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Serendipitous History

May 1, 2010

I have spent years of my life researching a lynching that occurred locally in 1901. To say the topic consumed me would be an understatement. It certainly overtook at least two rooms of my house with papers and books—even a dry erase board that was covered with interconnecting lines, names and bubbles ala CSI. I have banker’s boxes full of data stashed away in my office. The deeper I dug the stranger the event seemed to be. The strangeness was not limited to events that happened 100 years ago. Documents seemed to be disappearing. It became so frustrating that I had to keep looking; had to keep hunting for answers.

The problem was the documents related to the incident were disappearing as fast as I went looking for them. Coroner’s inquests and court documents that had been in the local court house for years suddenly weren’t there anymore. The way the county tracked land records in the community where the lynching took place changed right after the incident and all of a sudden certain things just could not be found. Plat maps of the time could be found nowhere. Inquests over the bodies of other dead Blacks from this timeframe were also gone. Being a huge fan of the tin foil hat, I immediately smelled something fishy. And I kept digging.

Almost all of the county court records for the decade before and after the lynching were absent from the courthouse. They had been sent to the state for microfilming and I was assured that when the state was finished the original documents would come right back to the courthouse. Boxes and boxes and boxes of records did come back, but two cases in particular relating to the lynching, and a man involved with it, did not. One of these case files contained the inquest over the body of the murdered white girl that sparked the lynching. These included eye witness accounts of what happened the day of the murder and the next day when the lynching occurred. I searched through dozens of boxes looking for this one case. I hounded the state, the county, local organizations looking for this one case file. It never turned up. Word got out and another local historian who had taken an interest in the lynching had managed to copy this case file years ago. He generously gave me his copies and I finally had some answers.

Just looking for old county court records is an exercise in the forensic sciences. The old court vault is a massive walk-in closet lined with monstrous books and old metal boxes that contain the original case files. You must start with an index book that weighs about fifty pounds and looks something like Santa’s list if he were to have it bound. It is so big that the court vault has a special table in it just to use the book.  I’ll call it Index #1. Index #1 is organized by plaintiff (or petitioner) in some cases and by defendant (or respondent) in others. So unless you are very familiar with Index #1 you basically have to crawl on top of this massive table and inside this massive codex and turn a couple hundred musty, dusty pages until you find the case that you are looking for. Then Index #1 gives you a super secret code which sends you to another series of books in order to find the individual case numbers. I’ll call this Index #2.

Index #2 is a series of books that are just as large as Index #1. Index #2 runs from book “A” through book “Z,” then “AA” through some other odd letter depending on the year of the case. Index #2 is organized alphabetically and by year in the individual books, which should theoretically make the cases easy to find. Oh no! Do not allow yourself to be fooled. Index #2 may or may not provide you with an individual case number or box location; it all depends on the year the case was tried. Fortunately, some county court clerk from the distant past decided that he would simplify the filing system by adding yet another index and redoing the box number filing system. So, Index #2 will either yield a case number which sends you to Index #3, or a box number that is absolutely wrong and sends you to Index #3 hoping that the case number is accurately recorded. If all else fails, you go back to Index #1 and find cases that were tried around the same time as the case that you are looking for. Then you reference Index #2 and Index #3 getting a box number and then start digging through the box; all the while hoping that the history gods are smiling down upon you.

Looking for one case file would involve a stack of books that, should they topple, would make you the historian version of Stephen Hawking for the rest of your life. If you survived the Index gauntlet then you had to climb a wooden ladder that was custom built in 1900 seven to ten feet in the air to get the steel case boxes down. These were heavy, to say the least.

Achieving peace in the Middle East is an easier, less stressful goal to accomplish. Historical research can be a full-contact sport in certain circumstances. On days when I would go to the court house I would hug my children extra long and tell them that I loved them before I left. I feared I wouldn’t make it out alive or with my sanity intact. Mommy is going to the courthouse now and Mommy loves you very much.

On the upside, I became intimately familiar with the county court’s old filing system. So when the county moved the court to a new center and announced that they were auctioning off the old shelving and boxes, I knew that I had to own one. Even if it was just to put in the garage and beat the hell out of it when I was feeling frustrated.

