Practice Analyzing and Interpreting a Letter

Practice Analyzing and Interpreting a Letter
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  • 0:01 How to Analyze a Letter
  • 1:27 Analyzing Columbus's Letter
  • 3:39 Further Analysis and Research
  • 6:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Writing a letter to someone may seem like a casual thing, but letters can be analyzed as primary sources that represent a piece of history. In this lesson, we'll discuss how to effectively analyze a letter.

How to Analyze a Letter

A letter is a written, typed, or printed form of communication that can be considered a primary source. A primary source is a document or tangible object that was written or created during the time being studied. Diaries, speeches, interviews, and letters are all considered primary sources.

You are taking on the job of a historian. Examining documents that people have left behind helps us better understand the past by getting a clearer picture of people, places, and situations from a certain time period.

When analyzing a letter, we need to answer a few important questions about the author's purpose:

  • What is the author's message or argument?
  • How does he or she communicate that?
  • Does he or she use facts, specific details, and/or emotionally-charged words to do so?

We also need to take into account any related background information and what we can learn from this source:

  • Does the author's background influence what he or she says or how he or she says it?
  • Who is the intended audience for the letter, and how does that affect what is said or the way it is written?
  • Does it tell you about the actions and/or beliefs of the upper class or of 'ordinary' people and whose perspective is it written from?
  • What historical questions can and can't be answered from this source?

Analyzing Columbus's Letter

After his first voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who sponsored his journey. In his letter, Columbus reports what he found, and he uses many specific details to get his message across by choosing his words carefully. Let's analyze a couple of excerpts from it.

'Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz I reached the Indian sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled, of which I took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious Monarch, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners.'

After reading even just a part of a letter, we want to begin to analyze it by asking ourselves: what is this writer's message? Well, at first glance we might say that Columbus is telling the king and queen what he saw and did. How does he communicate this?

Now we want to look back at the excerpt to see if he uses facts, specific details, and/or emotionally-charged words. He states a few facts about where and when, and he uses words with powerfully suggestive meanings. He says he 'discovered' many islands, yet if people already lived there, then are they really being discovered for the first time? He also says they were 'thickly peopled' and that he 'took possession without resistance,' which makes it sound as if the native people were fine with him claiming their land. They might not have understood, but Columbus writes in such a definitive way, suggesting feelings of pride and triumph as if there's no question about what happened.

He also refers to the letter's audience by saying 'illustrious Monarch' rather than simply saying 'I did this for you.' He says he claimed the native people's land with 'unfurled banners,' which paints a picture of a majestic moment.

Now that we've analyzed his wording, we can see that Columbus is dramatizing events, complimenting his audience, and communicating his sense of power over the islands and its inhabitants. Columbus's message is even clearer: he is telling the king and queen that he is in control, and his mission has been extremely successful.

Further Analysis and Research

Columbus goes on to describe the beautiful landscapes, vegetation, spices, gold, and other metals that the islands offer. He then writes:

'On my arrival at that sea, I had taken some Indians by force from the first island that I came to, in order that they might learn our language, and communicate to us what they knew respecting the country. . . in a short time, either by gestures and signs, or by words, we were able to understand each other. These men are still traveling with me, and they continue to entertain the idea that I have descended from heaven; and on our arrival at any new place they cry out immediately with a loud voice to the other Indians, 'Come, come and look upon beings of a celestial race': upon which. . . when they got rid of the fear they at first entertained, would come out in throngs, crowding the roads to see us, some bringing food, others drink, with astonishing affection and kindness.'

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