I told you that I would try to respond to your “History” - Untitled Document, once I had finished my last project and read the interesting book you sent re western Kansas history.
That is a tough “nut” to crack.
The first item you had: “History is defined.”
Wow! Even Webster cannot come in with an easy answer to that one.
I tend to go along with the following definition: A systematic written account of events, particularly of those affecting a nation, institution, science, or art, and usually connected with a philosophical explanation of their causes.
Not being a historian, only a gatherer of events as they unfolded in Cowley County during a limited period after it was discovered by white people and then inhabited, only to have much of the “truth” distorted or lost because the early local papers did not get on microfilm and thus are lost to us forever, I find it extremely difficult to cull the “truth” from the “fiction” that evolved.
Miguel De Cervantes [1547-1616], in Don Quixote, made the profound statement: “History is in a manner a sacred thing, so far as it contains truth; for where truth is, the supreme Father of it may also be said to be, at least, in as much as concerns truth.”
Henry James [1843-1916] in Hawthorne, chapter 1, said: “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson [1803-1882] said, “There is properly no History; only Biography.”
Irvin S. Cobb [1876-1944] said, “A good storyteller is a person who has a good memory and hopes other people haven’t.”
Francis Parkman [1823-1893] hit the nail on the head for me with the following.
“Truthfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.”
The book you recently sent me concerning the area of Kansas west of Wichita by Craig Miner really brings home all of the above. He did a super job.
My late husband picked up a phrase that he used many times in sending out the agenda and minutes for meetings of the Arkansas City Historical Society: “History is gossip.”
And therein lies the “rub.” Whenever I try to understand what has been written previously by different people relative to the early history of Cowley County and in particular, Arkansas City, I am overwhelmed with “disgust” at the distortions and lies that emerged. More importantly, this is what emerges as “truth” by present-day citizens of the county who bother to assimilate what has been told either in writing or orally. And that really bothers me. To think that the cute little stories that are told by people with faulty memories or who dote in perverting the truth is the legacy we are left with. Fiction, not fact, seems to be what the “gossips” desire.
Your first thoughts I have tried to understand and interpret.
But history is more. It is his story and her story and their story and all of the stories of all of the people who came before.
That is what I call “gossip.”
These stories are important because that is the way that humans remember, stories. These stories are important because that is the way that humans remember: stories.
I agree to the above if the stories are “true.”
Researchers such as .. [no names given] think that the human mind stores information in the form of narrative sequences. We remember stories because stories are the natural form of our memory. When we have heard all of the stories and absorbed them, then we begin to achieve understanding. Who we are, how we got here, where we came from: all questions that each of us ask in our quest to understand our world and our place in it.
I reworked your words in order to understand what you were trying to say. I cannot! What applies to thee and me, does not necessarily apply to others! I have met too many people who were raised without thinking about the past in any way, shape, or form, other than as it applies to them in the very immediate past and the present. They have never bothered to find out why their ancestors did what they did let alone reach any understanding.
Somewhere in the not too distant past, many have lost sight of what it means to learn from the past. I blame this on the breakdown that has occurred in the field of education. At the time I first became aware of this in the late 1940s, I was shocked to learn while in college that the “dummies” were being steered into becoming teachers as that was the only way they would get a degree. When I observed this breakdown in education and saw decade after decade the results (“dummies” trying to hand down history and other data to students, who later became teachers, etc.), it became apparent to me that in the course of time, “history” and other truths would be lost or distorted.
Back to your first paragraph...
When a professional historian sets about to write a history of some person, or event, or period, they will first read all of the available material on said person, event, or period, and form a narrative that explains and elucidates the topic at hand. The accuracy of their account and the limits on understanding are based on the extent of the material available. One cannot quote from newspapers that no longer exist, from diaries destroyed, letters that have been lost, from events that have been witnessed but have not been recorded in writing; or from family history that has been listened to as a child, but was left unwritten and forgotten as an adult. The importance of oral family history is not whether Uncle Henry did, or did not, do this or that; but rather, how Uncle Henry’s account meshes with other sources who recounted their experiences about the same time and place.
We know that oral histories are notoriously unreliable, but so are newspapers. Newspapers often are written from a narrow point of view that may not include what they consider unimportant details. Likewise, when a historian quotes from newspaper sources, he, because of limited resources, includes only those portions which he considers important for the historical task at hand.
I changed your words to get to the particular with respect to the individual historian.
I agree that “oral histories” are unreliable.
Newspapers for the most part are reliable when they are just giving the news about present-day events. It is when “editorials” are given, that sometimes truth becomes distorted; or when reporting from other sources, mistakes are made.
