Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Historians - Why I Don't Always Trust Them!

I was asked something recently regarding Historians.  A follower of my blog asked me a great question. 

She wanted to know why there's so much difference in what various Historians report?  She also asked why so many Historians leave so many facts out when they write about someone or some event?

I consider myself a "Traditionalist" when it comes to researching history. Traditionalist historians are unlike Revisionist historians because Revisionists approach history in a subjective manner instead of objectively.

Because of their approach, they ignore pertinent information when researching history. The things they ignore goes against what they "feel" took place, or what they "feel" the subject was really like. And yes, Revisionist like to Monday morning Quarterback an incident and say what "should have" happened, or what they "feel" happened, without simply taking in all of the facts and simply reporting what is known for fact.

An example of this would be the way historian supporters of President Obama and Hillary Clinton view their actions, or lack of taking action, that led to 4 Americans dying in Benghazi, Libya.  Their staunch supporters say "everything was done" because they "feel" Obama and Clinton "would" do everything -- all while neglecting all of the facts of what took place.  

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I try to connect the dots of history.  I really try to be as accurate and impartial as possible while keeping things in chronological order in some way shape or form.  I also try not to have a dog in the fight, at least not until I can verify the facts.

The fact is that I see a lot of history as a mystery of sorts, especially Old West history.  Legends impress me, tales entice me, so-called "facts" call me to examine them, and yes - a great "Bull-spit Story" needs to be talked about.

I hate reading what some so-called Historians have to say when anyone reading their work can tell that they are obviously biased.  The reason I say "so-called" is because I believe that a major problem with some so-called Historians is that they can't seem to look at things without being biased.  

The problem is that some Historians take sides, they enforce a legend without examining it, they repeat things without questioning the so-called facts, they become supporters instead of simple reporters, they let their own subjective thoughts overwhelm any kind of objectiveness that they may have started out with, and yes some Historians make excuses for the person or event that they are writing about.

This is seen all the time, and especially when some of them put out information regarding the Old West. 

Lately, with all of the reading that I've been doing on Wyatt Earp, I've seen this a lot.  It seems that there are many writers out there who claim to be Historians while in reality they are not. 

Many of these so-called Historians leave out facts because those facts might not support their "position" when supporting their Hero.  Some may put in the facts but follow them up with disclaimers and excuses.

Example, lately I've read many so-called Old West Historians who have written about Wyatt Earp stealing horses.  Believe it or not, they write it off to "a mistake during his youth," or something like this which is on multiple Wyatt Earp websites on the Internet: 

"Perhaps due to distress over the death of Urilla, Wyatt gets in trouble with the law. He is accused of horse thieving in Van Buren, Arkansas. His bail is paid."

And by the way, he never paid the fine.  But facts like that don't stop some so-called Historians from re-writing History. Yes, this is how Revisionist historians operate.  Many of these Revisionist historians are Wyatt Earp fans -- so subsequently they act as supporters and conveniently leave out the fact that Wyatt Earp was not only sued for embezzlement as a Constable and later he was in fact arrested as a horse thief and escaped from jail.

Many so-called Earp Historians leave out that after Wyatt Earp escaped jail for being a horse thieve by climbing through the roof of the jailhouse, that he then he fled to Peoria, Illinois, where he was arrested multiple times for being a Pimp.

These so-called Historians somehow always seem to leave out that Wyatt Earp then moved to Wichita, Kansas, where even though he joined the Wichita Marshal’s office -- he also operated a brothel.  

Of course the best example of bias is the whole James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok myth.  There are so many books that "celebrate" his life, and his so-called adventures, instead of giving readers a really accurate unvarnished look at the man -- good or bad. 

It seems that much of what is written, is written by people who insist that they're non-biased -- when in fact they are extremely biased.

I'll tell you what I use as a gauge to tell whether a book on Wild Bill is going to be objective or not.  It has to do with an incident that I looked into many years ago.  It is the McCanles Massacre that took place at the Rock Creek Station near what is today Fairbury, Nebraska, in 1861, when Hickok was a stock tender there.  This occurred when Hickok was just a kid hired to tend the livestock at the stage station.

