How Do Historians Do It?

Mary Leticia Grove Barnes, great-great grand daughter of Bear Robe and Henri Chatillon

I don’t know how historians do it: how do they cleave fiction from fact? As I dig through the stories of Francis Parkman’s French scout, the fierce Oglala chief Bull Bear and the Lesserts, Revards and Herridges of Osage tales, some fuzzy facts come into focus but loads of questions appear.

Dates are especially perplexing. In one account Chatillon’s wife Bear Robe died in 1846. In another story Chatillon built the home I visited in St. Louis in 1846. The dates don’t jibe.

As a social scientist, I’m trained to believe more is better. In other words, if we do several studies that reveal that children with TVs in their bedrooms earn lower grades than children without TVs, we accord legitimacy to the theory that TVs detract from high grades. The more data, the more truth.

But I can’t help but wonder if this really works with ferreting out historical facts. For one thing, humans can repeat the same incorrect tale for generations. And once a tall tale takes hold, it’s tough to dislodge it from memories.

My guess is that historians are the CSI folks of the academic world: they look for corroborating evidence. So, if you find in Parkman’s account that Henri Chatillon married Bull Bear, then you look for evidence from other quarters to back up the story.

Problem is that most Indian history is oral.

And this is a juncture where social science butts up against Native science, where oral history is history. Period.

Mary Stiritz, my intrepid guide in St. Louis, presented me with a sheath of information she painstakingly researched about my family. She found that Henri had a sister who died before her first birthday, and that his daughter with Bear Robe was likely named for her: Emilie.

Irma Miller, a relative who wrote about our family, said Emilie was born near Ft. Laramie, Wyoming, in 1841, and her father, Henri, took her to be raised by Joseph Bissonnette and his Oglala wife.

Mary also found records that Bear Robe had another daughter who is listed as White Woman, who married Young Man Afraid of His Horses. Turns out Young Man Afraid of His Horses was of great renown, and I could write several books on his exploits. Mary revealed to me an entire Oglala history that needs my attention.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, Francis Parkman, Henri Chatillion, Indian, Lakota, Native Science, Osage, science, science communication and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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