To cite an example: A report came from the Topeka Commonwealth about the death of a marshal in Caldwell. The Winfield Courier concluded falsely that because of the similarity of names, the account of his death applied to the first sheriff of Cowley County. To make matters worse, it appears that they never printed a retraction.
I am prone to disagree with the role of the “historian” that you have depicted. Without the historian, many of us would never learn the truth. Thanks to the printed word and the retrieval of facts now available, a historian can present the facts. As with a newspaper “editorial,” facts can be distorted if that is the motive behind the work.
Back to your words...
Over the past seven years I have dug into the history of Cowley County, Kansas, to discover where many of my beliefs and predisposed attitudes came from. While these discoveries still lure me on, I have discovered quite a lot about the development of historical resources and how to use them. I make no claim that these discoveries are anything new. I’m sure that all of my historian friends already knew the principles involved.
A nice statement. I agree with you completely. Like you, through the ancient newspapers put on microfilm (our only source for the most part), I have learned much about Cowley County, and thirst for more information. Thanks to Dr. Sam Dicks, I have picked up what is to me new information about the early days. It really impacted on me to learn how close we came to being wiped out by the Osage Indians in 1874 if they had decided to go on the warpath with us. Fortunately, some wise heads prevailed in keeping the peace at that time among the Osage Indians. I have always maintained that we need at least two sources to get a true picture of events that were unfolding during the infancy of Cowley County. I find as time goes by, the more sources we can uncover, the more we can see the overview of events. If only we could get more people who had the time to research past events, the greater our understanding would become.
Back to your words...
First, one cannot study history alone, especially if one wants to discover anything new. One has too many unconscious blind spots. I think that often the reason I don’t remember anything about events and people who were contemporaneous was that I didn’t consider them important enough to pay attention to. If I were to look at the history of the same period by myself, I would still overlook them because of my bias. Others are important to help establish significance beyond one’s own limited view.
You have company in the above thoughts. I am guilty of being utterly blind to the history of Cowley County until my husband, who loved history and genealogy, put me to work to gather “facts” concerning this county. I had never given a thought to the history of this county. I had become aware by this time that for the most part, I had learned little from school about history in general: I got turned off by having to memorize what to a teacher was important: dates, etc. I think I got turned “on” when I spent my time in a very important library learning about the “Wyoming Massacre” instead of looking for ancestors. [One may ask, what am I spouting about? I am referring to an event that took place in July 1778 in the Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania, by a force of Indians and Tories. What a story!]
Recently I got turned “on” again by the Topeka Commonwealth article about the “Mountain Meadow Massacre” in Utah. [I believe you referred to it as the “Mormon Wars.”] Thanks to you and my late husband, I have become very aware of the importance of history being told, particularly with respect to Cowley County. My husband was correct when he told me years ago that the history of this great county had never been told, and that he had concluded that someone had to do it, and that we would have to since he had no one else to turn to. Little did I realize how his words would change the course of my life. Lord knows I am not a historian let alone an author, as some people have referred to me. I am only a conveyor of the printed word from years ago. I depend on you and others to interpret the facts from the ancient newspapers and written words from reliable sources of that early time span.
Back to your next words...
Second, when entering and/or compiling information from old newspapers, or photos from an old collection, there is nothing that is not important. This is somewhat of a corollary of the First Principle. One’s own biases are the only criterion available for measuring importance and these are not reliable. One’s goal must be to gain understanding beyond these biases, and that depends on evaluation of everything, undiminished by the filter of one’s own consciousness. This principle is related to a similar principle in science. One must record all of the data, not just the data that support one current hypotheses or how the world works. For example, when collecting data for a catalog of stars, one must collect all of the data from all of the stars. Only then, by careful mapping, can one begin to see the black clouds of molecular gas that blocks our view from earth.
I believe I understand what you are saying. And that is why I labor at providing the data to get the overall view with respect to Cowley County. I leave it to you and others to support the facts as presented by the early newspapers.
Back to your next words...
