors or authors affect our understanding or opinions regarding history, sometimes causing us to favor one side in a conflict over another. Regardless of the length, textbook accounts of historical events should answer basic questions about topics and events. These questions are known in newspaper writing as the "5 Ws": who, what, when, where, why - and then, what was the result.

To truly research a topic or event in history, you may begin with secondary sources to get some information, but you will need to also use primary sources, information about the topic or event from the actual time period in which the event occurred. Primary sources fall into three categories:

  1. official documents, like a birth certificate, law, marriage license;
  2. eye or ear witness accounts, such as an oral history or interview with someone who was actually present at the time of the event, or someone's diary; and
  3. physical remains, such as photographs, newspaper articles from the period, buildings, clothing, etc.

In this activity, you will compare how the Railroad Strike of 1877 (sometimes called "The Great Strike of 1877") is reported in the textbooks available in your classroom with several actual reports of the strike printed in an important newspaper from that time period, The Albany Argus.

After Doing This Activity: Correlating Activities

Become a textbook writer of the future... Select a current, significant news story widely reported in the newspaper over a period of several days or weeks. (An example from recent years might be the results of the 2000 presidential election.) How would this event be reported in a textbook your children might use when they are in middle or high school? Write the textbook entry for this event, remembering to keep it brief, unbiased, and complete (able to answer the journalist's "5 Ws").

Activity Directions (you may work individually or in pairs, as directed by your teacher):

  1. Create a chart in your notebook that lists the "5 Ws" of journalism, and the categories SECONDARY SOURCE and PRIMARY SOURCE. Leave plenty of room (more than the sample) to write your answers in the spaces. Your chart may look something like this:

    Questions Secondary Source Primary Source
    Who went on strike?

    Why did it occur?

    When did it begin?

    Where did it take place?

    What happened?

    What was the result?

  2. Using the INDEX in any available U.S history textbook, look up the Railroad Strike of 1877 (sometimes called "The Great Strike of 1877"). If it is not listed in the text, refer to another text. (Use ONLY a textbook; do NOT use a search engine on the Internet to do this part of the activity.)
  3. Read the section(s) concerning the Strike of 1877. Then, fill in the chart under SECONDARY SOURCE, answering the questions using the text as your only resource. Don't worry if you have some empty spaces.
  4. Next, carefully read Documents #1, 2A, and 3, originally published in The Albany Argus in July, 1877. Determine the meaning of any unfamiliar terms by using the dictionary, context clues from the article, or asking an adult.
  5. Using information from the documents, fill in the chart under PRIMARY SOURCE, answering the questions using the newspaper articles as your only resource.
  6. Look at your results (compare both sides of the chart). Discuss the answers to these questions:
    • Why was this strike important? Support your opinion with evidence from the sources.
    • Which column, SECONDARY or PRIMARY, contains more information?
    • Which source provided a clearer picture of the event? Why?
    • Which source was easier to read? Why? Support your opinion with evidence from the sources.
    • Which source helped you better understand why the workers went on strike?
    • Did any source seem to support or favor one side over another in the strike? Support your opinion with evidence from the sources.
    • Why might it be better to use secondary and primary sources to learn the complete story of an event? Why might historians use several secondary sources as well as several primary sources to research a topic or event?


Last Updated: April 8, 2019