Memories of Memories

In my introduction to Historical Musings I described history as memories, most often memories of memories. So-and-so remembers hearing from their grandmother that she heard that her great-grandfather had committed Such-and-such an act in the year 18xx, and of course So-and-so’s grandmother thinks she read about it in the family bible which, unfortunately, washed away in a flood in the year 19yy…

It is an axiom of professional historians that every factoid must be gleaned from three independent sources for it to lose its wanna-be status and become accepted fact. Or perhaps at least it used to be, before everything—fact and fiction—was committed to the Internet, most of the time without source attribution. Since then source independence has gained the status of an oxymoron.

But as you go back to the day, in the history of the Pacific Northwest, when mail was carried by snail (or canoe) and people used to actually write things down and look each other in the eye when they talked to one another, the sources of stories were a little more obvious and/or verifiable. Add in a soupçon of contemporary, working historians and you may find some of the “realest” facts available to us. At least, in their reporting, you can usually judge how old the information is, and thus how many memories it may have gone through; whether the account is an eyewitness one; and how likely it is that the writers may be describing something they heard from each other. I am of course referring to many of the “giants” of the era and locale, including William P. Bonney, Edward Huggins, Elwood Evans, Thomas W. Prosch, Herbert Hunt, H.K. Hines, William Fraser Tolmie, and the like.

Then there were the letter-writers and journal-keepers of the time, people like Joseph Heath, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee who farmed the Nisqually plain for four years and recorded his daily activities and trials in detail.[1] There were Nisqually Valley pioneer Daniel Mounts and his sons, who assiduously kept and preserved daily records of their labors, their businesses, and their family tribulations for later generations. Joel Myers, who filed a donation land claim[2] for the Nisqually land that later would belong to the Mounts family, and after them, the Bragets, kept a ledger of his daily business as a buyer and seller of goods and services (including loaning of the wherewithal) that listed the names of his clients, white and Indian, and, in many cases their hat and shoe sizes. So many of those names went unrecorded anywhere else.[3]

And finally there were the latter-day historians, who reached back in time through oral histories of their aging relatives to lay their memories out for other family members and the world at large. People who researched and preserved their family histories, like Delbert and Albert (Bud) McBride, descendants of the Mounts clan headed by Illinoian Daniel and his half-Indian, half-Scots wife, Catherine. Del’s interviews of his Aunt Ruby, Daniel’s granddaughter who knew her grandfather for twelve years and Catherine for another twenty-nine, provide wonderful eye-witness accounts of multi-racial life on the biggest farm in the valley, late in the 19th Century. And with his partner, Richard Schneider, Bud McBride preserved Del’s work after his death and added to it a significant collection of family and regional artifacts from that time.

Finally, there are the records, the trove of names and numbers that was created at the time of the events: donation land claim files, filled out by the pioneers themselves; census lists; sales and tax receipts; birth and death notices (though not often available); legal documents; and newspaper accounts of those events significant enough to be judged as of public interest. Such accounts, of course, bring up the question of selective perception: what roles do an author’s biases—political, racial, social, religious—play in what is reported, and how?

These are the sources we have to work with—yes, memories and interpretations all, but ones much closer to the original, if you will, ones less contaminated by the passage of time and secondary revisions by later, more distant authors.

Let us use them to create new memories.


Preview: The Germans are Coming, Part 1 A thirty-something immigrant from Prussia drowns in the Nisqually River. Why? Who was he? How did he get there? Read on…

[1] Heath took up residence at Nisqually one year before Michael T. Simmons, George Bush, James McAllister, and others defied Hudson’s Bay Company hegemony by establishing the first American settlement in the region, near the falls on the Deschutes River at “New Market” (now Tumwater). Spanning the years 1845-1849, a single volume of Heath’s diary was rescued from oblivion not once but twice, first in 1930 by a distant relative of Heath’s and then in the 1970s by local historian Lucille McDonald. It has been published as Memoirs of Nisqually (Ye Galleon Press, 1979). Heath died in 1849. Western State Hospital now occupies the site of his farm.

[2] With the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, the U.S. government offered free land in Oregon Territory, including all the area west of the Continental Divide and north of the 42nd parallel. Driven by the doctrine of manifest destiny, the DLC Act was one of several land-grab tools that the government employed to populate the west with Americans while at the same time divesting earlier inhabitants—the Native Americans and the British—from their holdings.

[3] The primary purpose of Myers’ ledger was to record his business transactions as he bought, sold and bartered produce, animals, provisions, implements and labor with his neighbors and with nearby merchants in Steilacoom and Olympia. But for the historian, it contains a wealth of information about his life and times. The ledger, which deserves a chapter of this blog all its own, resides in the collection of the Washington State Historical Society.