Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Research for Documenting America

When I was on the working vacation recently, Moses Austin went with me. Moses wrote a journal on his trip through the Ohio Valley and on to Saint Louis. That trip took place during the bitterly cold and snowy winter of 1796-97. He started out from the mountains of Virginia, then into Kentucky, then territory that would eventually become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri (still under the control of Spain at that time). His return trip was by way of Kentucky and Tennessee.

An excerpt of this journal is the first item in Volume 4 of the Annals of America, an Encyclopedia Britannica publication. My analysis of that document, or rather of that excerpt, is a chapter in Documenting America. I took that volume with me for research reading material. Lynda drove some on the first day of the trip, so I pulled that out of my reading bag and started at the beginning. Later, at our hotel in Orlando, I was able to finish the excerpt and write two chapters in manuscript.

Now, a journal of a trip, even a trip through wilderness areas, may not be inspiring writing. When I began reading it I wasn't sure it would be good material for a chapter, let alone two. But I did find it to contain information that I thought readers of Documenting America might want to know about. So I read the whole thing and wrote. After returning home I typed the two chapters, no. 27 and 28.

My research didn't stop there. First I made a trip to Wikipedia for a brief bio. Now I know a lot of people moan about Wikipedia and inaccuracies. I'm sure they have some, maybe many. But for initial research and sources of information, I've found it to be a good place to go. Austin's bio was brief, but certainly longer than the paragraph in my source. It gave me some good background, subject to confirmation if I used any of it.

As I said my source gave only an excerpt of the journal. Those ellipses that the Encyclopedia Britannica people use don't tell me much. Was there good material in those left out sections or not? They took it from Vol 5 of The American Historical Review, which sounded like a publication. A search through Google Books turned up the volume. Talk about instant library loan, without the $2.00 search fee! Downloaded in five seconds, and the applicable pages printed in another hundred or so.

Before the journal was a biographical sketch of Moses Austin, written by his son, the famed Stephen F. Austin, and edited by one of Moses' grandsons. Only a few pages long, it was an excellent short bio. It blew away the information given in the Annals and in Wikipedia. It's tempting to join Wiki as a contributor, just to be able to flesh out Moses Austin's biography. Maybe later.

The full journal, in all its glorious, archaic language full of long paragraphs, inconsistent spellings, and poor punctuation was there, having appeared in the April 1900 issue of the magazine. I scanned the full journal before typing the chapters. Some of the removed material was good, and I included it in the quote portion of the chapter. The except had been six or seven pages. The full journal was twenty. Should I read the whole thing? After all, the chapters were written, complete except for any editing I will do upon later contemplation. And having written two chapters from this document, I'm not likely to write another.

I was fascinated by this journal, however, and decided to read it all. I'm glad I did. Much of the removed material was of great interest to me. Austin described his route, including the towns he stayed in or the isolated farms he either found hospitality at or was rejected. I was able to trace his route on my road atlas. Some of the places still have the same names, such as Crab Orchard Kentucky.

Austin described the towns, and gave thoughts on their economic prospects. It's interesting to see what he wrote about the prospects for places such as Louisville, and how he was correct about what it could become. I also found his constant bemoaning of the American government's neglect of the areas he traveled through to be quite interesting (sorry, Joe F and Mrs. Rosen). The US government was busy trying to establish its place in the roll call of nations, develop governmental institutions, and figure out if a self-governing republic would really work. It was kind of to do all that and establish regional or civil governments in Cahoika or Kaskasia, or even Vincennes. I found in Austin's words a third chapter, on the idea that even back in the late 1700s there were people who wanted the government to guarantee an outcome. But that chapter will have to wait for another volume.

The purpose of Austin's trip was to see the lead mines in eastern Missouri. This was under Spanish dominion, so he needed certain letters and permissions to do this. I never knew that sixty miles south of Saint Louis, thirty or forty miles up from the Mississippi River, were rich lead deposits that were easily mined. But there was. The place names today reflect that: Leadwood, Irondale, Iron Mountain, Old Mines, Leadington. Missouri has an historic site there, called Missouri Mines State Historic Site. So I learned something in this extra research.

One other item of research to mention, something I haven't done, and probably won't. In The American Historical Review are many footnotes concerning journal entries. Mention is made of various original documents, such as American State Department papers, that would probably be good reading. Various secondary documents that further illustrate the points Austin makes are also cited. How wonderful it would be to find some of these documents and study further!

But, that would not make Documenting America a better book, I don't think. I'm not writing a scholarly work, but a popular "history", bringing lessons out of historical documents to see what lessons they hold for today's America. Research for my own enjoyment won't further that goal.

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