Why Historians Sigh

I do history, which some maintain is a science but others assert is an art. It is both, I believe, and I lean a bit toward the latter. And then there is myth-busting, which is sometimes impossible. We try. That’s our job.

I’ve been at this for a long time and have been down many a rabbit hole; history is like that. Historians search for primary sources, documentation from the time in question, placement in context. The more elements to draw upon, the better, even while taking into account the possibility of error. I am always happy, for example, to find newspaper articles of the time that discuss the “facts,” but then I remember how many times current newspaper articles are wrong, how often they misquote or exaggerate, and someday future historians may be using them for sources. Oh dear.

Not long ago Traces magazine published my article about the long gone town of Hindostan, the first seat of Martin County. In it I explored the lingering myths of its supposed overnight demise because of some ravaging plague in the 1820s. Starting as early as the 1930s, the Indianapolis Star and the News ran feature pieces about once a decade ballyhooing the “angel of death” riding through the town. Often whole sentences were repeated in subsequent articles. It was useful Sunday filler material, but fraught with myth, not fact. Myth is more fun. (You can check out the article in the Summer 2020 issue of Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History.)

Erroneous sign near site of Hindostan: the myth lives on

An existing small town with which I’ve worked on and off for nearly two decades insists that it was founded a certain year. The truth is that the correct date is six years later. Now certainly the origins of many towns are obscure, but with this town, that is not the case. The holy grail, the original hand-drawn town plat, still rests in the county courthouse, the date plain to see. The townsfolk have the notion that there existed a “community” of sorts in the region and they just “got around to making it official” on the later date. What defines a town, anyway? Does any cluster (and it was not even that) of families living in an area automatically mean it’s a town? There were people living in that general vicinity for more than 30 years, were they a town then? No! A community? Perhaps. Suddenly and arbitrarily, people determined on an origin date that belied the obvious fact of the plat being filed and recorded six years later. I have never discovered from whence this notion came. These folks celebrated their centennial and then their sesquicentennial six years too early. But it gets worse. Recently erected is a fancy permanent sign on the state highway welcoming travelers to this historic town, founded–yes, you guessed it; it’s the wrong date. Now it’s written in stone! Who needs historians?

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