Monday, August 3, 2015

The trouble with history

I recently read a popular book about a long cattle drive, a work of fiction set in the 1870s. While the book was enjoyable, I often found myself wondering "could this have happened in the 1870s?"
Often  it was a little detail that made me ask this question. Sometimes it was a bit of dialogue; other times, some of the cowboys' work gear; and on other pages, some natural phenomena in the story which didn't seem plausible.
I certainly don't mean my comments about the novel I read to be a review or criticism of the book. It was enjoyable, and for all I know, an accurate picture of the time in which the story took place.
But reading that book made me wonder about history.
When I was in school, the study of history was largely the memorization of dates and facts. ("In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," etc.) We learned the names of presidents, kings, authors, artists, and a few villains. We read about wars, memorized maps, and distinguished between allies and enemies. We learned about technology, and how it changed communities, from the making of bronze to the invention of the steam engine.
I'm certainly no expert on the 1870s, nor on cattle drives. I'm really not an expert on anything, though I do carry around a library of the history of this community in my head, willing or not. I can bore anyone with the Kerr County trivia I know, just ask my children. I know I am not an historian. I guess I aspire to be a storyteller.
The story of our community -- and of the families who helped build our part of Texas -- is what interests me, in part because I've lived my entire life in the community they built.
The part of our community's story from the 1870s, the time setting of the novel I read, is not very detailed. In fact, with every decade back from the present day, the story gets a little thinner. In my collection of Kerr County photographs, I have a great number from the 1940s to the 1970s. Fewer from the 1900s to the 1940s. Very few from 1890 to 1900. Only two or three which might be older than 1890. I have one, that I know of, from the 1870s: a portrait of the founder of Kerrville, Joshua D. Brown, along with his wife Sarah Goss Brown, and their young son, Alonzo Potter Brown. That image was scanned, by a friend, from a tintype.
In addition, most of the online resources I regularly use offer similar scarcity. The service I use to read old newspapers has a decent collection of local newspapers, though the older the newspaper, the fewer issues are available. Prior to 1900 there are very few local newspapers available, and I have to scout other newspapers, such as those published in San Antonio or Galveston, for mentions of Kerr County.
Without a good source of photographs or news articles, my research on local subjects prior to 1880 tends to rely upon published history books and articles, unpublished letters and diaries, legal documents, and, very rarely, sketches or maps. The unpublished sources often provide an only incomplete picture, or one that can be easily misunderstood, especially when colored by the experiences of the observer.
A modern observer often applies his own experiences and knowledge to an artifact, whether a photograph or a letter. For example, when learning about the earliest cabins in Kerrville, which had neither running water or electricity, one might instantly conclude they were primitive and life in them was difficult. But the persons who lived there might have considered such a place quite luxurious, especially when compared to living in a tent, or out on the open ground.
We'd look at the cabin and think it was awful; those who lived there would see it as home, and possibly a fine home, at that.
I suppose what I'm trying to convey is this: getting the stories of the past just right is difficult. It's easy to let our modern views slip in, without even realizing such is happening. It's easy to misinterpret the story from the artifacts we have. It's easier to be wrong than it is to be right.
I'm not sure it's even possible to tell stories of our community's past accurately (aside from the names and the dates), but I'm glad so many people here try.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who enjoys a good story.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times August 1, 2015.

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