Sometimes two unrelated events come together and school you in a lesson. That happened for me a few years ago when I was trying to rise after a failure of sorts and needed some sort of affirmation that I could be good at something. As I tried to find some validation I decided to combine two things that I like and see if I could make a go at it. So I combined my love of public speaking with local history and sought some outlet for the two. What I settled on was conducting cemetery tours. The lesson I learned fairly quickly is that history is not as concrete as I thought it was.
In 2016, when my very foundation was shaken and I wasn’t sure of my footing, I wanted to find something to hold onto. When I felt like I was failing at life I needed to find something I was actually good at. But what could it be? That summer I had started walking in the town’s cemetery. Don’t mock, it’s actually a peaceful place and resembles a big park. Granted a park with a bunch of tombstones. And not a park I want to visit, at say, night.
As I walked in the cemetery that summer I started noticing the dashes on the stones. So many dashes. But what were the stories behind the dashes? At the end of the summer I was in Salt Lake City for a color run. By run I mean others ran while I walked. On the route I noticed a poster for a cemetery tour the city was doing in their historic cemetery. I thought of all the dashes back in my town’s cemetery. If Salt Lake could do a historic cemetery tour then why couldn’t my small town? Surely, all those dashes had stories to tell. When I got back home I put a feeler out on my Facebook page and asked if anyone would be interested in going on a local cemetery tour. The response was positive so I quickly put something together and led my first tour less than a month later. That first tour wasn’t the best because I put it together in such a rush. The last few years though my little tour has grown with more detailed research and with even more interest. As I have researched and put together a little presentation I learned that is history is not static. It is actually rather dynamic. I have a theory on why it is difficult to move past events to the fact column instead of hanging out on the fiction side.
In my naivete I thought history would be a concrete study. Especially local history. “This and this happened on this day,” how can that be refuted? I found a great little story about my great-grandpa in a book about my town. Of course, I used it on my tour. It involved him being responsible for getting the original city hall built while he was mayor. But then I noticed different publications had different dates for when the city hall was built. Which one was correct? I did some digging and found out the correct date for the city hall was 1894. Great-grandpa wasn’t mayor until 1897. The story as written in the book was not correct. Bummer. It really was a great find.
I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to actually share true facts when it comes to history and here are my thoughts. Life is about perception. My experience is going to be different than another person’s because I am coloring it with my perception. Basically to process an event I filter it with all my background and knowledge and I translate it to my language so that I can have the event make sense to me. If I choose to record it I am doing so based on my perception.
In short, history is based on all these different perceptions and memories. We try to use an overlap in stories as a law of witnesses to make them facts. The more that perceptions overlap and are similar the more we tend to count them as reliable. It may work on a grander scale with more witnesses recording events but when dealing with local history the law of witnesses is a bit slimmer. Less people are recording events which means there isn’t as much overlap in perception. History becomes less reliable and the HI may disappear as it just becomes a STORY.
That could be one reason history is not as concrete as I once thought it was.
Or, it could just be people are too lazy to check the facts and use unreliable sources that perpetuate false records.
Either scenario fits, I guess.