Launchpad: Evaluating Eyewitness Reports Activity 1

1. Extra! Extra! Fire Destroys Chicago! : Analyzing Newspaper Accounts

Read the following accounts of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 from the website, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory:

Use the Written Document Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives Digital Classroom website to begin your analysis of these reports of the Great Chicago Fire. You can also take a look at this map of the fire from the Chicago Fire website. Then answer these questions:

  • Do the reporters agree in their description of where the fire began and how it spread?
  • Do they mention the same landmarks of destruction and havens of safety?
  • Do they disagree on any questions of fact?
  • Compare the reporters' selection of episodes:
  • Do they highlight similar incidents?
  • Do they focus on similar scenes of human interest?
  • Do they share a vocabulary for evoking these dramatic moments? Ask students to offer possible reasons for any differences they may note. Are the reporters addressing different audiences? aiming at different effects? offering different perspectives on the significance of the fire?

Finally, discuss how an historian might use these alternative accounts of the Chicago Fire.

  • What is the advantage of having two accounts?
  • How do they supplement one another?
  • To what extent can they be combined?
  • In what respect can they be set in contrast or played off against one another?
  • In what sense can they be considered primarily objective accounts or the records of two personal experiences?
  • What questions did they pose that the authors of these reports left unanswered?