The problem with history | History Files

By Tim Raetzloff | Mar 21, 2018

“I have little faith in history,” John Adams said. “I read history like romance, believing what is probable and rejecting what I must.”

Nevertheless I am nearly finished reading “Friends Divided” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gordon S. Wood. The book is a history of the relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and it is the source of the quote.

Local historian Bob Kelly is fond of saying, “Only historians can make history.” His point is that history becomes history when it is recorded, and many who write “history” are careless with it.

Once it is written it takes on a life and becomes nearly immortal. We have continuous local and national arguments over what should be in history books – which story has been forgotten, and which has been Hollywood-ized.

In Edmonds, we have the legend of George Brackett and his dog and oxen. It doesn’t matter anymore whether it happened or not; it is now a part of our legacy, and is generally accepted. Nearly every locality has its “history” in the same manner.

In Pacific County, they tell the story of how the county records were stolen from Oysterville and brought to South Bend. All that we really know is that South Bend is now the county seat of Pacific County and Oysterville is a ghost town.

In Stanwood, there are legends of how the courthouse was picked up and moved from Stanwood to East Stanwood. Both are now part of Stanwood. The story gets muddled when you consider that neither town was a county seat, and as different towns they each had a city hall and local courthouse. There was no need to move it. But the story survives and there may be a kernel of truth. Or not.

Even people who lived through an event often got it wrong.

Mary Daheim’s family told her many stories about Alpine that turned out to be less than accurate. This was a source of friction between her and me for the first year or two that we knew each other. Her family had told her that the town was burned down in 1929 when the mill closed.

Testimony by three individuals who visited the town in the mid-’30s and early ’40s refuted that. But one of the biggest pieces of evidence turned out to be a set of aerial photos of the upper Skykomish Valley taken in July 1930 that clearly showed the mill, the school, the social hall, and dozens of houses.

Another compelling bit of evidence was that the mill was still insured in 1930 and shows clearly on Sanborn Insurance maps. I found that Mary had in her library a book named “A Hoghead’s Random Railroad Reminiscences.”

A hoghead is a railroad engineer. In the first four pages of that book, George Leu, the author, mentioned his first assignment to make certain that the water tank in Alpine worked. He described going past the buildings of the town in 1940. I snippily asked Mary if she ever read the books she owned.

Political and military leaders are very keen on seeing to it that history is favorable to them, and clearly they start at the moment the history was being made. A friend who is no longer alive was a radioman on Admiral Halsey’s flagship.

He told me about how they had fooled and trapped the Japanese fleet at Leyte Gulf. I assured him that the Japanese fleet was not fooled and trapped at Leyte Gulf. Admiral Halsey was the one fooled, and left weak American forces to fight a massively powerful Japanese fleet.

Fortunately, the outnumbered Americans fought well enough to fend off the Japanese fleet. But, obviously, Admiral Halsey’s staff had begun to spin the story as soon as it happened.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Edmonds Historical Commission’s 2019 calendar. I am charged with finding railroad pictures. One lovely picture came in showing a train at a depot, and ships loading lumber in the harbor.

The owner of the collection had labeled the photo as Edmonds. There was something not quite right about the photo. Research by three railroad historians, one as far away as Missouri, determined positively that the depot in the photo couldn’t possibly be Edmonds, but it could be –and was – Everett.

The point of all this? Reading history must be treated like “Mythbusters.” Is the story reasonable? Does it make sense? Does it fit with what we already know about surrounding circumstances?

Far too often, the answer is that someone was careless with the historical record, and what passes for history isn’t what happened at all. History is only useful if it teaches us a path to go forward. Corrupted history is ultimately useless.

Be careful what you believe.



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