Re-Inventing Our Re-Invented History

   If you are reading this, you're probably one of the many, many people who are "interested in" history and genealogy, and who spend a lot of time pursuing one or both of these subjects. The pursuit can take a variety of forms. You may enjoy "recreational" [i.e., just for the fun and flavor of it] reading of Oregon Trail or Gold Rush journals. You may be trying to compile a list of your ancestors back to Adam and Eve [or to some chimpanzee, if your persuasion is more evolutionary than it is religious - or perhaps to both, if you don't see any conflict between Creationism and Evolutionism]. You may be interested in combining the events of history and the names of ancestors to make the people from your past more than one-dimensional: to add some bones, and maybe some flesh, to the family ghosts. The degree to which you pursue one topic or another is really your choice. If you're not trying to get your Ph.D., and are not writing an article for a scholarly journal - in other words, if you are just amusing yourself - you can set your own standards.

It's like the levels and types of "bird-watching:"

--Just seeing birds - viewing their bright plumages and hearing their songs - may give you tremendous pleasure. If so, you can legitimately call yourself a "bird-watcher."

--Maybe you'd like to see them closer, or more often: you scatter some sunflower seeds, or erect a hummingbird feeder.

--You'd like to know the names of the birds you see: you buy a field guide, and start to learn how to identify individual species.

--You want to remember how many bird species you've seen: you start a "bird list."

--You want to know why birds are where they are: you read about their food habits and "habitat requirements."

--You want to see more kinds of birds: you take your knowledge of habitats, and you go to other environments, other states, or other countries.

Please yourself; it's all "bird watching."

*   *   *

   I've run the whole gamut of bird-watching possibilities, and in fact made my hobby into a 35-year career in ornithology research and wildlife conservation. I've dabbled in most of the history-genealogy pools, too - from "listing" my ancestors, to reading well-researched historical novels - but the two interests that really keep me going are:

--I love to look for TRUTH - not just facts, but the combining of raw data with information about what the world was like at the time the facts were generated. I want to know not only what occurred, but why it occurred.

--I love a good detective story, just like I love doing jigsaw puzzles. I like to take clues [or puzzle pieces], find more clues [more puzzle pieces], and keep fitting them together until i can see a picture emerge.

  One has to be careful about making analogies between genealogy and doing puzzles [because, hopefully, you can one day finish a jigsaw puzzle, but you can never "finish" genealogy], but I'll take it a little way, anyway:

--I might find a particular puzzle piece interesting geometrically or because of its pleasing coloration, but it clearly isn't "the whole picture." Likewise, adding a new name to my known family tree is always fun, and sometimes exciting [like when it is a name that has eluded my efforts for ten years!], but I need more. [To go back to bird watching, I always like to add a new bird to my "life list," but I seldom go out to specifically look for a "life bird."]

--Fifty pieces put together in one corner of a thousand-piece puzzle might give a picture clearly identifiable as "something" [a house, a face, a bird], but we still haven't found what the puzzle creator had in mind as his ultimate design. Similarly, I find that even after I have puzzled out a new person - and his wife, and his kids, and where he lived, and who is parents were - I often still feel the need to go on. I want to know why he lived there, where he came from, who his neighbors were, and what he did for a living. In other words, the satisfaction continues to grow for me the more the puzzle takes shape and the more the full picture emerges.

   But, for me, there is still more than just "completing" the picture - and that takes us back to what I said above about "looking for TRUTH." To stay [somewhat riskily] with the puzzle analogy, should I be satisfied when I put the last piece into the puzzle [i.e., gather the last genealogical "fact" I can reasonably find] and have a fully-filled-in rectangle before me [i.e., an idea of how my ancestor "looked" within the historical content of his time]? I have a picture before me, but is it THE REAL PICTURE? I know that a puzzle picture of the Grand Canyon is not "the real thing," but how close is it? One might think that a high-quality color photo of the Grand Canyon would be a truer rendition than, say, an oil painting of the same scene. But what if the photographer had taken the shot with a filter that distorted the colors? What if the proportions were unnatural because the photo was taken with a telephoto lens [that made the background look closer than it actually was], or with a wide-angle lens [that shows us more of the scene, but makes everything look smaller and farther away]? And what about what was left out of the picture - was the photographer the only person within 100 miles when the photo was taken, or would have panning slightly to the left have shown a hotel and a 1000-car parking lot?

