Most Southern families have their tales of Princess We-no-not-who. Typically, she was Cherokee. Sometimes Choctaw or Creek. Rarely Chickasaw or Seminole. Traditionally, the tale was a whispered one, something to regale the children but not for public knowledge—at least not until the 1970s when a shift in social ideals made minority ancestry both chic and profitable.
Each record that survives from the past represents a milestone in the lives of those involved. For us, as we explore history, each record should be a stepping stone to something more. More always lies beyond for those willing to scrape away the moss of quirky language and the grit of changing legal landscapes.
A well-analyzed record is a centerstone from which many research paths diverge. That premise presents its own problem: how do we brainstorm the possibilities? How do we track the alternatives?
Documents have layers. First we see the words actually written on the paper. Beneath that surface lie the meanings those words had in their particular time and place. As we probe the record further, we discover layers of context created by law, custom, religion, and other social frameworks. A well-analyzed record will create more questions than it answers. It should also suggest more pathways we might take in our efforts to understand that corner of the past.
CASE AT POINT
Stumped Student has a document, two citation guides, a class project, and a common question: How do we cite a record when we don’t have all the details the guidebooks say to cite?
Lawrence of Arabia is said to have said, “All records lie.” If so, then how do we, as researchers, discover where the truth likely lies?
We do that through two habits:
Thorough research. The logic here is simple: We cannot piece together a puzzle if we have only a few of the pieces.
Analysis and citation. Citation and analysis. In historical research the two are inseparable. Each is the egg that creates a chicken that creates an egg that creates a chicken. Amid that cycle, a defect in either the chicken or the egg can have long-term consequences.
As students, we learned that source citation was a chore we must do for two reasons: