Fascinating and Frustrating: Historical Research

I’ve written before about this nonfiction historical project I’m currently researching in all of my spare time — which isn’t a lot — and how hard it can be to find resources.

A few weeks ago, I found and ordered one set of records from one of the court cases surrounding this topic. It is a long, convoluted, difficult thing to unravel – like yarn in a bucket of cockleburrs – and just when you think you know what it’s about and where it’s going, it totally surprises you and goes in a different direction entirely. At any rate, I received the records on DVD but because I was in the middle of writing and rewriting another book, I put the records away to deal with later.

Last Wednesday became “later.”

There’s something so magical and mysterious about historical research. You think you know all about this person. You’ve read their biographies. Read, maybe, some of their better-known writings. You know what others have said about them and what you think about them. And then . . . you come across something that changes your mind entirely. Take, for example, a biographical paper I wrote about David Rice Atchison. Today, no one knows him. But between 1840 – 1865, he was extremely popular as a Southern supporter and a Missouri senator, as well as one of the leaders of the “Border Ruffians.” He gave speeches in which he said it was okay to kill antislavery people! Not a great guy. Not even a particularly nice guy. But then I got his letters and diaries (the ones that exist, anyway) on microfilm and I was stunned by how different the private person was from the public persona. He was depressed when his daughter went away to college. When he served in the Civil War, he sent his personal servant/slave home to Missouri because he was afraid for his life. He was fiercely devoted to his entire extended family. This was not the firebrand that urged Missouri to attack Kansas and secede from the Union. This was someone else entirely, and because of that, he became so much more real to me.

Back on topic — so I’ve been researching this disappearance and all the resulting court cases. I’ve had to figure out exactly where the money went, and who was suing whom, and when, and how many times those suits were appealed so I can collect all the cases. So far, I’ve got exactly one! In part because the process is so difficult. In these records, for example, is one case that went through the Missouri Court of Appeals. I Googled to see which archives had it, and I think I’ve found it — but the name is different. Is it the same case? I have no idea. I have to go to Kansas City soon and see for myself before I plunk down nearly $100 on the copies.

However. On the website were two photographs that were part of the records.

They can’t be anyone but my guy. They just can’t. Seeing him there in that photograph for the first time — I’ve read descriptions of him, but no photos were ever published in the local papers — was stunning. He was real. He lived. This wasn’t something my local paper made up one day when all the reporters were bored. (Yes, I was starting to suspect that.)

Doing historical research is really like digging a well; you think water’s down there somewhere, but you’re not really sure. It could be ten feet over. Or a mile away. It might not exist at all. It might be in someone’s attic and they don’t even know it. It could be in a library or historical society somewhere, buried in the basements. I’m sure somewhere, someone is looking for the journals of George Manby, an Englishman who worked on a system of rescuing shipwreck victims in the early 1800s. Those are at Wichita State University, if you are. I’ve seen them. I’ve worked with them. They are cool. But why are they there? Why aren’t they in England? That’s the problem. This stuff gets sold at auction, passed down in families without any context, stuffed in attics and garages and forgotten. Meanwhile, there’s a historian out there dying — dying! — to get his or her hands on those resources. And they might never find it. Mice eat things. Things get thrown away, destroyed in fires and floods.

In my urban fantasy series, my main character is a historian — well, she’s a history student — and she is finding all this out firsthand. It’s difficult because in fiction, there should be loose ends tied up in bows and lost documents miraculously found, and I can’t bring myself to pull those kinds of stunts because I know what the reality is. The reality is, it’s a lot of bloody hard work. And it doesn’t always pay off. It is fascinating. But it is frustrating.

Next week, I want to look at this some more, so stay tuned!

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