It is where Hickok shot and killed unarmed David McCanles from behind a curtain, and then went about killing two other unarmed men who were with McCanles.  Hickok even helped to hack them to death with a hoe, but that is conveniently forgotten. 

Of course if Hickok had caught David McCanles' son Monroe, who had run away from being slaughtered, we would have never known about the massacre.

Many Hickok Historians still write exactly what a Dime Novelist for Harper's Monthly wrote back in the 1860s years after the murder took place.  So-called Historians still to today relay the story of a so-called "McCanles Gang" and a bloody fight to the death where Wild Bill suffered a half dozen stab wounds and 11 gunshot wounds.

According to the story, Hickok single-handedly killed ten "desperadoes, horse-thieves, murderers, and cutthroats" known as the "McCanles Gang".  And yes, it was reported as "the greatest one man gunfight in history". During the battle, Hickok supposedly armed with a single pistol, a rifle, and a bowie knife, was shot 11 times. At least, that's how his bull-spit story went.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok claimed he had killed eight or ten or twelve members of the "McCanles Gang" depending on when he told the yarn, and how much booze he had under his belt. He would relate to anyone interested in listening to his side of the story, that he killed two of the gang in a knife fight -- right after he had suffered the 11 gunshot wounds.

According to Hickok, "I remember that one of them struck me with his gun, and I got hold of a knife, and then I got kind o' wild like, and it was all cloudy, and I struck savage blows, following the devils up from one side of the room to the other and into the corners, striking and slashing until I knew every one was dead."

Later, after the Harper's Monthly story came out, Hickok decided to make use of his new notoriety and changed his name after this incident.  After growing a mustache to hide his protruding upper lip, which was why he was known as "Duck Bill," Hickok changed his name to "Wild Bill" instead of "Duck Bill" as Nebraska Court Records have him listed.

And just for the record, after James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was shot in the head by 23 year old Jack McCall in Deadwood - none of the supposed 11 gunshot wounds or multiple stab wounds were found on Hickok's body.  It was all a lie.   

So for me, if a some so-called Historian, Old West or otherwise, writes about how there was something called a "McCanles Gang," I automatically throw their book into a garbage can.

After all, if I can't trust writers, who claim to be Historians, to get such a simple to prove incident correct - then how can I trust them to get other things right.  How can I trust any writer to get things right, if he or she can't get the easy facts right? 

And what happens when it comes to things that may need a lot more research?  Will they just conveniently omit the things that don't fit or don't support their conjecture?  It seems at time that some writers would rather conveniently leave things out instead of having to explain them.

And by the way, I can't help but wonder how many so-called Historians simply go with what's already been written by someone else, and maybe use what was already written without even asking if its true or not? 

So why is there so much difference in what various Historians report?  Why do so many so-called Historians leave so many facts out when they write about someone or some event? 

Well imagine for a moment that you're an Historian, and you're doing a book trying to show a heroic Wild Bill Hickok.  Would you want the following information to be known?

John Burwell "Texas Jack" Omohundro was a genuine frontier scout, who later joined the famous William "Buffalo Bill" Cody on a Chicago stage as the stars of Ned Buntline's melodrama "The Scouts of the Prairie." Texas Jack was actually a Virginian who served with the Confederate Army during the Civil War, fought Indians in Texas, and who drove Texas Longhorn cattle to North Platte, Nebraska.

Texas Jack met Buffalo Bill Cody there in Nebraska in 1870.  Buffalo Bill persuaded Texas Jack to become a scout at nearby Fort McPherson.  The two scouts resigned in the fall of 1872 after getting the offer to go on stage.  The melodrama "The Scouts of the Prairie" was a big success, and they took the action-packed act on the road to just about everywhere.

