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[Detail] Discovery of the Mississippi: By Ferdinand De Soto

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Assessing Sources

Fragmentary sources—sources from which parts are missing—pose special challenges for historians. Historians must analyze clues in the document and in related documents to answer questions about the source and its authenticity.

One fragmentary source in the Parallel Histories collection was written by Amerigo Vespucci. Between Columbus’s third and fourth voyages, Amerigo Vespucci, sailing for Spain, explored the coast of South America. On his second voyage, 1501-1502, Vespucci sailed along the coast of Brazil under the flag of Portugal. The collection includes Vespucci’s “fragmentary letter,” in which he remarked on a number of subjects including his having reached the far southern latitudes along the coast of the new continent. Read the “Notes” introducing the document and answer the following questions:

  • What part of the letter is missing? What challenges does this pose for the historian analyzing the letter?
  • What clues have scholars used in addressing the challenges posed by the loss of part of the letter? Have the challenges been answered definitively?
  • The “Notes” mention tone as a clue that one scholar has used in making an argument about the letter’s recipient. Find several letters written by the same person. For example, the George Washington Papers and the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress include many letters written by these two presidents. Read letters to at least three different people; it will be helpful to include at least one letter written to a family member or friend and another to a business acquaintance. Can you detect differences in tone? Are these differences found in the language, the sentence structure, or some other aspect of the writing? Are the differences obvious enough that you could identify to whom the letter was written if part of the letter was missing?