Skip to Main Content

Resources for Teachers: Online Primary Sources from Manuscript Division

The Mystery of the “Massachusetts Sheep Census”

Historic American Buildings Survey, creator. Elisha Payne House, Canterbury, Windham County, CT. Documentation compiled after 1933. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Primary sources give historians a direct connection to the past. Yet they can be as difficult to understand as an overheard conversation in a foreign language. How do historians make sense of them? How can students learn to interrogate primary sources the way historians do? In this essay, specialist Dr. Julie Miller describes how she identified and interpreted a document held by the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division that appeared in the Library’s catalog with the puzzling title: “Massachusetts Sheep Census, 1787.”

Compared to some of the collections in the Manuscript Division, such as the papers of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, this is a very humble document. But documents like these have stories to tell and because they have been less explored than documents produced by more well-known people they often contain mysteries that students can participate in unraveling.

Counting Sheep: Unspinning the Mystery of the "Massachusetts Sheep Census"

What can a document mysteriously titled the “Massachusetts Sheep Census” tell students about the lives of ordinary people in a New England town in 1787, the year the federal Constitution was created? Read together with other primary and secondary sources, the Sheep Census shows the interpenetration of the mundane and the extraordinary in this eighteenth-century Connecticut town: the annual shearing of sheep and the periodic sparking of social controversy; the mowing of meadows and the creation of a nation. Like an archaeologist who leaves some artifacts buried for future diggers, the author of this teacher's guide has pulled out some questions and left others for you to explore.