lizcommotion: A black-and-white photo of a Victorian woman (victorian lady)
[personal profile] lizcommotion
I was talking to [community profile] altamira today about various and sundry historical things, including how peoples' descendants try to scrub the historical record of things that are considered offensive or scandalous. this got us talking about historical sources and sources in general, and so now you get a (minor) history-research-meta linkspam.

one of the reasons I feel people should hire more historians is that good historical methods training teaches you to find information and also teaches you to assess the inherent biases of all information and use the biases to your advantage. in the so-called Information Age, where we're hit with a firehose of social media and data, I would think having employees who could help sift through that data and/or locate some specific information for you would be invaluable. but, you know, maybe that's just me.

(what follows will be primarily US-centric, as despite my interest in global history, my experience actually studying history has been in the US)

unfortunately, mostly you don't get to the cool historical methods things until upper level history major courses, which means you had to enjoy the stuff enough to get there. social studies teachers are trying to change this, but with the focus on STEM and cuts to school funding social studies teachers are often the ones who don't actually have upper-level training in their field (sorry that I have lost my citation for this). so instead we teach students to memorize facts, as opposed to question facts that are presented and form their own opinions based on evaluating primary sources. the second would form a much more educated electorate, know, perhaps there are other motivations for underfunding social sciences? or perhaps it's a fear of a challenge to American Exceptionalism. anyway, I digress.

if you are interested in learning how historians know what they know, here are some good sources:

Examples of Critical Reading
How to Read a Primary Source
How to Read a History Book
A Layperson's Reading List in American History

Some high school teachers are discussing sources and teaching methods on twitter under the hashtags #sschat and #hsgovchat

there are way more sources, but I am trying to not dive into a full fledged rabbit hole at the moment.

However, I will share a personal experience of my own morning's research rabbit hole, complete with internal meta analysis of sources, the order in which I found them, etc. You should know that it deals with white people I may be related to murdering Native Americans in the Ohio Valley, so. If you need to skip this, totally do that. I will try to post a different research rabbit hole that is an easier to read at another point.

I (probably -- there is adoption involved which makes things complicated) have an ancestor who murdered Native Americans and started a race war. Along with some border wars. His wikipedia page -- along with others that are related -- seem to have been scrubbed of all but the "amusing" anecdotes since I last checked it, and the citations are sorely needed. I am pretty sure it's someone from the possibly-defunct genealogy association, since their statement "refutes the calumny" that ancestor was even present. Calumny!

My (possible) ancestor is Thomas Cresap, a British settler involved in the Revolutionary War (hero!) who -- whether or not he was involved in the Yellow Creek Massacre -- did actively displace tribes from their lands and actively push to expand settlements further west. The war in question is Lord Dunmore's War, which was sparked by the (fairly brutal -- super tw's if you look it up) murder of "Chief Logan's" family in 1774. The reason I use air quotes is because both Chief and Logan are probably names used by white people, and the name he used is also in question. His tribal affiliation is often given as "Mingo", which is also in question as to "what did people actually call themselves" and yes. I am not linking to the events in question because I do not have good links, and the ones I do have are pretty bad history and have terrible descriptions of basically war crimes.

Here are several conflicting sources, each with their own agendas.

Mount Vernon has a page about him, which primarily discusses his involvement with George Washington and the Revolutionary War. This could be to protect Washington's reputation and their source of revenue, or simply because their sources are from 1901 and 1944.

Mount Vernon also does *not* mention a land dispute between Washington and Cresap's heirs that lasted into the 1800s, which is documented in the national archives in primary sources. (Kind of juicy actually -- Washington felt had claimed the land and Cresap just took it, which ... seems to be a pattern, because I think he's also got into state land-border wars that ended up with the Mason Dixon Line. The Governor of Virginia gave Washington a grant to the land in 1784 -- possibly because he was a war hero, though it was before his presidency. So he may or may not have had a more legit claim. Requires way more research than I want to do right now.)

Meta Thoughts: Mount Vernon tends to flatter Washington; has shitty documentation; leaves out kind of an important interaction; is therefore an unreliable source. The fact that they left out Cresap's possible involvement in the Yellow Creek massacre and definite involvement in border disputes with Native Americans hints at the fact that other people may also choose to do this.

The National Park Service also has a page about an archaelogical dig they are doing to find the fort that was important for the Revolutionary War. It cites actual primary sources from the revolutionary war (mostly about what it's like to stay at the cite) and has more general information, lending it credibility. There is zero mention of the massacre, although they do point out that he worked with a different Native American to make a trail further west for more settlements. This may be because they're also having trouble verifying the events of the Yellow Creek Massacre, or it's because their funding is hard to secure as it is and they don't want to piss anyone off. Or scare of visitors. Or because he was not actually involved, you know.

Meta Thoughts: what they say about the archaeology and landscape is probably legit. I would not trust anything they say about Cresap's reputation without further evidence from other verified sources.

I'm having trouble finding the text of Logan's speech or Thomas Jefferson's article about it (at least, that's not on someone's geospace blog). However, there is a contemporaneous response to it sent to Thomas Jefferson at the National Archives website. I don't recognize the name of the author (Luther Martin), so I don't have a lot of initial background about his interests. He calls Native Americans "savages" which is not unusual for the time, but does reveal his biases. He demands hard facts about the accusations against Col. Cresap, because...ah! his wife was Cresap's daughter, and his own daughters -- who presumably must find husbands -- are descendants of Cresap's. So, totally biased and racist, but that does not mean his judgement of Cresap's character is untrue even though I kind of hate the author of this letter as it reminds me of every MRA screed ever.

