Published Date

May 1, 2004

This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “The Conquest of Mexico” by Nancy Fitch.

When historians and students confront materials, it is important to differentiate between primary and secondary sources.

What are primary sources?

Historians often turn to primary sources, sources that were written at the time of the event, in this case written from 1519-1521 in Mexico. These would be firsthand accounts. Unfortunately, in the case of the conquest of Mexico, there is only one genuine primary source written from 1519-1521. This primary source consists of the letters Cortés wrote and sent to Spain. Other sources are conventionally used as primary sources, although  they were written long after the conquest. One example consists of the account written by Cortés’s companion, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Other accounts consist of Mexicas and other Nahua stories and traditions about the conquest of Mexico from their point of view.

How can you tell if a source is primary or secondary?

  • When was the document created?  (at the time of event?)
  • To what time period does the document refer?

For all of these sources in this project:

  • Who created the document?
  • Who is the document’s intended audience?
  • What was the standpoint from which the document was created?
  • What is the difference between description and interpretation?
  • Is the document you are looking at describing conditions or interpreting them?
  • When does description slip into interpretation?
  • Why was the source created?
  • What is the purpose of the source?

For visual images, ask these additional questions:

  • What is the subject matter (if any), and what is happening?
  • Who was the artist, and when was the artwork created?
  • What is at the top, bottom, and sides of the painting?
  • What is in the center of the painting?
  • What do you think is the meaning of how specific objects are positioned?
  • Does the source describe one’s own or another’s culture?
  • Does the source describe cultural interaction?
  • Are hidden cultured interactions embedded in the source?