Monday, February 10, 2014

Interpreting History Mystery Mondays

This is a former post I wrote on January 15, 2012. It was before I had to quit my job because of all my illnesses 2 years ago. I am posting it again. Why? This post referred to some research I was working on at the time of a woman named Jenny Wiley and her being taken captive by Native Americans in 1789. The county officials were trying to get a historical marker dedicated to her in our county. I was interested because having been aware of some Native American ancestry in our family, as a child hearing and reading local history books, I couldn't understand the barbarity of these stories. How could anyone do that to a family? We were taught about these incidents in school. In school, Indians = "massacre", savages scalping and all the ugly these stories produced. When I talked to my mother, she said that there were two sides to every story and one day I would understand it was a war and wars are never pretty.  I saw Jenny Wiley's story as a way to finally understand, and to learn the why.

For the last year, I have been renewing my interest in the story of Jenny Wiley (it never went away!) and it is a real conundrum to tell her story. The basic true history is that on October 1st, 1789,  Native American Indians descended on her cabin, in what is now Bland County, Virginia, killed 4 of her family members and captured Jenny Wiley. She was held captive in Kentucky, where 2 more of her children died and she escaped. She and her husband Thomas Wiley later move to Kentucky and have five more children. Those are the accepted facts. It's the details and the why that need further research.

There are so many versions of her story!!!  I had been working on trying to prove or disprove all the pieces of these various stories using primary documents for the display at the museum.  I really wanted to know what was true and to understand why this happened to her family and this time period in Appalachian history. What I had uncovered is that the real people connected to this story are much more complicated and so much more interesting than the history books have written about to date. But with each piece of evidence the mystery of Jenny Wiley for me grew. I am more than ever determined to inspire research to go deeper to understand her story, discover as much of the real story as we can and of ALL the people of this time period in Appalachia in which she lived.

In the next couple of weeks, I will be writing several posts about Jenny Wiley. The first will be what the different versions of the stories are and then what I have uncovered in the primary documents to date. What I can say is that she was a very remarkable woman (more than the history books give her credit for) and through just her story alone, I think are all the elements to understand the "why" and the truth of the time period in which she lived.

But there is SO MUCH more research work to do. I hope there are some researchers, Wiley family researchers, Harman family researchers, or families connected to this specific area out there that can help to pull actual primary records and put the pieces together further. This is the importance of genealogists. Genealogist are interested in every document related to their ancestor and it is those documents that tell usually the official story. You combine that with oral history, popular belief and even tell the controversies to at least get a rounded picture of the events. I have most of all the "historical" written articles. I'm hoping researchers will look for primary documents that prove as much of the articles claims that we can. I would also welcome some help from Native American researchers and historians. Seems there is a belief that Jenny was descended from Native Americans. Doesn't that change the story a bit if it is true?

I am disabled and limited so much. No energy and brain fog is a big problem plus in traveling for the research. There is a lot on line but much more is NOT!  I will be posting every source I found and scans of primary documents that we have uncovered here in Virginia. That is why I am posting this again about interpreting history. Because 2 years ago I was having trouble proving some of the written "official" versions of her story. Several things appear quite contradictory in the primary documents with new documents just deepening the mystery. But to me, the real mystery and history emerging is much more compelling and exciting.

I will also use the Geneablogger's guidelines. Jenny Wiley will be Mystery Monday posts and I don't know how many it will take.  I finally found my list for the Geneabloggers format that I printed out. It is now in a file folder next to where I work. I love their format though my illness prevents me from being so prolific a blogger! This is going to be a big push on what little energy I have to get these posts out about Jenny Wiley. So please bear with me and if something is not clear or a problem, please feel free to contact me.

It is my understanding the county is still looking to put a marker up and Wolf Creek Indian Village and Museum wanted to work on a display dedicated to Jenny Wiley and that time period.

