If you’re missing a narrative, you’re not alone. Kevin Starr noticed our lack of explanation in 1975, in a monograph on early voyages he kindly reviewed. Many of its arcane sources — like Hakluyt’s Voyages, once closely circulated in special collections — now float freely in the electronic ether. We scroll the diaries of piratical explorers online in our kitchen. As much as we appreciate Kevin’s remarkable body of work and its informed tradition, we’re glad we kept collating first-person accounts of the Far West. Primary data are a window to events, and can be confirmed or tempered by other sound witnesses and records.
Nicholson Baker describes how historic data are photographed, access to the new microforms or facsimile files is maintained, and sources are conserved in Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (New York: Random House, 2000). Some libraries ‘de-accession’ historic volumes after photographing them, or anytime they have unneeded copies. (‘De-accession’, like its equally inbred cousin ‘deselect’, is library school doublethink, Newspeak for ‘discard’.) Many libraries offer their discards to other libraries, non-profit organizations, and private parties before sending them to pulp mills for recycling. But brokers rescue some volumes and list them in digital stores through portals like BookFinder.com. We recently found a handsomely rebound surplus set of Bartlett (1854) from the Boston Public Library, through such an independent bookseller. The more source materials in circulation — whether privately-held hard copies or public electronic facsimiles — the easier it is to reconstruct events and test explanations.
Recently, the New York Times published a proudly racist essay on history — one most college professors would return to an undergrad for lack of rigor and extreme bias. The public perception of history gets hijacked like this by pop media fairly routinely: after her clever sojourn into historiography, the doddering Gray Lady deftly edified readers regarding cannibalism. But history gets the last laugh. Poor, abused history is simply a sequence of events. People live in the midst of it, act in their family’s interest, and react as best they can to the discursive, then they die.
Simple cognition and empiricism exposed McCarthy’s self-abuse seventy years ago, and the same tools work just fine on postmodern exhibitionism. Critical thinking still sorts evidence from agitprop and scholarship from propaganda.
Save real data. The present carnival of lies will eventually dissolve in its own bile, and our descendants may want to know how we survived it.
The energetic special agent to Oregon Country John Ross Browne left quite a graphic record of the 1864 Gadsden Purchase frontier in Adventures in the Apache Country: A Tour Through Arizona and Sonora, with Notes on the Silver Regions of Nevada (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1869):
The Sonora Exploring and Mining Company’s 1857 promotional brochure clearly overstated its resources and promise. Finding shareholders during a year of economic panic was difficult enough, but effectively mining the area at any time would have required extraordinary improvements in tangible infrastructure, and large, agile regiments of cavalry and attendant livestock for defense. Several field administrators for the mines would no doubt have preferred the usual risks of bankruptcy or prison in failure, over having their lives taken.
We wish we had a response to the pamphlet from the 140 or so migrant barreteros and tenateros, who were paid through credits at the overpriced company stores — when they were paid — and had to fight American filibusters and Pinal, Gileño, and Chiricahua raiders both in Arizona’s mines and at home across the Sonora line. Herman Ehrenberg’s 1858 Map of the Gadsden Purchase locates many of their familiar towns. And the campaign to find investors did provide work for illustrators.
Samuel Woodworth Cozzens, author of boys’ frontier novels, affordable attorney, and pal to fugitives like Ned McGown, is a lively witness in Explorations & Adventures in Arizona & New Mexico . . . (1873; facsimile reprint, Secaucus: Castle, 1988). His homespun anthropology gets a bit ambitious, and his engravings often seem caricatures — yet both provide useful information.
Cozzens presents this village, for example, as a permanent encampment of Mangas Coloradas.
We thought this romantic tableau was familiar when we found it in Cozzens, but we could have been recalling Bartlett, where we found the same horseman reaching for his quiver and other similar figures positioned differently. Who borrowed it from whom, or are they both derived from a common source?
The graphic lines of this sketch suggest the use of a camera lucida. In recounting his search for the site of the Seth Eastman watercolor ‘Great Canyon Rio Gila’, cartographer Tom Jonas describes the technology surveyors used to produce precise field drawings, from which lithographs like ‘Great Canyon’ were later rendered: https://truewestmagazine.com/article/finding-the-great-canyon-on-the-gila-river/.
In transforming cartoons into watercolors, artists applied rich tones like these:
Rhode Island School of Design Museum curates an impressive collection of Eastman’s watercolors, which brought texture to field drawings of the Gadsden Purchase.
some further reading:
Chronology: Megan Kate Nelson, The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (New York: Scribner Book Co., 2020);
Historiography: Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History (New York: The Free Press, 1996); Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, “Postmodernism and the Crisis of Modernity” in Telling the Truth About History (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1994); Jason Steinhauer, History, Disrupted (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); and
Literacy: Vibeke Lehmann, ed., Library Trends 59, no. 3 (winter 2011). Lehmann presents reports on some interesting libraries in marginalized and at-risk communities around the world. Many patrons in these social justice systems prefer the fertile worlds of J. K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, Tami Hoag, or Ursula K. Le Guin to the wokery, genderism, and other casual vulgarities of television. Enthusiastic readers watch as the 89% of funding ‘equity’ they’re denied is systemically squandered by public and academic libraries on social engineering propaganda, and those same readers have zero tolerance for ideology or identity. If libraries in social justice systems had equitable funding, committed readers would likely line up to request yet more exciting, articulate fiction.
“We are not a totalitarian state; we continue to be a democracy in more than name — but a capitalist, corporate democracy. Our form of censorship rises from the nature of our institutions. Our censors are the idols of the marketplace. . . Genuine newness, genuine originality, is suspect. Unless it is something familiar rewarmed, or something experimental in form but clearly trivial or cynical in content, it is unsafe. It must be safe. . . Shock them, jolt them, titillate them, make them writhe and squeal — but do not make them think. . . They do not want large, durable, real, frightening things.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, from “The Stalin in the Soul” (1977) in Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (1920; Bela Shayevich trans., New York: Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2020), 274-75.