This morning was the auction. All of the metal shelving and boxes and filing systems were stacked upon the courthouse parking lot, their duty done. Over 100 years of local history had lived within their grasp and now they were to be sold to the highest bidder. They looked like metal apothecary cabinets with brass and copper handles and gilded painting. The county had left the original paper labels on the front of each box. I bought one at choice, and just randomly picked one that wasn’t too banged up.

When I went to load it into the truck I took the boxes out of it because it was ridiculously heavy. I noticed for the first time which one I had purchased. I stopped dead in my tracks. I had one of those Twilight Zone moments where everything ceased to exist and I felt myself sucked into the vortex of time itself. The labels on the boxes were listed by Index #3 numbers, which as I mentioned earlier I was intimately familiar with. The case number is seared permanently in my gray matter.

The missing murder case that I had spent years searching for belonged in the third box from the right, on the second row of boxes, of the cabinet that I had purchased. It is sitting in my garage waiting to be cleaned up so that I can use it somewhere in the house. I have decided not to beat the hell out of it. I think that I will put copies of the case file into the box where it belongs.


The Homestead Act – an American dream?

March 8, 2010

I have had something on my mind for a while now. In fact, I found myself lying in bed pondering it during bouts of insomnia. A Western U.S. History class and a research paper on Laura Ingalls Wilder kept the gears in my head grinding.

In 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed into law The Homestead Act. Some have hailed this as one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history. Its purpose was to turn vast amounts of public land over to private citizens. Its methods were simple. All that was required was for a person to be over the age of twenty one, head of household, pay the filing fee, build a house, and make improvements on the land. For approximately $18, anyone who met these criteria could “prove up” on and own 160 acres of “free” land. Sounds like the epitome of the American Dream, doesn’t it? A little luck, a little help from Uncle Sam, and some hard work was all it took for Jefferson’s dream of an agrarian America to be yours. And if you act within the next thirty minutes we’ll send you this amazing food chopper free!

But was the Homestead Act really that simple? Note the date it was signed into law—1862. It was a manifestation of the Northern ideology of giving away public lands. The South was quite happy with their system and opposed this idea. The Free-Soil Party from the 1840s and 1850s was a huge proponent of free land. They saw it as a means to end the expansion of slavery. Most Free-Soilers were absorbed into the Republican Party by the 1860 election. Once the Southern states had seceded there was little opposition and the Homestead Act passed Congress with hardly any dissent. Even if the South would have won the Civil War, the Act guaranteed that slavery would stay contained in the Confederacy.

Once the War ended many Americans packed up and moved west. But those pesky Indians were living on land that Uncle Sam had given to settlers and something had to be done. Besides that, there were a lot of displaced army officers who desperately needed a job. Andrew Johnson was too incompetent and Ulysses S. Grant was too drunk to pass any kind of soldier New Deal, so fighting Indians was the next best thing.

The frontier was pushed west as the tribes were pushed out. In less than thirty years the 1890 Census declared the frontier closed—the country’s population had risen high enough per square mile to blur an official line of frontier settlement. As a result, future Census would not keep track of western migration. The 1890 Census also noted that the Native American population had dropped by almost half since the 1850 Census.

What is traditionally considered the American West was once known as the Great American Desert. Everything west of Missouri was considered at one time to be uninhabitable and too arid for farming. This explains the inconsistent settlement of the western U.S with California and Oregon being settled before the Great Plains. Settlers at one time went through the traditional West to get to the Pacific Coast. However, the Homestead Act and a series of wet years turned the Great American Desert into a farming utopia. People actually migrated east as well as west to get their “free” land.

The problem was, these wet years came in cycles on the plains. It was boom or bust for most homesteaders, assuming they could break the sod up enough to plant successful crops. At first homesteading was a lonely and hard business to be in. They were quite isolated and had very limited supplies. Until the railroad came most homesteaders had only what they could carry in their wagons. Can you imagine trying to break through tough prairie grass with a small, wooden plow? What about seed? How much seed could you carry in your wagon along with your family and all of your worldly goods?

