The William Watts Folwell Papers

In 1922, corresponding with Minnesota historian William Watts Folwell, Thomas A. Robertson mused, “This writing of history is of course a very particular and tedious work, but it seems sometimes that they catch too much at mere hearsay matters and try to make history of it.”

I love Folwell’s papers, which reside in the temperature and humidity controlled bowels of the Minnesota Historical Society. So much so that I spent two of the best research years of my life reading through all 123 boxes. That’s 50 cubic feet of holographs (handwritten originals), three-quarters of it handwriting; the other quarter in Folwell’s cast iron type writer type.

I guess a purist might quibble about whether a typewriter can produce a holograph. But between the typewriter’s idiosyncrasies and Follwell’s quirky operator errors, I recognize a Folwell typescript on sight in other collections, kind of like bumping into a dear old friend at the grocery store.

William Watts Folwell 1833-1929

I am no William Watts Folwell. I’m already nine years older than he was when he became the President of the University of Minnesota. And I’m nowhere near retirement age, when Folwell took up writing his seminal four-volume A History of Minnesota. I have no desire to crown my career as the President of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Most people access Folwell’s work via his books. Connoisseurs know the best part of his books are his notes and appendices. But Folwell was humble. Unlike some of the luminaries of Minnesota history, he didn’t purge his papers before donating them to the Historical Society. Folwell left us every last scrawl in the notebooks he habitually carried in his pocket just in case he ran into someone of note to interview. He left us the pencilled notes he took as he read books and the jottings he made on the backs of the receipts which came to hand after his car overturned in a ditch on a rutted dirt road in out-state Minnesota.

In Folwell’s case, historians have it all. It’s a nauseating amount of  “all” if you hope to find a Cliff Notes version of a controversial story. But it is a wonderful amount of “all,” if like me, you’d like to figure out which sources were available to Folwell and the process by which he drew his conclusions.

Folwell began each of historical inquiry, as all of us do, with a “mere hearsay matter.”  He chased down rabbit trails of clues through the thickets of history and frequently found himself  stuck. So he’d do something else, like write a newsy letter to one of his children or go for a long walk in one of the Minneapolis parks he so loved.

Sometimes he’d send out an SOS to a comrade like Return Ira Holcombe or  to a main-stay informant like Samuel J. Brown — a letter in which Folwell confessed his trademark comment, “I’m up a stump.” I imagine Madrecita (his term of endearment for his wife) must have brought food and water there, because at the rate mail traveled in that day, Folwell would stay treed for weeks before help arrived in a letter in reply.

Other times Folwell simply tabled an inquiry until something new turned up. He dogged some stories for decades before finding a break-through source or simply accumulating enough small clues to render an opinion.

But what really earns Folwell my admiration is that he changed his mind. His aim was not to proof-text a hearsay matter, but to root out as much of the story as he could find.

If our ideas do not change along the way of doing history, then we are not really doing history, simply using it for our own ends.

Folwell sometimes used his power of storytelling –or rather, his power to refrain –to protect people. He chose not to publish some of his best stories to shield the reputations of men he admired and whose lives were enmeshed with his own. But Folwell preserved evidence in his papers he might have taken with him to his grave. Thanks to the stories Folwell left buried in his papers, some things hearsay matters no more.

Other things are still a matter of period hearsay. But how many other historians collected hearsay like jewels, just waiting to encounter someone who might supply the setting that pulled the tiny diamonds together? Folwell did, leaving us a broad sampling of what people believed to be true on some pretty sensational subjects for which factual proof is still outstanding.

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One Response to The William Watts Folwell Papers

  1. Pingback: A Fable Agreed Upon, part 2 | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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