Rachel Herrmann

Academia, food, and history

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Those Panic-Inducing Gaps
Some of the arguments that Ken Owen made in his recent post over at the Junto on the events leading up to the American Revolution really hit home for me in the archive yesterday. This week, I’m in Ann Arbor for the first time, enjoying the rich material on repository at the Clements Library.

One of the main points Ken made was that he has trouble reconciling the large gaps between significant events in the decade before the war with the (fairly) neat historical narrative we tell our students. His assertion that “if the Stamp Act crisis happened today, it would be 2024 before we reached the Declaration of Independence, and 2035 before the Constitutional Convention met” was, I thought, particularly telling.

Given that I’m currently engaged with the task of filling in my own research gaps that remain from the dissertation, I’ve been thinking about a parallel quandary: how to square with the holes in the archival record that exist in some manuscript collections and not others.

I’m currently looking at the Anthony Wayne papers here at the Clements so that I can find any additional commentary on the Western Confederacy War that I didn’t come upon while looking at the Anthony Wayne manuscripts at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania or the Timothy Pickering microfilms at the Massachusetts Historical Society. From the two latter collections, I have a section in a chapter on the failed June 1793 Treaty of Sandusky. I’ve interpreted it as one final, unsuccessful attempt on the part of the United States to make peace with the Western Confederacy (it fails mostly because the U.S. commissioners are unwilling to accept the Ohio as a boundary line). I thought it was a pretty important moment. But the Anthony Wayne papers at the Clements make almost no mention of the meeting.

Granted, it was a pretty peripheral event for Wayne. He got told off by the U.S. commissioners for bringing his troops too close to Native territory during the treaty rather than holding his position as he was instructed. But even despite that fairly insignificant involvement, there’s quite a bit of information on Sandusky in the HSP. So now I’m left wondering whether I’ve overstated the event, or whether that’s just how manuscript research goes—whether sometimes, some archives have more to say than others on important events.

If that’s the case, though, then I’ve got new reasons to become unreasonably paranoid about missing out on the manuscript collections I’ve not yet examined. Maybe there are other events only portrayed in a state collection in Kentucky, or Tennessee, or Wisconsin, and there’s only so much funding and time and oh god how do we historians ever feel as though we’ve written an accurate narrative of the things that happened?

I don’t have the answers yet. I suppose I can only say that much the same as people of the Revolutionary era might not agree with how we historians tell the story of the 1760s and early 1770s, the people of the 1790s would possibly have uncharitable things to say about my Current Chapter Five.


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