The coming of the railroad was a mixed blessing. States gave millions of acres to railroad companies as incentives to build lines. So much land was given that the railroad companies actually ended up being the largest landowners in the West. They were also given the best land, especially along track routes. This meant that most settlers had to settle miles away from a community where they could actually sell their crops.

In order to compete, newly invented equipment was required—threshers, harvesters, seeders, etc were needed for farming to be more efficient. This large equipment also meant that large loans were needed. When drought, or grasshoppers, or blizzards, or any manner of natural disaster that was quite common on the plains occurred, foreclosures and homestead abandonment were right behind them. Financial panics during the latter decades of the nineteenth century put the final nails in the coffins for many homesteaders.

Several social organizations and political groups arose out of the hardships of homesteading. The Grange started out as a social group to combat loneliness and isolation but eventually became a political group that opposed the power of railroads and eastern banks. The Populist Party wanted to restructure the nation’s entire economy to make it more “farmer friendly” during the 1890s.

What eventually happened was that railroad companies and land speculators with the money to purchase large amounts of acreage were the only ones to truly succeed under the Homestead Act of 1862. Many, many families packed up and returned east. Many farms failed because of drought and financial crisis. Census data from the early twentieth century shows a decline in the western population. Even the most famous of homesteading families failed as farmers. The Ingalls family of “Little House” fame never made a living on their homestead. Once the land had been “proven up” upon, The Ingalls family moved to town (De Smet, South Dakota) where both Ma and Pa died.

Millions of acres were granted to private citizens under the Homestead Act. Many families did make a go of it. However, many more didn’t. In later years the Act was modified to allow larger acreage, taking into account actual precipitation amounts and geographical conditions. Once again, it was land speculators and industry that took advantage of it. As a result, I would argue that it is one of the reasons that the western U.S. is the most urban part of the country. More people live in urban areas than in rural areas west of the Mississippi.  The American dream of an agrarian society, one of independence and self-sustainability as a landowner, was not the end result of the Homestead Act.

History Chick’s revenge.

January 14, 2010

In my inaugural post I mentioned my annoyance about Civil War reenactments being mostly male. I know, I know, historical accuracy and all of that. But come on, we all know that there were some women posing as men and doing some shooting back in the day. We ladies like to blow things up too. I know that there are some reenactment regiments that allow women to participate as combatants. Allow me to offer kudos to them. However most only allow women to participate as camp followers or other peripheral characters.

I wanna play too! And I don’t want to be a prostitute or a bean cooker. I already mentioned my aversion to hoop skirts. I also have already mentioned my utter fascination with fires and blowing stuff up. Frankly, I think that I would be outstanding with some black powder and the means to make it go “BOOM!”

On New Year’s Eve my partner in crime, Lisa, and I were discussing this shameful prohibition imposed on the female half of the species. We came up with an idea that would not only prove a point and raise awareness of American History, but would be fun and socially irresponsible all at the same time. We need to crash a Civil War reenactment. Obviously we can’t just show up and crash a reenactment. A bunch of people dressed in modern clothes carrying protest signs on a smoke-covered field of battle would not blend in well. It would just be dumb. We have to beat them at their own game. We have to raise an artillery regiment complete with uniforms, flag, drummer boy/girl and, well, artillery. Then we will show up, unannounced, and proceed to shoot at anything that moves.

We decided that to get people’s attention we needed to shoot live rounds. However, there are a couple of problems with this idea. First of all, Civil War replica fieldpieces are expensive and hard to come by. Second, it is illegal to shoot live rounds from a cannon at people without an official declaration of war. I really don’t think that we are ready to go that far just yet, maybe next year after we declare ourselves a sovereign nation. So we came up with the idea to build a potato cannon that looks like a Civil War fieldpiece and shoot spuds at people in the name of equal rights.

We put our thinking caps on and came up with all kinds of ideas. Should we pull out all of the stops and build a watermelon gun, or would that be considered racist? Should the drummer boy/girl use a non-traditional instrument in keeping with our theme? Lisa suggested the French horn but even I thought that was a bit much. What should our uniforms be? What should our flag say? What about a slogan? Perhaps “hos before bros” if we clarify that we are not polygamists. What would we call ourselves? I suggested “Boobknobbers,” but so far that has been black-balled.