In 1873, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack began starring in a similar melodrama called "The Scouts of the Plains."  This was a continuation from their first big hit.  They were joined for a short time by another frontier legend, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, who had a lesser role.  

So why did Wild Bill Hickok have a lesser role?

Well, it was reported at the time that it was because Wild Bill, the legendary frontier marshal and so-called Prince of the Pistoleers, had "a voice like a girl."

So now, if you were an Old West Historian, imagine your dilemma for a moment. Here you are, writing away, using what the legend says about Wild Bill Hickok as your outline. 

You feel great knowing that many many other so-called Historians have repeated the story of the dreaded "McCanles Gang" and their viciousness, so you write about that as well.  And of course you write with enthusiasm about Hickok's many supposed adventures, his supposed knife fights, gunfights, gambling, being town marshal, confronting John Wesley Hardin, and of course his killing hundreds of Indians -- those savages. 

Then out of the blue you come face to face with the choice of either using -- or not using -- the fact that the newspapers and Buffalo Bill Cody was reported to have said that Wild Bill Hickok had "a voice like a girl."   So what do you do?

Let's say that you're vision of Wild Bill is one of a rugged frontiersman with a gruff whiskey sounding voice barking orders to his many opponents.

"Make your move, or hand over your guns! Draw and die, you varmint!" -- the great dialogue of the "The Scouts of the Plains."

Then your image of Wild Bill is shattered because you find out that he sounds like a girl. All of a sudden, Wild Bill has a different sound when he's shouting "Draw!" 

He all of a sudden sounds like your sister when she was 10 years old, and you remember what she sounded like when she was trying to be forceful.   You laugh at the memory.

For a writer, especially one that is trying to depict his hero as a testosterone dripping man's man, this revelation could be a problem.

Wow, what do you do if you have been one of those Revisionist historians who has placed Wild Bill on a pedestal and has been in the forefront of furthering his legend of being this rugged whiskey voice frontiersman, a tough as nails man's man, a man whose supposed mere presence was enough to supposedly make men shake with fear?   Him sounding like a girl certainly doesn't help you does it?
From what I've seen, if some so-called historian was writing a book trying to make Hickok appear heroic, then most likely they'd conveniently leave out certain things.  I really think that Hickok being a back shooting bushwhacker and his having "a voice like a girl" would probably be left out. 

Truth or not, it probably wouldn't help the author sell his books.  And friends let's be honest here, in most cases, like with the Dime Novelist of years gone by  -  it's all about what sells. 

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. I very much agree with what you've written here. I find that many of the biographies of the legendary western figures were written at the time (1870-1900) by people that held a stake in selling the stories (Ned Buntline, Prentiss Ingraham, etc.) and then later by "fans" of the heroes they had grown up idolizing.
    It is increasingly hard to separate fact from fiction in regards to Wild Bill, who used much of the exaggeration written about him for his own benefit, and then died as a result of the notoriety that exaggeration ensured. Buffalo Bill Cody falls into the same camp, largely because it was in his best financial interest to allow men like "Arizona John" Burke and Prentiss Ingraham to ascribe to him a larger than life version not only of the things he had actually accomplished (buffalo hunting and scouting at Fort McPherson) but of the things that had happened to others around him (encounters with Tall Bull or Buntline's use of the McCandles Gang stories about Wild Bill in his dime novels about Cody).
    I am working on a book about "Texas Jack" Omohundro, and pulling back the layers of misinformation and frontier story spinning about the people he shared the trail and stage with is a kind of historical/literary archeology. After reading this, I immediately went back to my Wild Bill Hickok chapter (Hickok not only starred with Cody and Omohundro in the Scouts of the Plains, he encouraged Omohundro to travel north into Nebraska when he met Jack in Hays, Kansas during one of Omohundro's cattle drives) to ensure that I didn't spread the old McCandles lie. Happily, I have a much more accurate version of the events at Rock Creek Station.
    Many historians, especially of the Wild West era, seem to fall into the mindset of the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which is also written on the wall of the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."


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