Third, people make history. History is the macroscopic aggregation of uncountable individual decisions of individuals who, at the time of the decision, are not concerned with the decision or its result. Sometime they know it is a history-making decision, sometimes they just don’t care. On December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks decided not to stand and let a white man take her seat, she was probably doing it less for history than for the fact that she was dead tired from working all day in Montgomery, and just wanted to sit and relax. But, also, as a former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and as a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, she may have decided that the time had come to NOT stand up for what she believed. The decision of Dr. Martin Luther King to support Ms. Parks, the decision of every protester who demonstrated against the segregation laws of Montgomery, the decision of the law enforcement officers who supported the laws: all interacted as the drama unfolded. The sequence of events and decisions that radiated from her simple decision changed the society of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. But she didn’t know, or care, at the time. She was arrested for violating an “established rule” in the south. This rule was established by ninety years of decisions by individual blacks and whites since the Civil War. The way this rule came into being, the way it was enforced, and the way it was overruled by a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States after more than a year of protests and boycotts is as complex a historical event as one could hope to analyze. And before any historian had time to analyze the antecedents to Rosa Parks’ decision, other decisions led to events that spun out of the control of any single individual. Dr. Martin Luther King’s house was bombed, and many were arrested before the Supreme Court made its ruling. This event, like most events in our daily newspapers, has a long history leading up to it and a long history of repercussion after it. And all of such events are woven into an interconnected tapestry that forms the picture we call “History.”
Sometimes the events that determine the course of history are clear and unequivocal, like the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which started World War I. Sometimes the true course of history is forever shrouded in fog, like the question: “How did the United States get into a war against drug producers in South America?”
Was it a direct, but circuitous result of the voters of Cowley County and other counties in Kansas, who decided to prohibit the sale of alcohol in 1880? Can William P. Hackney of Winfield, Kansas, be blamed for the abortive “War on Drugs” a hundred years later? It wouldn’t stand up in a court of law, but it might make an interesting footnote in a history text some day.
Fourth, sometimes the events of history are so traumatic that the witnesses and participants go on with their lives in stunned silence, thinking and writing little for history. Such is the case with the band started by Prof. W. H. Caman in June 1895, referred to as The “Caman Winfield Military band,” at its inception. In 1903 the band was putting on one of its regular performances at the main intersection in Winfield, Kansas, when a massacre occurred by a deranged man, Twigg. The citizens of Winfield concentrated on getting their town and their lives back together. Little was written of the massacre in private journals. There was no national news coverage and no in-depth analysis of why Twigg shot randomly at people. One could compare it to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, in 1963, and the attempt of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his administration to get the country back on track and institute a cover-up of the dark deed.
The emotional impact of historical events on the participants and observers may have important considerations for the historian. If accounts are not written, if investigations are not carried out, if clues are not followed, the ambiguity of the historical record will haunt them forever. In the case of Twigg, not only are there no answers but there were no questions posed at the time about this massacre. A history was written for the national media; a separate history was written for the local media. In the national press it was clearly stated that officer Nichols killed Gilbert Twigg. The local press stated that Twigg committed suicide. (There is something going on here that is quite interesting and deserves further study.) Twigg’s motivation in killing people is interesting; but even more interesting and deserving further study is what motivated the local news media and the report given after the coroner’s inquest to obscure events that transpired. This phenomenon, like the Kennedy assassination, prompted the news media to obfuscate the facts. In the matter of Kennedy, it brought about a new industry that tried to develop the theory of conspiracies to bring about his death.
Fifth, the vested interests of the participants are of such a magnitude as to render their accounts delusional. Such delusional interests are often encountered in the newspaper editorials that appeared in the development of Kansas in the 1870s and 1880s. Frank Manny was virtually pilloried by the Winfield news media for daring to write letters to editors in the “East” that the new “Prohibitory Laws” may have ended the “Boom” in Kansas. Forced to close his brewery, Manny became part of the underground economy that supplied the local demand, while said demand was denied by the selectively enforced laws on the books.
Some “city fathers,” pinched by shrinking revenues, took a broader view of public prohibition. To keep financially afloat, they gained necessary revenue by quietly taxing secret “joints,” houses of prostitution, gambling dens, “blind tigers,” and other like activities of questionable morality. This was given little coverage by the local newspapers. Of course, when Constable H. H. Siverd was killed in 1893 while apprehending a bootlegger who had just delivered a load of booze to Manny’s “joint,” there was press coverage.
Overall the newspapers of that day provided enough coverage to raise a lot of interesting questions. Jim Davis swears that he has in his possession the safe from a house of ill repute that was located across 14th Street from the old Santa Fe Depot in Winfield. On the other hand, there is no section in the “Cowley County Historical Museum” that covers the so-called “Houses of Ill Repute.”
[As you will observe by studying the way I have bounced your words around, I made some changes. Feel free to change them in any way, shape, or form you choose. I just hope I have helped you in clarifying your thoughts.] MAW
P. S. Bruce is coming by later today. Not sure when is he coming. Therefore, I will wait until tomorrow to mail back the book, which I finally finished.