We made entire scenarios up. We would shoot Yukon Gold potatoes until our supply lines were cut off and then we would switch to plain old russets. If we got successful maybe the U.S. government would declare martial law in Idaho in an attempt to stop us. Can’t you just imagine the look on some guy’s face as a spud exploded on the ground in front of him splattering mashed potatoes on his homespun uniform? Of course, if one of us fell in battle we would send them off with a twenty one spud salute.

I took this idea to a few of my fellow graduate students. Almost all of them seemed enthusiastic at the prospect as well as somewhat leery of felony charges. The question was asked if this type of thing would fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. I suggested only if we were drunk, smoking pipes and packing real heat. The first two are a definite possibility so we would need a requisition officer to handle that. The suggestion was made that we all wear converse tennis shoes.

However we decide to pull this off, I think it is a great idea. No one would see it coming, like Canada invading Turkey; it would be completely unexpected. No one, least of all Civil War reenactors, would expect an artillery regiment with a French horn, some potato cannons, Converse tennis shoes, and a guy holding up a boom box blaring “Seven Nation Army” ala John Cusack style to crash their party to make a political statement. So, if anyone has ANY ideas I would love to hear them. When I go, I go all out. I always say to aim high—don’t rob the convenience store, rob the bank.

Research Paper Insanity

December 29, 2009

The semester is over. The holidays are over. Hopefully I can get on with the important business of sleeping. It’s ironic that I am blogging about needing sleep when it is after midnight. I am up at midnight a lot because that is when it is quiet and I can actually get stuff done.

I end every semester the same way. I put all of my research papers off until the last day or two and then write like a crazy person. It is stupid that I do this to myself. I usually have plenty of time; I just put the writing off until I am a walking ball of stress that could explode at the slightest provocation. The trouble is once I start to write I have to keep writing until I am finished. If I start a paper and then walk away from it I have a hard time getting my groove back.

I can read and research with no problems. In fact, that is my favorite part of the whole process. I rarely take notes because I have this bizarre ability to remember just about everything I have ever read. I throw myself into the process, absorbing everything I can on whatever the topic is. This leads to an unanticipated problem; I become obsessed with my topic. I live it, breathe it, and dream about it in my sleep. I walk around mumbling under my breath like a crazy person and have actually frightened small children and the elderly in grocery stores. 

My friends and family say that I am hard to live with when I get this way. When I was an undergrad I did a research paper on the Black Death, a.k.a. the Plague. I was horrified by what I read. Massive percentages of the population wiped out; dead bodies rotting in the street because there weren’t enough people to bury them. Can you imagine the smell? Unfortunately I got sick in the middle of my research and managed to convince myself that I actually had the plague. My poor friend, Lisa, bore the brunt of that. I actually stuck my armpits in her face and demanded that she check for buboes. Luckily I was bubo-free, but it was weeks before I believed I wasn’t going to drop dead.

When I wrote The Plague Paper I was at the peak of insanity. I had read things that would make Stephen King suck his thumb and look for a “happy place.” I actually thought I had the plague. I was so sleep deprived from horror and imagined illness that I was hallucinating. When I sat down to write I looked like a mannequin that had ridden out a category four hurricane. My hair was matted, my skin was pasty, my eyes were bloodshot, I stank, and I was so jacked up on Mountain Dew that I communicated in a high-pitched shriek. Everyone just evacuated the building. My poor children, their college funds are probably going to pay for therapy.

My latest research project was an analysis of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books in comparison to Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 Frontier Thesis. I know your eyes just glazed over. I read the entire Little House series as well as over a dozen books on Wilder and Turner and consulted census data, railroad data, insect data, weather data, data data, you name it. So when it came time to write I had all of this crap scattered all over my office. My desk is a hand-me-down dining room table. I have yet to find a desk that is big enough to handle my research explosion. I like to literally surround myself with data so that my footnotes go over the top. I am a huge fan of footnotes, by the way; my own as well as those written by other people. Cite those sources because plagiarism is a bitch.