The footnotes (! footnotes!) of this letter lead me to the footnotes of another archives letter, which appear to explain the whole scenario and are annotated. This is probably the best I am going to get unless I go digging in an archive myself. After getting a bunch of crap about not responding to Luther Martin, Jefferson finally did some research of his own and responded that: Col. Cresap was not involved in the Yellow Creek Massacre; his son, Michael Cresap, was involved in killing other Native Americans in the area *before* the Yellow Creek Massacre and had considered going.

Meta Thoughts: I still kind of suspect this particular source, because of its use of the passive vs active voice in these sentences. Consider: "he was the leader of a group that had...killed other Native Americans not long before the Yellow Creek incident and had considered attacking the Mingos there (White, Middle Ground, 357). Although the evidence in the Appendix indicated that Michael Cresap was not involved in the actual killings at Yellow Creek, TJ gave fresh currency to a longstanding imputation that he bore responsibility for the events that precipitated the war."

Also, given that this source only uses "Mingo" as a tribal designation and never mentions the words "Iriqois" or "Oneida", I am going to consider it heavily biased from a White People Gaze.

Which is to say -- Luther Martin cleared Cresap of killing Indians at Yellow Creek in a way that was very graphically described and brutal and publicized, but it's totally legit that he would accidentally kill Indians when he thought war had already started. (Sadly, this probably was clearing his name at the time.)

If you are to delve into the weird online world that is researching this "incident", you will also find weird gross blog posts like this one by a lady who wants to help people reclaim their lost Native Heritage who yells at people trying to explain appropriation to her. You will also find posts by people claiming to be descended from Logan via a daughter who escaped.

tl;dr To get a more wholistic view on this, I would probably contact the resource room at the National Museum of the American Indian and ask about sources from the Iriquois perspective. (And also, what term is better than "Mingo" but more specific than Iriqois, which is a huge umbrella term.) Honestly, there may not be that many surviving records because historical whitewashing, but that is where I would go to make a start. Probably it is where I will go when I have email spoons.

Meta tl;dr thoughts: Whether or not these people are my ancestors, their individual actions in the Yellow Creek Massacre (and surrounding murders) are not of ultimate importance in judging character. The "did they or did they not" is something that we may not know, because an event that was so controversial becomes buried in conflicting accounts. However, being a leading figure in pushing the boundaries of European settlement westward is ultimately just as destructive, if not more so. I am sure that they did what they thought was right. I'm also not entirely sure Cresap was motivated entirely by racism -- he did pull a land grab from George Washington, ferfucksake. I will own, however, that my (probable) ancestor -- by dint of his large part in history -- played a large part in the shitty treatment of Native Americans.

Personal reflection: My dad has fortunately mostly abandoned his own cultural appropriation myth, which is a relief. I am trying to spend some spoons on activism around tribal issues and Native American diversity in YA/other lit. Because I really can't control whatever this dude did, but I can control me.

Anyway, that is what my historian internal thought process looks like, and in this case what it looks like when it's something related directly to me (and also hella gross historical racism that there is a "perspective" on but not an exoneration, iykwim).

Sorry, just a drive-by bugbear

Date: 2016-03-30 07:20 pm (UTC)
anke: (Default)
From: [personal profile] anke
I see no passive voice in that paragraph you quoted for it. e.g. "A had killed B" is past perfect (active). Passive would be "B had been killed [by A]".

Re: Sorry, just a drive-by bugbear

Date: 2016-04-10 12:27 pm (UTC)
anke: (Default)
From: [personal profile] anke
mhm, "incident" I'm sure is more neutral than it should be, for example.

Date: 2016-03-30 08:02 pm (UTC)
spiralsheep: Orac says, "No." (chronographia Computer Says NO)
From: [personal profile] spiralsheep
we teach students to memorize facts, as opposed to question facts that are presented and form their own opinions based on evaluating primary sources

Over here that agenda is being pushed not only by people who want less educated social under classes as cannon fodder (figurative and literal), but also by businessmen such as Rupert Murdoch who want to profit from education by reducing it to yes/no/multiple choice questions so the teaching and marking can be automated (this isn't a conspiracy theory, this is what Murdoch's business planners are proposing and lobbying politicians to implement). It's a win/win for the ubercapitalists: monetising the children of the underclasses during compulsory education and then exploiting their lack of education post-schooling.

Date: 2016-04-01 09:47 pm (UTC)
silveradept: A kodama with a trombone. The trombone is playing music, even though it is held in a rest position (Default)
From: [personal profile] silveradept
Ah, the process of information gathering and source evaluation. It's the same stuff I learned in library school, although I don't have the specialization to be able to immediately pick out credibility issues.

This is a nice look inside your thought processes. Thanks!

Date: 2016-04-02 03:27 pm (UTC)
jesse_the_k: From "Hamilton" the key phrase "Everything is Legal in New Jersey" (HAM NJLegal)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
Thank you for demonstrating this process.

I am daily boggled by people who count on the first page of a Google search and Wikipedia as their only sources. I guess Wikipedia depends on people like you to be boggled so much that you'll edit the entry. That's not a process which guarantees any utility.


lizcommotion: Lily and Chance squished in a cat pile-up on top of a cat tree (buff tabby, black cat with red collar) (Default)

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