Monday, December 24, 2012

The Ordinary Frustration/Pleasure of Research

A couple of weeks ago I started looking at a variety of records trying to figure a mystery. According to contemporary accounts, when the saints left Cane Creek following the massacre, there were a little more than 20 people that joined the group immigrating  from Chattanooga. But all my attempts have yielded up a list of 16 people, pieced together from a number of different sources.

I looked at census records for 1880 in Cane Creek, Tennessee, and 1885 in Conejos County, Colorado. I combed newspaper reports, missionary letters, and journals. I reviewed family histories with a more critical eye and found errors I had missed before. I was even given two new stories written by the children of a couple of the immigrants.

To make a long story short, I think I found what I was looking for. I had taken one family [Pleasant and Martha DePriest] and placed them in the March 1883 immigrant group based on the description in one of these family histories. Upon further inspection I found that this particular family history played a little fast and loose with the facts. They wrote stories in the first person, and manipulated events to make the story sound good, not to mention poor editing which made for some bad dates.

[begin rant] If your first person story says John and Elizabeth Lancaster brought their three children to Colorado, I would certainly want spend some time trying to figure out where the other two children were. Did they pass away unexpectedly? Were they left with relatives in Tennessee? But if your first person story was actually written over a hundred years later, I have no way of knowing what you based the number of their children on. Poor research? a wild guess? or do you have evidence I  don't?  [/end rant] 

So a newspaper article implied that Pleasant DePriest left Cane Creek after the shooting, and the family history said he left before. All things being equal, the family history should have been the better source. Additional family histories make it clear that Pleasant & Martha were not in the March 1883 group. Not all family histories are equal. Some make more mistakes than others. This particular one has shown it has many mistakes.

I feel for the author. I know there are several errors in most of the works I have written. I found a big one just last week that I should have caught in one of the first 20 times I had proof read it. Occupational hazard. It is likely she found the same mistakes I did, only she probably found them after publication. I'd love to ask her, but she passed away in 1997. My finding errors is part of the frustration and pleasure of research. Frustration because, I wish it were all perfect, but I know it will never be. Pleasure because successfully sorting out conflicting data has no equal.

So I'm adding Pleasant and Martha DePriest to the November 1884 immigrant list, along with their three children: Sarah, William, & Mary. That brings my total to 21, certainly matching contemporary reports.


Amy said...

That sounds a bit like the Slave List project I'm doing, but I haven't gotten down to that level of nitty-gritty detail yet.

Good detective work!

Ardis said...

And so many people think there's nothing to writing history! "Just go to the library and look it up in a book," they say. Or as one man suggested recently when he tried to figure out what I do, "So you take what everybody else has written and put it together in new words?"

I love the blogging format the way you use it, Bruce, recording your reasoning and the steps you take, including the occasional necessary back-steps.

BruceCrow said...

Thanks to both of you. I've seen both of your work and I know you understand even better than I do its not just copying what other people do and putting it in your own words. There is plenty of nitty-gritty to do.