New Mexico's Gila Cliff Dwellings
The Gila Cliff Dwellings, in New Mexico, a place steeped in indigenous history (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

What is his­to­ry? sounds like a straight­for­ward question.

But to answer it, we need to use a less then direct approach, as if we were going to sneak up and cor­ner it, so it must reply honestly.

To answer the ques­tion What is his­to­ry? the best ques­tion to begin with is Where does his­to­ry come from?

This is a key point.

If I ask What is his­to­ry? most of us would reply with some ver­sion of: Every­thing that’s hap­pened in the past; or, a true and hon­est account of our past.

But how do we know what is a true or hon­est account of our past?

That knowl­edge only comes from what his­to­ri­ans write and teach.

That’s why we need to ask, Where does his­to­ry come from?

His­to­ry, with very few excep­tions, is writ­ten by peo­ple who were not alive dur­ing the times they were writ­ing about. No one alive today was there in 1898 when Ted­dy Roo­sevelt and his Rough Rid­ers helped con­quer Cuba for the U.S.

Or in 1858 for the Dred Scott Supreme Court deci­sion, which ruled that enslaved Black peo­ple were prop­er­ty, not per­sons before the law, and there­fore it was in vio­la­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion to pass any law lim­it­ing slav­ery, or pro­hibit­ing its spread; nor in 1565, for the estab­lish­ment of the first Euro­pean set­tle­ment in what became the Unit­ed States of America.

That’s why, to find out about the past, his­to­ri­ans rely prin­ci­pal­ly on pri­ma­ry sources. Pri­ma­ry sources are writ­ten doc­u­ments, pic­tures, arti­facts, any mate­r­i­al that was cre­at­ed at the same time that it is describ­ing: news­pa­pers, jour­nals, med­ical records, pic­tures and pho­tographs, gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, per­son­al let­ters or notes, record­ings when avail­able, church records.

(That’s, for exam­ple, how we know that the num­ber of brides who went to the altar already preg­nant in Puri­tan colo­nial New Eng­land was greater than in twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry New Eng­land. Sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry church records includ­ed mar­riage and bap­tism dates.)

For the most part, learn­ing from doc­u­ments and pri­ma­ry sources works well. But learn­ing about the past from pri­ma­ry sources also has its own problems.

For exam­ple, there’s a well-known pri­ma­ry source cre­at­ed by artists who came to this con­ti­nent from Europe, late in the 1500’s, specif­i­cal­ly to draw pic­tures of the indige­nous peo­ples liv­ing here. One sketch of what they observed shows natives, clothed in the car­cass­es of pre­vi­ous­ly killed deer, sneak­ing up to with­in four or five feet of unsus­pect­ing deer drink­ing at a stream “with­out fright­en­ing them.”

What are we to make of this? Most of us today with any expe­ri­ence of deer in the wild might right­ly react with puz­zle­ment, or disbelief.

Yet the pri­ma­ry source was cre­at­ed by peo­ple who were there at the time. Their pur­pose was to describe what they observed. Are we to dis­count the valid­i­ty of this 16th cen­tu­ry pri­ma­ry source because it’s not con­gru­ent with our under­stand­ing of its sub­ject – hunt­ing deer in the wild – today?

Anoth­er draw­ing from this series, titled Her­maph­ro­dites as Labor­ers, shows her­maph­ro­dite natives car­ry­ing the wound­ed and sick on stretchers.

The descrip­tion under the draw­ing tells us “Her­maph­ro­dites are com­mon in these parts. They are con­sid­ered odi­ous, but are used as beasts of bur­den, since they are strong. When­ev­er the Indi­ans go to war, it is the her­maph­ro­dites who car­ry the provisions.”

Again, what are we to make of this? Do we dis­count this six­teenth cen­tu­ry first per­son source because of our own beliefs today about the exis­tence of her­maph­ro­dites – humans with the phys­i­cal sex­u­al char­ac­ter­is­tics of men and women? How do we know whether it is accu­rate? And what about oth­er draw­ings pro­duced by the same artists? Should we doubt them also?

What we can learn from these exam­ples is that cur­rent inter­ests and beliefs always influ­ence the his­to­ry told.

Our sense of our present — what the world is like now, accord­ing to us — effects how we under­stand the past. What we see as rea­son­able, or pos­si­ble, now impacts how we under­stand pri­ma­ry mate­ri­als from decades or cen­turies ago.
Here’s anoth­er exam­ple – per­ti­nent today — from the his­to­ry of his­to­ri­ans writ­ing about Black Americans.

