By Daniel Hubbard | September 27, 2010
History is a fluid thing. The past is whatever was once the present—whatever once happened. The past does not change but history changes. New evidence is found. Old evidence is reevaluated, old biases are removed and new ones often take their place. We may overemphasize something to correct for all the years it was ignored. New bits of history are discovered. Old bits may slowly fade from consciousness. Ideally, history comes ever closer to the past on any given topic but where we place the emphasis between topics often has to do with much later events.
Understanding history is often vital to progress in genealogy. Historical understanding always adds to genealogy. Yet, it is important to realize that history is not the same as the past. What is important now may have seemed totally uninteresting for years after it happened. Perhaps some consequence has appeared in the intervening time that moves an event from seemingly trivial, to vitally important for our understanding the past. What that event was hasn’t changed but our measure of its importance to history has.
Other topics fade or vanish as time goes by. Genealogists on the lookout for history relevant to their ancestry often find that no modern historical work pays any attention to an incident, but that a book written a century ago discusses it at great length. While it is wonderful to find that event described and analyzed, it was analyzed with a perspective that comes from one hundred or more years ago. Sometimes the problems will be trivial. At other times the problems are obvious. Blatantly racist or sexist overtones in the writing itself, which would not find their way into serious history now, are often easy to spot. Other effects might not be so clear. There may be biases that we no longer even recognize or understand. There is also the danger that a stack of letters found fifty years ago negates much of what the century-old book relates on the topic. Perhaps that tidbit you’ve found in an old book has disappeared from more recent works because it has been realized that it never happened.
History also presents different lenses for viewing the past. For example, should the great men and women of the past be regarded as the determiners and controllers of events or were they lifted to greatness because social, cultural and economic forces acted upon them and their world? That question has launched many a debate of the “either or” variety.
For better or for worse, history is also something that is used. Its lessons can be employed to bind or to divide. Its intent can go beyond presenting the past for the present—anything from an honest attempt to enlighten to unabashed propaganda. Different events can be singled out for emphasis because they seem to address some societal ill from the time the book was written. Other topics may be left out because they hit too close to home. Our history books are products of their time. A history book might tell you more about the time when it was written than it does about the period it describes.
When history is taught, it must fit conveniently into the school year. In 1860 there was much less American history to learn and what seemed important then will not be what seems important now. It must also be aimed at the age group of the students. What a person who doesn’t read history as an adult thinks of as history, probably reflects how old he or she was when last sitting in a history class.
History in The Making
These are things I think about in any case but I’ve been reading a fine book in which to glimpse in action the changeability of history—History in the Making. It is a collection of excerpts from American history textbooks. The excerpts are arranged by topic and then in chronological order according to when the textbook was published, which can be as early as the 1790s. You can follow attitudes toward historical events, both what was taught and to what extent it was taught. Each section and each excerpt has a few sentences of introduction but then the reader is left with his or her own thoughts on the passage that follows.
Here we can learn about some historical “truths” that have turned out to have been not so true. One textbook’s discussion of Native Americans taught students that cannibalism was a widespread practice among the Indians around them. Other books relate the story of Molly Pitcher, a woman who embodied the very real dedication that many real woman had to the Revolution but Molly, in all likelihood, never actually existed in the form the tales gave her.
A good example of blatant racism can be found in an 1880 description of the Mexican-American war. The Spanish were “Moorish Celts” who defeated the “effeminate” Aztecs. Meanwhile the Americans, the “Northmen of the Goths,” were “bold,” “ingenious,” “energetic,” “invincible” and “adventurous beings,” who conquered all before them, both man and nature, from the eastern shores to Mexico City. The text is actually even less subtle than those snippets imply. At other times an author might confuse a modern reader. In one instance an author called Indians savages but then extolled the civilization of the Cherokee and severely criticized the U.S. government for what is now universally known as the “Trail of Tears.” Surprisingly, his text was written only a few years after the Cherokee were forced to follow that “trail” from Georgia to Oklahoma.
The early discussions of the Monroe Doctrine emphasized the fear that Spain or some other western European power would try to recolonize Spanish America, then a group of newly independent nations. During the Cold War, there was a temporary shift to the threat that the Russians had posed to American claims to the Pacific Northwest. A real but marginal problem of the past became a primary focus because of the time that the history was written.
An event that has vanished from modern textbooks but which engaged the nation at the time and for many years after was the Caroline Affair. Now, few people who don’t actively study the time and place involved would have the slightest idea what it was. During the Canadian rebellions against Great Britain in the 1830’s, an American ship, the Caroline had been aiding the rebels. It was seized in American waters, set on fire and let loose to plummet over Niagara Falls. Later a Canadian braggart, who had not actually been there, claimed to have killed an American who went over the falls with the ship. Not a wise thing to do while in New York. His arrest on murder charges incensed the British government. The Caroline Affair thus became an international incident not once but twice. Yet it has long since been forgotten as a minor, inconsequential bump in the transition from enmity to alliance between the nations involved.
I think the lessons here for the family historian are clear. Use old works of history. They may be your only way to get a grip on an unusual bit of history. Just remember that though they might contain information that you need, they may not present you with fully trustworthy information, or they may have odd biases that might not always be as easy to detect as you would like. Even if it fails to mention the exact episode you need, a modern history of the right time and place that you can compare with your older source, could be your best friend.
Happy researching.Twitter It!