I spent weeks reading and mumbling about Laura and her stuck-up sister, Mary. I lost sleep, I ate poorly and I changed my caffeine addiction from Mountain Dew to coffee. My office got thoroughly trashed with papers and books strewn about like an academic explosion. My hair stuck out like Einstein’s, my eyes looked like a road map, I lost my voice and I started to growl at people if they suddenly approached me. I sat down to write the stupid paper just as I reached the precipice of total insanity, with only two days until it was due. For forty eight hours I moved only to refill my cup and go to the bathroom.  When the paper was finished I went to class and turned it in. Then I took the final and went to a drag show ($2 drinks!!) with friends to decompress.

I got an “A” on the paper. However, I shaved about five years off of my life. When I think of the many end of semester writing fits I have put myself through, I fear I shall not live to see old age. I’m getting too old for this crap. I need to find a better method as well as a better spell check. The older I get the worse my spelling gets. Without a good spell check program my sintenses luk lik thiis.

Viva la winter break!

My deepest, darkest secret.

December 28, 2009

The craziness of life took over and, unfortunately, I woefully neglected my blog. To atone for my absence I will share one of my deepest and darkest secrets. Brace yourself ‘cause it’s a doozey, almost like the Post Secret of history blogs.

I am in a traditional male-female marriage. I have children. My sexual orientation is straight as an arrow; although I once considered lesbianism as a wayward teenager just to piss of my parents. But even adolescent rebellion wasn’t enough of an incentive. I just don’t have it in me. There is, however, one woman who could woo me into a tryst of girl-on-girl action. I’ll be honest; there would be no wooing necessary. I would simply fall at her feet and beg her to love me.

I would switch sides for a chance at Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Who did you expect, Angelina Jolie? It only stands to reason that History Chick would have a girl crush on a woman that lived 850 years ago. Her stats are awesome: queen of two nations, duchess of one of the largest duchies in Europe, led her own army into battle, etc, etc. And, rumor has it she was hawt!

Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in 1122. Unlike other medieval girls, she was educated and multi-lingual, and recognized as the heir of Aquitaine after the death of her older brother. At the age of fifteen she married Louis VII, and was crowned Queen of France at age sixteen. Eleanor was no dummy, prior to her marriage she insisted that the Duchy of Aquitaine remain outside the French realm and therefore within her control until she bequeathed it to her heir. Aquitaine was larger and more populous than the French holdings. Eleanor could raise a larger army than the King of France and had more resources at her disposal. Louis VII was somewhat of a nimrod when it came to politics and evidence exists indicating that Eleanor was running the show.

When Louis agreed to join Conrad III of Germany on the Second Crusade, he depended heavily on Aquitaine military force. Eleanor agreed but on one condition, she would ride as the head of her Aquitainian army. (I like to think that she didn’t do it sidesaddle.) After many disagreements over military command (including a maneuver by Eleanor that saved Conrad’s ass) and a rumored affair, Eleanor and Louis returned to France via different routes.

Soon after that Eleanor requested that her marriage to Louis be annulled. The reason….well she told the Pope that she was sexually unsatisfied. The Pope insisted on watching the royal couple to see for himself. Apparently he agreed with Eleanor that Louis was lacking in that department so he granted the annulment after the birth of the couple’s second daughter.

Twelfth Century Europe was a dangerous place for women, even women of Eleanor’s position. It was the Dark Ages after all and those pesky serfs just wouldn’t stay put sometimes. Actually the nobility was more dangerous. Two attempts were made to kidnap Eleanor. Eleanor ordered, she did not request or asked politely, but ordered Henry II Duke of Normandy and heir to the English throne to marry her. Henry was about 12 years younger than Eleanor. He showed up at once and married her. Within two years Eleanor became Queen of England.

Henry and Eleanor had an interesting relationship. He tried to gain control of Aquitaine and she threatened to go to war with England. Apparently she was more satisfied with Henry than with Louis, she gave birth to at least eight children. Eventually she got tired of Henry’s philandering and packed her stuff up and went back to Aquitaine. When Henry flaunted one mistress Eleanor got even by helping three of her sons provoke a rebellion against their father. Henry imprisoned her in various abbeys for several years after that but she still maintained control of her duchy and her sons.