  Now, lest we lose the string of this essay completely: one obviously doesn't obsess over "the Truth" of a picture puzzle. It is what it is; hopefully, the result is pleasing, but we can't really expect any more than that. It's different with history. For example:

--I know some of my ancestors were not only thrown out of the early church in Massachusetts Bay Colony, but were persecuted for religious beliefs that were apparently only a little different than the "official" beliefs of the Colony - and this only a few short years after these same people had come to America for their "religious freedom." Why?

--I know that some of my ancestors rebelled against British rule during the American War of Independence, while others remained loyal to the Crown. Why, and who was "right?"

--I know some of my Virginia and North Carolina relations kept slaves, while others didn't. Why? Why did Thomas Jefferson, with all his concern for personal rights and freedom, keep slaves?

--I want to know how my various European ancestors developed their personal ideas about the Native Americans they encountered, and how they decided how they would react to their predecessors, their land, and their culture.

--I wonder how my Mormon ancestors dealt with their then-accepted [within their society] multiple simultaneous marriage culture. Why did some Mormon males in my family line amass as many wives and kids as seemed possible, while some seemed content with monogamy?

--Heck, I even want to know why my various relations were Republicans or Democrats [or the then current political possibilities].

  "Finding the truth" isn't an easy exercise. The biggest hurdle to overcome is that "history is written by the winners." Even in this age of social enlightenment, racial and gender sensitivity, and political correctness, we find school history texts depicting Loyalists in the American Revolution as "traitors" [wait a minute: who rebelled against who?]; we still glorify "Indian fighters" [although, thankfully, not as much as we did just a few years past]; and we still leave our children and ourselves with the impression that the Pilgrims brought "religious freedom" to America [well, they did - for themselves and those of the same "denomination"]. We are thrilled with our Forty-niner and Oregon Trail ancestors - as we should be; they did amazing things - but with hardly a thought or word for what those great migrations did to the people who already lived along the overland trails.

   We can't change history; for better or worse, we have to live with what has already been done. Tomorrow, we will have to live with the history we are creating today. But the truth is, we are not "living with it:" for reasons that vary from patriotism to shame to self-justification, we [and "we" means people the world over] keep re-inventing what we have done and why we did it. That is wrong both morally and intellectually, and is a major stumbling block to doing things "right" the next time around.

   The one who studies history - either academically or for fun - has a real opportunity to see things as they really were - and are. The more we dig into old letters and journals, and read in-depth research on historical subjects, the harder it is to keep our socio-political blinders firmly in place. Every little peek we get makes it harder for us to continue to accept "history as written by the winners."

   These "little peeks" can come in the most unexpected places. Here are three examples that have been particularly meaningful to me, and that I strongly recommend:

--Read the historically-based novel "Oliver Wiswell," by Kenneth Roberts, and I can almost guarantee that you will never think of American Loyalists as "traitors," again. The story has a fictional thread running through it, but the dates, places, and most of the people in the book are directly out of real life, well-researched history.

--Read a good biography of Benedict Arnold [I can refer you to two very good ones], or read Kenneth Roberts' novels "Arundel" and "Rabble at Arms." Our school history books paint Arnold as one of the biggest villains of the Revolutionary War, and maybe he was - at the end of the war. But if you don't know about his military history prior to his last few infamous years, you truly don't know "the rest of the story."

--Get a copy of the taped version of [or listen on-line to] the broadcast of "This American Life" that has Sarah Vowell's "Trail of Tears." She and her sister Amy's account of their modern-day trip along the route of the Cherokee forced-march to Oklahoma - which the Vowell sisters made to try to connect with their Cherokee "roots" - brings tears to my manly eyes every time I play the tape. It's "This American Life" episode number 107, from 3 July 1998.

   Fun; entertainment; enlightenment; an open door to partially right some of the wrongs of the past, and possibly prevent some of the wrongs of the future: what's not to like about history and genealogy?


New and Used History and Genealogy Books

© Sanford Wilbur 2018 - LEAVE A COMMENT