The most up-to-date infor­ma­tion in the 1940s and 1950s, from the most expe­ri­enced and respect­ed his­to­ri­ans of slav­ery in the Unit­ed States at the time, con­clud­ed that because the “Negro” was slow to learn, tend­ed to lazi­ness, liked to laugh and sing, was not respon­si­ble, or depend­able, enslave­ment was real­ly the best solu­tion for them. And Negroes knew that, these his­to­ri­ans concluded.

They appre­ci­at­ed their mas­ters — mas­ters who treat­ed them kind­ly, made sure they had food every day, and ade­quate hous­ing, and presents at Christ­mas time, and a safe plan­ta­tion to live on. These con­clu­sions from the 1940s and 1950s have been shown, repeat­ed­ly, by his­to­ri­ans work­ing in the last six­ty years or so, to be false, inac­cu­rate, and gross­ly misleading.

What can explain this rad­i­cal change in our under­stand­ing of Amer­i­can history?
What we see here, again, is the pow­er of our own cur­rent beliefs to influ­ence how we see our country’s past.

The his­to­ri­ans who wrote those dis­tort­ed accounts of plan­ta­tion life were men of integri­ty, hon­est­ly work­ing with pri­ma­ry mate­ri­als — and each oth­er — to uncov­er infor­ma­tion in an attempt to under­stand slav­ery in America.

But because those men — and his­to­ri­ans were almost exclu­sive­ly men then — were large­ly white, upper mid­dle class, or even patri­cian, they used only those sources that made sense to them: sources that sup­port­ed their own heart­felt cer­tain­ty that Black peo­ple were — and are — inferior.

The his­to­ry of slav­ery in Amer­i­ca has changed so marked­ly in the past six­ty or so years because the class, race, gen­der, age, and per­son­al expe­ri­ence of his­to­ri­ans has changed.

To add a per­son­al note: I remem­ber a not­ed his­to­ri­an of the Mid­dle Ages who came to our uni­ver­si­ty as a guest lec­ture in the ear­ly 1970’s Over din­ner, before his talk, he told us what he thought was an amus­ing sto­ry. One of his grad­u­ate stu­dents pro­posed to do his research on anti­semitism in Europe dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages. How sil­ly, he said; laugh­able! Of course, he told his stu­dent no.
As a young his­to­ri­an who hap­pened to be Jew­ish, I found it nei­ther sil­ly nor laugh­able; it sound­ed like an impor­tant top­ic, not to be overlooked.

The same as with knowl­edge in every oth­er field of study, his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ing is con­stant­ly being revised. We wouldn’t want to be lim­it­ed to the physics of six­ty or sev­en­ty years ago — before big screen tele­vi­sion, and the inter­net, and cell phones, inter­con­ti­nen­tal mis­siles, drones, satel­lites, and inter­ac­tive maps.

Or the phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion con­ven­tions of six­ty or sev­en­ty years ago, when girls and young women couldn’t play orga­nized sports — no girls’ bas­ket­ball, or soft­ball, or vol­ley­ball, or soc­cer. Such activ­i­ties were con­sid­ered unsuit­able for girls and young women. Why expect the nation’s schools to teach the his­to­ry of six­ty or sev­en­ty years ago, when women, peo­ple of col­or, LGBTQ+ peo­ple, and folks who worked in the trades were large­ly ignored?

All his­to­ry is revi­sion­ist his­to­ry. It’s con­stant­ly being revised and changed. That’s the only kind of his­to­ry there is. There is not, and nev­er can be, one uncon­test­ed, objec­tive, true account of history.

(An author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment may deter­mine what can and can­not be taught. But that would not make its account accu­rate, or objec­tive, or uncontested.)

What is the answer, then, to the ques­tion: What is his­to­ry? Again, it’s not the sto­ry of the past, or what­ev­er hap­pened in the past, or even what the win­ners of wars write. His­to­ry is what­ev­er his­to­ri­ans now care enough about to do research in pri­ma­ry sources, and then share their results.

About the author

David is a Literary Advocate for the Northwest Progressive Institute, reviewing books and drawing on his background as a historian to offer informed commentary about making sense of history. David has a Ph.D. and M.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania and B.A. from Brown University. After dedicating several decades to working with youth as a teacher and professor on the East Coast, he retired to the Pacific Northwest and now resides in Redmond, Washington with his spouse.

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