But Is It True?

Thank you so much for the great questions you’ve been leaving in the comments on posts here! Your curiosity has given me a better idea of who is reading and the varied backgrounds you bring to these stories.

I’ll start with Katie’s great question on a post I made publishing a new first-person story on the death of Little Crow told by Nathan Lamson’s daughter. Katie asked, “I’m not familiar with the “rules” of historical research. What sort of credence/impact does an account like this have? On one hand, she was actually there and at an impressionable age, so she may remember well. On the other, events often develop into family legend, and this was written fifty years afterwards. How would you go about verifying which memories are accurate and which aren’t?”

I’ll tackle the last question first. Because was only sharing this story, not basing a historical argument on it, I did not investigate all of the angles I would if the story seemed key to something I was interested in. But the question still stands: when you read a story like this, how do you know if it is true?

The grave marker for Mary Elizabeth’s father, Nathan Lamson in Champlain Cemetery, Champlain, MN. According to the inscription on this marker, Lamson’s sole claims to fame were that he lived to be 96 and that he “KILLED LITTLE CROW 1863.”

First, start with the narrator: the person telling the story. You’re looking for basic information like, did this person really exist? Is there any outside evidence that she was where she claimed to be at the time she said she was there? Katie is right: stories like this one become the stuff of family legend and Mary Elizabeth, if she really was Lamson’s daughter, would have heard it over and over again even if she was born after it happened.

So I’d begin with a census check, looking for verification of basic details. Like it is reasonable to think Mary Elizabeth appears, about age four, in Lamson’s household in the 1860 Federal Census. (If you don’t have a subscription to an on-line genealogy database like Ancestry.com, your local library probably has a subscription that you can use for free at the library.)

While I had Lamson census records open, I’d also check the 1865 Minnesota or the 1870 Federal census to see if her newborn brother, Albert, survived. With a birth story so dramatic, I might find him retelling a similar story in another source. That story, in turn would help me evaluate his sister’s story. So if the story was of high interest, skipping ahead in Albert’s life to find the towns where he was living during anniversaries of the 1862 war might lead me to newspaper interviews or stories about his birth. It might even lead to an answer to the question of whether baby Albert, as a grown man in 1913, was living in British Columbia; he could have been the brother who inherited Little Crow’s gun.

If Mary Elizabeth’s basic story was panning out, in this specific case, I would turn next to historical sources about Hutchinson, looking for other first-person narratives. The stories of the siege, the fort, and of Little Crow’s death are practically origin stories for the city of Hutchinson and related stories have been avidly collected by local historical organizations. In fact, Mary Elizabeth’s story is probably not news in Meeker County, even if it is new to me.

Sometimes local stories are collected in a major publication, like a county history book. Older county histories are often available on Google Books or transcribed on local historical society websites.

But if this story was really important to me, I would not miss a research trip to the libraries of the local historical organizations in Meeker County. Local people are obsessive collectors of their own arcana. Local historical societies also keep contact information for interested researchers, who are sometimes living descendants.

The whole point is to try to uncover as many first-person stories from people like Mary Elizabeth who were there –the more stories the better. Then we can compare multiple recollections to each other, not simply rely on her story.

But even though I enjoy research, I don’t do this level of investigation on every question. As Katie asked,“What sort of credence/impact does an account like this have?” To the right person, perhaps alot. That’s why the scholars in my research circle have developed an informal habit of sharing finds like this story even if it is not central to our own research: we’ve all benefited from other people’s finds. 

But you also can’t beat being networked with other researchers with related interests. Minnesota is like a big small town when it comes to overlapping historical networks and if you haven’t found one to plug into yet, start by inquiring at a local historical society.

Like in Mary Elizabeth’s story, I thought the reference to the Cross family didn’t sound right, so emailed Curt Dahlin who is the modern incarnation of an early 20th century researcher named Marion P. Satterlee. Curt keeps a database of settler deaths and within thirty minutes, he sent me an answer: Mary Elizabeth was likely remembering seeing the bodies of Mrs. Spaud and her children.

Which leads me to a subject much closer to my own research interests: how memories are formed and transmitted over time. How did Mary Elizabeth come to believe she saw the dead bodies of people who, in fact, lived?

Kate was getting at this when she asked, “On one hand, she was actually there and at an impressionable age, so she may remember well. On the other, events often develop into family legend…” In the second part of this post, I’ll tackle how memories are made: how sincere belief can become historical “truth.”

Photo Credit: Nathan Lamson, findagrave.com contributed by Steve Niederloh, 2009.

This entry was posted in Doing Historical Research. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to But Is It True?

  1. Pingback: Children, Trauma, and Memory | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

  2. Katie says:

    This is so interesting! Thanks for elaborating.

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