Paul Andersen: The facts and myths of a historian
“History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn’t there.”
The cynic who made that declaration was probably miffed at being misquoted and having his name misspelled. That’s why he was identified as “Anonymous” in the quote I found while looking for clarifying views on history.
It should come as no surprise that quotable sages denigrate history as a disservice to the truth. It probably wasn’t their version that was recorded.
If “history is a distillation of rumor,” as Carlyle suggested, then most of recorded history rises from the rumor mill. Not everything can be cross-referenced and fact-checked.
History isn’t found in neat rows of figures on an accountant’s ledger. It is pieced together in shards, mosaics, jigsaw puzzles. As a writer of history in more than a dozen local books, I have felt like a prospector finding gold with every story revealed.
In “Elk Mountains Odyssey,” a history of the West Elk Loop (1998), the following tale was almost excised because it was considered more myth than fact:
“A legend dates since the earliest explorers in the Crystal Valley of a man falling into the Devil’s Punchbowl on Schofield Pass. The man apparently plummeted from an old trail 1,000 feet above, and his remains were never found. It was surmised that the man had dismounted, secured his horse to a tree, and fell to his gruesome and solitary end. The only evidence of his death was the skeleton of his horse, still tethered to a tree near the trail.”
I argued that myth is entertaining, so we kept that story in the manuscript. I made the same argument with the following gem:
“At the turn of the 20th century, Ed Gift of Janeway (up the Crystal from Carbondale) was arrested by a game warden for possession of a haunch of poached deer. Gift was hauled off for trial in Aspen. On the way, Ed and the warden spent the night in Carbondale. The wagon was put up at Hugh Pattison’s shop.
“Pattison was a friend of Gift’s and, in the night, he took the deer haunch down to the local butcher shop and matched it as closely as he could with a veal haunch, swapping the two. Ed was advised of the switch, claimed his innocence at trial, and was let off.
“Back in Carbondale, Ed asked Pattison what became of the evidence. Pattison laughed and rubbed his tummy. ‘What do you suppose, Ed, what do you suppose?’”
Here’s another somewhat vague historical footnote I was determined to keep in the text:
“In 1881, John Mobley moved to the junction of the Crystal River and Avalanche Creek where he started a small settlement known as Mobley’s Camp. He and his wife and two children had come over Schofield Pass from Crested Butte the year before.
“On their trip over the pass, Mobley’s children rode inside the panniers of a burro. In the Devil’s Punchbowl the burro spooked and ran off. The animal was finally stopped far down the trail by William Woods, an old miner who never forgot his freak encounter.”
While rumor and hearsay are passed off as “lore,” they remain part of an interpretive historic dialogue. Folklore is a translation of real events and real people into the imaginative language of storytellers. Whether it’s true is immaterial to the entertainment value of a good yarn.
“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” asked Napoleon, who must have wished Waterloo were a fable. Fake news may one day fall under the same parameter of fables that are told again and again until they are deemed facts.
Historical research unfolds slowly, by digging diligently, by sifting through endless documents and resources. Many hours have I spent hunched over the microfilm viewer at Pitkin County library paging through out-of-print newspapers no one had read in decades.
What emerges are glimmers of the past leading to dim trails begging exploration through a solo journey into a world long gone and lost from living memory. Gradually, a composite beings to form, a rare glimpse through the rear view mirror of time.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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