Interpreting History Originally Posted January 12, 2012

Historians discover, collect organize and present information about past events. I am a historian. I have a passion for history. But it is a passion rooted in my own family tree which expands to tell the story of others. I research to understand what my ancestors lived through. To understand how our world became what it is today. Today research is much easier than when I first began. In the beginning I chased census records on microfilm and reference books at different libraries. A trip to Richmond was always on the agenda for Virginia Census because all the microfilm was in one place. Today with Ancestry.com all the census records are available in one spot, reference works are online and you can access all of them at 3 in the morning! Libraries are digitizing collections and making them available more and more on line. I love it. But all of this is coming together and in the process primary documents are surfacing that tell a different view of history than what was first written or believed.

The last few months I've been researching a very local event to tell the story of the relationship of Native Americans and Europeans in Appalachia especially during the Indian Wars before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. Most like to avoid this time period. It's difficult. Historians of the past recorded "Massacres", with heroes and heroines usually not Native American. Most of the written story themes usually go, "The savage Indians descended upon unknowing colonial settlers for no reason and murdered them."

In my research what I am finding is the relationships between Native Americans and Europeans in the East and especially Appalachia were much more complicated than that. Different tribes in the East could be allies or enemies of both the French, English and the newly formed American colonial government. Certain factions of the same tribe could be allied with two different sides of a war in the same battle.  Depending on the year and events alliances in Appalachia, (and I'm sure this occurred elsewhere) could change depending on treaties or on the atrocities committed. Add to the fact that there were many intermarriages with Europeans, and it becomes a very difficult story to tell. Everything is not Red or White.  Before the removal of the Cherokee there was this attempt by many on both sides to work out the problems of Europeans taking Native lands. After the removal of the Cherokee and movement further west, the attitude definitely became more "the only good Indian, is a dead Indian" and round them all up on a reservation if they are allowed to exist.

What is more upsetting is the passion people feel when you change the history written by former historians and long held beliefs. Especially by historians of the 19th century. Many take much of this history written about Appalachia as gospel truth and have repeated and cited popular stories over and over again. We are learning with all this new evidence made available because of the Internet with more sources, which also helps to lead researchers to archives and courthouse primary documents not on line, many times it is not the complete story and many times not even the truth.

But a popular story provokes quite a bit of emotion if a present day historian tries to correct the record. This happened to Mary Kegley in her research of a story of local heroine, Molly Tynes. Molly Tynes was a young girl who supposedly rode a horse during the Civil War from Tazewell, Virginia to Wytheville, Virginia to warn Confederate Soldiers of a Yankee invasion. It was so popular a legend that folks in our area formed and enjoyed Molly Tyne rides following the supposed route. People just loved that story.  Mary published a book, "I Like Molly Tynes, whether she rode or not", thoroughly researching the event and the beginnings of the story. In her research, Mary could cite no real evidence that the young lady ever took the ride other than one newspaper article in the late 1800's written by her brother who liked writing embellished stories. Many in our area were in an uproar over her research and she is considered one of the top historians in our area. They accused her of historical revisionism.

Historical revisionism is a valid practice of history. As a historian reexamines past events and uncovers new documents, new primary sources, new interpretations can be told.  But it's hard because what was once the standard belief becomes discredited.

Yes revisionism is sometimes used in a negative way. There are those unsavory historians who invent sources as a type of propaganda for a biased history. But true constant revision of history is a part of the normal scholarly process of writing history. New evidence such as a diary or letters that had been in a family or primary documents buried in court houses or archives for years surfaces, to shed a different light on an event. For a historian to ignore them and go with the popular story is irresponsible of a true historian.

This is where I am today.  I'm finding many inaccuracies that were written especially concerning events related to the relationship between Native American actions and European actions in Appalachia throughout the wars between them. There are two sides to every story.  Being in a profession (museum curator) where it is important to tell as accurate an interpretation as you can, as unbiased as you can, this is going to be a task and a half. I can think of a few who might be upset. I'm going to rely on the records and let them speak for themselves. I'm going to tell as much about the individuals of the events as we know through the primary sources as we can glean and let it tell the story.   I'm thinking of the beginnings of the movie Braveheart when the narrator says, "I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes."