Children, Trauma, and Memory

In Part I of this series, But Is It True?, I suggested a couple of research techniques scholars routinely use to fact-check stories. The story, in this case, is about Little Crow’s death as related by Mary Elizabeth Lamson, whose father, Nathan Lamson, and brother Chauncey, killed Little Crow on July 3, 1863.

Katie, a reader, pointed out, “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?”

Since about 1990, interest in subject of how children form memories has mushroomed; the scholarly literature has grown along with it. I’m going to ignore the journals for now and point you instead to a fascinating piece of popular literature on the shelf at your local library, The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz (Basic Books, 2008).

The book is about children, memory and recovery from trauma, making the whole book relevant if you are interested in children’s memories of the Dakota War of 1862.  Although we know them as adults at the time they told their stories, many of the most familiar narrators, like Mary Elizabeth, were children in 1862.

And if you consider the way the war shattered families –Dakota and settler alike –you’ll appreciate that many of the children of 1862 had access to very few of the resources that we now know facilitate healthy recovery from trauma.

If you have time for only one chapter, skip ahead to Chapter 7, “Satanic Panic” where the authors’ case is one you may remember in the news: the rumored “satanic ritual abuse” of children in Gilmore, Texas, in 1993. I’ll transcribe a short excerpt to give you   the flavor of the authors’ discussion:

“[N]arrative memory is not simply a videotape of experiences that can be replayed with photographic accuracy. We make memories, but memories make us, too, and it is a dynamic, constantly changing process subject to bias and influence from many sources other than the actual event we are “storing.” What we experience first filters what comes afterwards….” That is the subject of the first half of the book: the idea that the worldview children hold at the time they encounter trauma influences how they experience it and therefore how they remember it.

“[W]hat we feel now can also influence how we look back and what we recall from the past. As a result, what we remember can shift with our emotional state or mood. For example, if we are depressed we tend to filter all of our recollections through the haze of our sadness.” (Perry and Szalavitz p. 155-156)

What does this have to do with assessing the accuracy of Dakota War sources? Among other things, it suggests is that our job as consumers of history is a little trickier than we learned in that high school unit on primary and secondary sources. Privileging primary sources over secondary sources as evidence is still a great start. But even primary sources may not be not be “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” because the human mind is not a machine.

You know this is true if you’ve researched any aspect of history: you may find a dozen eyewitness to  a single event and despite the number of primary sources, find little consensus about what actually happened.

You also know this is true if you read my original post containing Mary Elizabeth Lamson’s story. She remembered seeing the bodies of Mrs. Cross and her children, who actually survived the war; the slain settlers brought into Hutchinson stockade were members of  the Spaud family.

“So what?” some may say. “We have to grant that seeing any bodies, even if they were not scalped but had been ‘simply chopped with an ax’ would have been an ‘awful sight’ for a five-year old.”

I agree. And I’d add  that it is equally reasonable to expect a child might recall those wounds more accurately than she recalled the identities of the wounded; she was only five.

But, I would press, how did Mary Elizabeth come by the knowledge that the bodies had not been scalped, but that the gore she saw was ‘simply’  attributed to bludgeoning with an ax? I hardly think that a five-year old, even on the more earthy 19th century frontier, had a CSI ready-reference for distinguishing wounds made by a knife versus an ax versus a gunshot.

If you read Mary Elizabeth’s story carefully, mentally sorting for the parts that may be fragments of her own memories of spending the greater part of her five-year-old year living in a sappling-ribbed hut in a stockade during the Dakota War of 1862, you’ll see that most of the memories presented in her story were likely influenced by other people’s experiences and stories, not just her own.

Does that make this story unreliable as a source? No. It just recognizes that this is a pretty typical source: a mixed bag of memories. A real, very human story.

Mary Elizabeth’s story is a great one to question because very little is riding on it. But consider that the lore of the Dakota war we have inherited is based on stories just like this one. If you are familiar with the story, consider your bookshelf. How many of your sources predate 1995? That’s how little the study of memory has impacted the Dakota war literature.

Almost everything we know about the war has been related to us by authors who took primary sources like Mary Elizabeth’s at face value. But worse than passing on little bits of misinformation, like the mix-up between the Spaud and the Cross families, history has transmitted major problems rising out of the confidence that memories are daguerreotypes –19th century photographs –of actual experience.

Let me invent an example: What if Mary Elizabeth’s story was a key primary source in the story of Little Crow’s death? Today we would recognize that five-year old Mary Elizabeth was not with her father and brother on the road that went by the berry patch where Little Crow and his son, Wowinape, were picking berries. On that key story within her own story, Mary Elizabeth is a secondary source, repeating family stories she was told.

There is no reason to suspect in this case, that she did not report the story in good faith. But the family story had already been filtered and polished for the consumption of women and children (her mother and siblings) –and, betting on human nature, in ways that made her father and brother appear heroic –before Mary Elizabeth heard it for the first time. So she is a primary source on her family’s story of the death of Little Crow. But there may be quite a difference between her family’s story and what actually transpired July 3, 1863 in that berry patch.

The war’s early historians were not paying much attention to interpretive nuances like these. That’s why, 150 years later, the story of the Dakota war of 1862 is new. We’re not just telling the same old stories. We are looking at the old stories in new ways.

This entry was posted in Commemorating Controversy, Doing Historical Research, Little Crow. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Children, Trauma, and Memory

  1. Carrie says:

    Katie, Thanks for asking such a great question!

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