Eyewitness—American Originals from the National Archives
by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
Few aspects of American history are as compelling as an eyewitness account of an event that changed the course of history or was a defining moment in the story of our democracy.
The immediacy conveyed by freshly written words of people who participated in or observed these events firsthand is difficult to replicate, even by the most gifted of historians, since eyewitness accounts can often capture the atmosphere and mood, tension and passion, joy or sorrow of both triumphant and tragic events.
Picture George Washington in Cambridge, MA, as commander in chief of the American Revolutionary forces in December 1775. He has heard that the British may be deliberately spreading smallpox, an early act of bioterrorism (if true). Washington made his concerns clear in a letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia.
Imagine Laura Ingalls Wilder—author of Little House on the Prairie and other popular children’s books—as a wife and mother,traveling with her family from South Dakota to Missouri in search of a better life.
Her impressions and recollections of the trip were carefully chronicled in one of her journals.
Sit with George H.W. Bush, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, in the White House East Room as Richard M. Nixon bids farewell to the Cabinet and White House staff on his last day as President, August 9, 1974.
Bush’s impressions of the first President to resign from office are recorded in his diary for that day.
In this volume, Eyewitness—American Originals from the National Archives, you can read the words of Washington, Wilder, and Bush. They will tell you of the struggl e to achieve an unlikely victory in the War for Independence, of what it was like to travel long distances by covered wagon , and of how one observer felt watching a President take his emotional leave from public office.
Following our earlier critically acclaimed exhibit, “American Originals—Treasures from the National Archives,” which ran for five years in the National Archives Building in Washington before touring the country, we assembled once more a selection of documents that provide details and insights into the story of America. The result was an exhibit, “Eyewitness—American Originals from the National Archives,” which opened in 2006 in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building. Here, in the pages of this book, you will find that exhibit .
For “Eyewitness,” we reached into the National Archives’ vast holdings— from facilities in Washington, DC, from regional archives around the country, and from some of our Presidential libraries—for accounts by individuals who were present at historic and defining events representing the broad sweep of American history .
Look for Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington from the Revolutionary era, their letters describing some of the historic moments and forgotten details of the nation’s fight for independence. There are also the voices of a fugitive slave from 1862 and, a century later, a civil rights leader continuing during the 1960s the struggle for equal rights . There are witnesses to triumphs and tragedies, war and peace, journeys across America and those into space.
In the pages that follow we reproduce many of the primary documents containing these eyewitness accounts, so you can read the words as they were written or spoken by the eyewitnesses themselves, accounts recorded in letters and diaries and on audio or videotape.
These documents represent only a tiny fraction of the records in the National Archives, the nation’s recordkeeper. The National Archives’ mission is to provide ready access to essential evidence of the rights of our citizens, the actions of our government, and our national experience. Our mission includes the role of civic educator—to inform Americans young and old of their nation’s history through the primary documents that are the foundation of that history.
These records are available at National Archives facilities nationwide, and many of them are available online at Archives.gov, where you can also find a version of the “Eyewitness” exhibit.
For this exhibit and this book, we are grateful for generous support from both the Foundation for the National Archives and the National Archives Trust Fund Board.
Archivist of the United States