When Henry died Eleanor’s son, Richard the Lionhearted, ascended the throne. His first official act was to free Eleanor. His next official act was to split for the Third Crusade and leave Eleanor in charge as regent. Take that Henry! Richard was absent from England for most of his ten year reign. Eleanor did a bang-up job of ruling in his stead. In fact, she rescued Richard when he was captured and held for ransom by Leopold of Austria when returning from the Holy Land.

When Richard died, Eleanor’s son, John, became king. Poor John is known as the worst king England ever had. Part of the problem was he just wouldn’t listen to his mother. Eleanor had always taken care of her subjects during times of hunger and drought. She was a master politician and when diplomacy wouldn’t work, she threatened war. John bypassed all of this and went straight for stupid. The nobility of England responded and forced John to sign the Magna Carta; a document that was eerily similar to a code of conduct for noblewomen that Eleanor had been pursuing during the later years of her life.

During her lifetime Eleanor defied the cultural norms for her gender. She did what she pleased, when she pleased, and encouraged other noble women to do the same. She had bigger stones that most of the men in her life. She promoted music, poetry and art. She ruled two kingdoms and one duchy. She mothered the kings and queens of several European nations. She had her finger in almost every political pie of her day. And she was HAWT.

Any woman who tells a medieval pope to get her out of her marriage because her hubby needed Viagra is all right in my book. Any woman who could sit in her castle and thumb her nose at the men of Europe and have an army to back her–well that just melts my crayons. Eleanor of Aquitaine was a bad-ass to end all bad-asses. Gloria Steinem ain’t got nothing on my girl Eleanor.

I have a serious girl crush and I need a time machine.

Decisions, decisions.

October 28, 2009

I am not a big fan of academic politics. I don’t like the academic stereotype of pipes, tweed jackets with suede elbow patches and standing around at department mixers proving how smart you are to one another.

“I was a Fellow at Snob University.”

“Well I received the My Nose Pokes Higher in the Air than Your Nose Does Award for my work on the northern transcontinental railroad.”

That’s all fine and good, but can they balance their checkbooks or find their way around an old-school card catalog?

I’m all about education and reaching one’s potential. I am all about academic debate and professional camaraderie. But I hate the snobbery of publishing in the “right” journals, attending the “right” schools, and tearing one another’s research apart just to maintain your place on the academic totem pole. I’m all about love of the craft and history for history’s sake.

One of my advisors burst my happy History Chick bubble this week by asking a simple question: What are you going to specialize in? To be honest I have never given it much thought. In the past I have researched local topics because I had access to primary source documents and didn’t have to depend on some faceless archivist in some distant land. My interests are varied and I can run with just about anything that catches my fancy. I have never considered a specialty because it is too hard for me to decide on one field.

I have already received approval for my research topic. I want to study the social impact of guerrilla warfare on the trans-Mississippi west during the Civil War. I never once considered the fact that this topic would put me into a narrowly defined field; I just wanted to know what happened. My advisor advises that Civil War historians are a dime a dozen. If I want to make any money publishing, or be considered for academic employment, I will have to do what I absolutely hate to do and play the academic snobbery game. Well shit.

To add insult to injury I am almost halfway done with the program and registration for the spring semester starts next week. I need to look NOW at what I want to do. This means rearranging my schedule and finding a new research topic that fits within the parameters of the available seminars and pro-seminars and the faculty specialties. I also have to bear in mind the doctorate program I wish to pursue and whether or not I need to move to go to a school that offers my specialty. Nope, I’m not feeling any pressure or anything to make this kind of decision in less than a week. Did I mention that this bomb was dropped on me in the middle of two mid-terms, three papers and two book reviews?

Oddly enough an alternative appeared within hours of my meeting with my advisor. This new alternative would give me the opportunity to work on topics that are very personal to me. Even better, it could possibly put me at a school that I had considered before, in a location that I have always dreamed of living. History is a funny thing and now I need to see how my future in history will play out.


Things I never expected to hear a history student say.

October 8, 2009

“Lincoln couldn’t have been a Republican! Republicans would have never freed the slaves, they are capitalists.”

“Blacks would have NEVER voted for Lincoln’s party. There are no black Republicans.”

“Of course Obama is a Southern Democrat, he’s black.”

 “That Jim Crow guy sure passed a lot of laws.”

 “So THAT’S who John Brown is!”

Um, yeah.