I am writing a 5 page thesis paper on Simon Bolivar for a history class. I am using the book "Bolivar" by Marie Arana as one of my source for writing the paper.

Many times Arana uses primary sources to back up claims. For example, in chapter 1 Arana uses a document called "Instructions to Christopher Columbus" written by Queen Isabel I to demonstrate the laws Spain passed to initially ban slavery in America, and control exploitation of Indians. The passage discussing the queen's condemnation of the colonialists in "Bolivar" was a direct quote from Queen Isabel I:

"Forasmuch as my Lord the King and Myself have ordered that the Indians living on the island of Hispaniola be free and not subject to slavery..."

So in my short paper I summarized these idea to:

"Mainland Spain banned slavery and Queen Isabel even condemned the terrible behavior of the Spanish colonialists, passing laws to discourage the anarchy in the Americas."

In my sentence, do I cite Arana or do I cite the initial edict written by Queen Isabel?

On one hand, Arana cites Queen Isabel and several other documents to push her portrait of colonial South America. I am trying to share these same facts and am using Arana as a guide. So she did the legwork for knowing what primary documents to look for and deserves credit in that regard.

But on the other hand, I make the claim that Mainland Spain banned slavery in the colonies and the queen condemned it. I think it makes sense to cite the original primary resource, "Instructions to Christopher Columbus". It absolutely confirms a claim I am making, which is Spain passed laws to stop slavery in the Americas. From a research point, it makes sense to cite this document as Arana had to cite it as well.

Do I cite Arana or the original document in my sentence? Thank you!

2 Answers 2


There are multiple citation standards. If your teacher or your school has a particular citation style they prefer or require you should consult the guides for that style. In not, one approach you can use to make your sources clear is to use the formula, "as cited by". That is: "Instructions to Christopher Columbus as cited by Arcana in ..."


First of all, it's a very good idea to always check a secondary source up against the primary they are referencing. You might have already done that.

But, no matter what, if an author quotes another book or author, unless the primary is lost to the sands of time or somesuch, CHECK the source. In the past when this was not checked, it resulted in the repetition of a mistake, which is possible even from a trusted source. Also, when multiple folks referenced or read that work, it would seem that the consensus was correct because EVERYONE was saying it.

On to the actual question--cite the primary source, whenever possible. And look at it too, just to make sure your secondary hasn't misquoted!!!

Yes, it's cool that the secondary brought the primary source to your attention, and you might not have looked at it without her, but you are citing historical documents.

You are not mimicking her conclusions. It would be like me citing, say Rush Limbaugh, when I write a paper about the Second Amendment, because he happened to be the first person I ever heard mention/write about it.

Instead, I should be going to the primary source, checking it against the secondary source.

If it is impossible for you to check the primary, if there isn't, say, a book that has official letters and such for you to look at, then you must cite your secondary source here. Because then it will be her mistake, and not yours if it is inaccurate. However, a strict professor might find this lazy, unless you absolutely cannot get access to the primary. I mean you can't actually look at the faded parchment of the original or anything and you might not know 1400-1500s Spanish, but as far as research papers are concerned, you need to get as close to the primary sourcing as you can.

NOTE: This is at a high standard of academic excellence an accuracy. If it's high school or something, it's possible nobody will care. If you are not going to bother looking at the primary, or her actual source and you want to take her word for it, then you have to cite her. This is an edict, so I am guessing it will not be hard to find.

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