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>History Journal 1: Why Am I Doing This?

April 11, 2011

In 1922, corresponding with Minnesota historian William Watts Folwell, Thomas A. Robertson mused, “This writing of history is of course a very particular and tedious work, but it seems sometimes that they catch too much at mere hearsay matters and try to make history of it.”

I love Folwell’s Papers, which reside in the temperature and humidity controlled bowels of the Minnesota Historical Society. So much so that I spent two of the best research years of my life reading through all 123 boxes. That’s 50 cubic feet of holographs (handwritten originals), three quarters of it handwriting; the other quarter in Folwell’s cast iron type writer type. I guess a purist might quibble about whether a typewriter can produce a holograph. But between the typewriter’s idiosyncrasies and Follwell’s quirky operator errors, I know a Folwell typescript on sight. And it gives me a little thrill.

Yes: I know that’s strange. But that’s my relationship with primary sources: hopelessly addicted.

William Watts Folwell 1833-1929

I am no William Watts Folwell. I’m already eight years older than he was when he became the President of the University of Minnesota. And I’m no where near retirement age, when Folwell took up writing his seminal three volume A History of Minnesota. I have no desire to crown my career as the President of the Minnesota Historical Society.

But, Lord willing, I would love to leave a historical paper trail like Folwell did.

Most people access Folwell’s work via his books. Connoisseurs know the best part of his books are his notes and appendices. But Folwell was humble. Unlike some of the luminaries of Minnesota history, he didn’t purge his papers before donating them to the Historical Society. Folwell left us every last scrawl in the notebooks he habitually carried in his pocket just in case he ran into someone of historical note to interview. He left us the pencilled notes he took as he read books and the jottings he made on the backs of the receipts which came to hand after his car overturned in a ditch on a rutted dirt road in out state Minnesota.

Today, in Folwell’s case, hisorians have it all. It’s a nauseating amount of  “all” if you hope to find a Cliff Notes version of a controversial story. But it is a wondrous amount of “all,” if like me, you’d like to figure out the process by which Folwell drew his conclusions.

So it occurred to me this weekend, on about the thousand and twentieth recitation of “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” (which along with “Sheep in a Jeep” is one of Joy’s current favorite books) that I am so near the beginning of my next history project that I could leave a paper trail –albeit on the Internet –tracing the evolution of ideas which under ordinary circumstances would seem like they sprung up fully-formed and documented next fall when I present the project at a regional history conference.

I suppose that’s something of an insider secret: few historians know what they’re doing when they start a new inquiry. Somewhere along the way, when we pick up the scent of the real story, we change our thesis to reflect what we’ve found. The result (paper, presentation, article, book) may sound like we were prescient from day one. But that would not be an honest approach to history. If our ideas do not change along the way, then we didn’t really do history.

I’ve never done this: documented how my ideas change over time as a result of that “very particular and tedious work” that constitutes primary source history. The story I’m working on is, for all I know now, a “mere hearsay matter” and that’s what intrigues me: seeing if I can find documentary evidence of truth inside a story that today passes among white historians as hearsay.

I’ll need two or three posts to catch up with my work to date. Then from that point on on, my  History Journal posts (maybe once a week once I catch up?) will be real-time history as I investigate Minnesota’s obsession with Indian Hating in the wake of the Dakota War of 1862, starting with a trumatized civillian soldier named Louis Thiele.

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