When I teach class sessions on archival research and I’ve been asked to discuss primary sources, this letter is one of the standard ones I use. I pass copies out to the students, give them a few minutes to read it, and then ask: okay, is it primary or secondary?
Almost immediately the majority of the class answers with “Primary.” But there’s always that one person, usually in the back of the class, who when the voices have died down, shouts out “Secondary!” When I follow up on that and ask why, it becomes obvious that this person doesn’t know why, but has figured out that a question that obvious must not have the obvious answer. So then I leave people to ponder it for a moment and eventually the slow, quiet answers start coming: “Both?” So then we all evaluate it together.
Often when discussing what counts as a primary source, letters make it into that list. And that’s usually reasonable. But not always. In our experience, archival documents can often be counted as primary or secondary, depending on the topic being written about.
Some quick background on the author of this letter since that context helps inform the evaluation a researcher would need to do when looking at the letter and evaluating for bias, for first-hand knowledge, for reliability. Fred Odlin, the author of this particular letter, worked aboard the Alaska Steamship Company’s Curacao in the mid-1930s. He dealt with freight and steerage passengers headed for work in Alaska canneries. He also sold goods such as candy, newspapers, tobacco, and magazines at ports of call. We have a small collection of his letters to his family. In this particular letter, he mentions he’s the same age as the Curacao which, since it was built in 1895, would make him about 39. Unless he’s referring to the major rebuild the Curacao went through after it stranded in 1913 near Prince of Wales Island, losing most of the bottom of the hull*. Which would make him closer to 20.
In this case, “Both” is the correct answer. Here’s why. When Fred is writing about the ship going through the storm in the Gulf of Alaska and mentions the deer on board? Or even the rabbits on the previous trip? That’s primary source material, right there. He’s there, he’s seeing the waves and the deer and he saw the rabbits. He knows where the deer came from (Cordova) and where they’re going (Kodiak) and who paid for the freight (the US government). But then he strays into secondary source territory when he starts writing about the ash on Kodiak Island in 1913. In 1913, the ash probably was still pretty deep on Kodiak, but he’s probably really referring to the 1912 Novarupta volcanic eruption on the Alaska peninsula that created the Valley of 10,000 Smokes and buried Kodiak and other areas east of Katmai under a deep layer of ash. But Fred is writing in 1934. And on the chance he was in Alaska in 1912 and saw the results of the eruption first hand, there’s still enough of a time delay that he’s forgotten the exact year it happened. So it’s also possible he may not be remembering things entirely correctly which makes his telling of the event a little suspect and that along with a lot of other elements of the story here leans this reader into thinking that this is probably a second-hand telling of the results of the eruption.
Interested in primary sources on what the federal government was doing to deal with the long-term effects of ash fall on the Kodiak flora and fauna? Fred’s letter is a great source. Interested in primary sources on the immediate aftermath of Novarupta and its effects on Kodiak? You’d be better off looking for documentation from individuals who were in Kodiak in 1912 and the years immediately following. To further confuse things, want to know what people thought about Novarupta decades later in 1935? That takes Fred’s comments about the eruption back into primary source status.
The division between primary and secondary especially in personal correspondence can be a little arbitrary. Some argue that primary is more reliable. Well, it can be, depending on what you’re looking for. It’s theoretically reliable–assuming the storyteller isn’t deliberately lying–for what the author witnessed. And it’s not necessarily unreliable (except in the case of Fred here, who seems to have a few details wrong) if the author has put together a number of primary sources and looked for commonalities and thought about the perspective of the person documenting the event and possible bias. Then the secondary interpretation of primary sources may be a little more reliable than the primary sources.
I don’t know how many of those students remember this later when they’re assigned a project to find primary sources on a topic. I hope a few. And if nothing else, they get a chance to peek in on the life of a single man who is working one of the Alaska steamship routes in the mid-1930s and what he chooses to tell his family about his work and life. And since I think that seeing daily life things written by a guy who isn’t maybe the best speller, who seems to enjoy his life, still sends hugs and kisses to his Mom and sisters and nieces, who signs off with jokes like “See you in church!” makes people like Fred a little more real. And makes the time in which he lived a little more relatable to our own lives and times. And that’s no small thing when you’re doing research into times and events past.
*All the details about the Curacao: date of build, date of stranding, that the hull was severely damaged but was salvaged and rebuilt, come from that amazing secondary source: The H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest: an illustrated review of the growth and development of the maritime industry from 1895, the date of publication of the last such comprehensive history, Lewis and Dryden’s marine history of the Pacific Northwest, to the present time, with sketches and portraits of a number of well known marine men, edited by Gordon Newell and published in 1966.
Text of Fred’s letter with spelling errors included and a few correct place names added:
Alaska Steamship Company
April 16 1934
Dear Helen & Mom
I recieved your most welcome letter of off the SS Alaska and was sure glad to hear from you. I am writing this about half way between Zachy [Zachar] Bay and Ugani [Uganik] and believe me it is a howling blizzard outside & cold? Phew. Coming out of Cordova this trip we ran into a storm in the gulf of Alaska that was a humdinger we had to heave too for about 3 hrs before we could go on. Say Folks you do not realize how small and puny man is until you get into one of these storms. The waves were higher than the funnel on our boat. And we had 9 crates of live deer lashed onto our after Deck & one of the poor little devils died from exposure. We were taking them from Cordova to Kodiak Island for the goverment. You know in 1913 this island was completely covered by Volcanic ash to the depth of about 16 inches and they thought that it would kill all the growth off but instead it acted as a fertilizer and trees & grass grow better there than any other Place up here. It killed of the rabbits & small game which the goverment is restocking it with now. We took up over 300 pairs of snowshoe Rabbits last trip. You will have to excuse this writing as the boat is rocking so bad I have to hang onto the table with one hand & write with the other. Well on this trip Helen we went from Cordova to Port Ashton then to Sheerwater Bay then to Kodiak then to Port Hobron the whaling Station then to Uzinki then to Zachy Bay then to Ugani then to Seward then Back to Cordova where we will greet the SS Yukon. By the way this ship and I are the same age. You know How old. I am feeling 100 Pure? And Boy do we eat and How. I am enclosing on of our B/Fs (bills of fare) so you can see for your self. Mr. Schilling the Chief Steward is sure one fine fellow to with anything on the ship is ours for the asking. Well how are you shrimp and how is Mama & Al & Little Muggins. Tell Big Muggins I still like to hear from her too. I am writing this at 9:30 PM will be in Ugani about eleven where I will open up my store & sell candy, Papers, & Magazines of all kinds & Tobacco the papers are a week old but do they sell. We charge 15c for the Sunday & 10c for the Dailys & 5c over the list prices for the Magazines. These people have not seen a paper or Magazine since last fall & are they hungry for something to Read. (Over) Well shrimp will be looking forward to a letter from you & the Folks on the SS Yukon and How. Will be seeing you in Church.
X for Little Muggins
XXX For You
XXXXXX for Mom
X for Al