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 ‘deselection’, is librarian 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 — which most college professors would return to a sophomore for lack of rigor and extreme bias. Sadly, the public idea of history gets hijacked routinely by popular media. By the time the racialist revision’s author was rewarded with a university teaching appointment, the Gray Lady had moved on to fashionable attire for political protests, and hipster cannibalism. Poor, abused history is simply a sequence of events, the details of which describe families’ search for safety and welfare, and response to circumstances beyond their control.
Empirical analysis exposed Red Scare self-abuse seventy years ago, and it has the same affect on the exhibitionism of self-anointed ‘progressives’: critical thinking still sorts evidence from agitprop and scholarship from propaganda. The firehose of nonsense spawned by postmodern narcissism, then nursed and amplified into brainwashing by electronic media, is relentless. But when clowns stop exploding from the Volkswagen, our descendants will likely demand an explanation of what the hell happened in the early twenty-first century. If we completely made this shit up, nobody would believe 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 distinct lines of this sketch display 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 v idiocy — Vibeke Lehmann, ed., Library Trends 59, no. 3 (winter 2011). Lehmann presents case studies of libraries in marginalized and at-risk communities around the world. Many patrons in these social justice systems prefer the fertile worlds of George R. R. Martin, J. K. Rowling, Dan Brown, or Ursula K. Le Guin to the wokery, genderism, and other casual vulgarities of television. But avid readers notice as much of the 89% of funding ‘equity’ they’re missing is squandered, by public and academic libraries, on the promotion of harmful pop ideologies. Good libraries not only exclude ideological propaganda campaigns, but provide materials patrons can use to analyze and understand them. Good libraries serve diverse communities well because they build their collections on native requests, values, and interests. Authoritarian pop-culture wankers call this inclusion. They should try it. Moving forward.