Last weekend we celebrated the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Grant County Oregon. It made a nice excuse for a party and to celebrate some of our history. But does history really matter? Maybe it is just an inflated form of stamp collecting, fun for some but of no importance in the larger sense.
Most of our history is not one of heroic battles or stirring sagas. Instead, our sesquicentennial was a chance to examine the lives of the ordinary people who lived in this region in earlier times.
But the past is over. Whatever happened then it is not going to change anything about the present. Grant County 1864 blah blah blah. What does it matter today? Is there any reason why anyone today should care?
It does and we should because history provides a kind of parallax. Just as seeing from two different points allows us to perceive depth, knowing a little about time other than our own allows us to understand things that we couldn't otherwise.
It is a very limited kind of knowledge because we can only know a tiny bit about other times. We live our own days minute by minute and second by second. Histories can talk about June 1864 and then jump ahead to December or even hop back to 1860 or 1776 for a bit. The townspeople of Canyon City in 1864 had to go through each instant of Monday to get to Tuesday. So there is a lot that we can't understand because our experience is so different. Another problem is that there is a lot about daily life that never makes it into the history books because it is so commonplace. The bits we can discover are only a small fraction of our ancestor's lives. They tell us that people very much like ourselves thought differently about many things. Sometime they were mistaken about things that we understand better today. Sometimes they knew things we have forgotten today.
Sometimes history has important lessons. The first settlers here behaved as if our resources where inexhaustible and then they exhausted some of them. Sometimes they assumed that they could act without reckoning the consequences and today we struggle with those consequences. Today, we try to do some things differently and it's good to remember why even if some of those things will make succeeding generations shake their heads at us in turn.
Sometimes history can teach us a little about our own times. Every era is subject to enthusiasms and excesses that look bizarre today. In the nineteenth century schoolbooks had phrenology charts. It is hard for us to know what parts of our popular wisdom will sound crazy to our descendants five generations from now but I suspect there will be at least a few things.
History is the story about people who were very similar to us who lived in a world that was very different. It is easy to imagine that if I were living in those days I would be a standard bearer of twenty-first century enlightenment. But would I really be an advocate of tolerance if my next door neighbors had been killed and scalped? Would I have the same notions economics if my entire wardrobe consisted of a pair of boots, a hat, a pair of canvas pants and two shirts? At the very least, it gives us reason to think carefully about what we are doing today and how it will look when all today's passions and fears have evaporated and all our successors can see are the bare bones of our acts.
Even with be best will in the world, this is not easy because history can be very slippery. People forget, they exaggerate, they leave out the embarrassing parts and wildly inflate the ¨good¨ bits. The effort it takes to be sure we have the story straight and to acknowledge that parts that we really are not sure of is a valuable discipline in itself.
And let's not forget the story part. One reason I like reading history is those little gems that are unexpected but true. In 1864 one of the residents of Canyon City was a man who later became internationally famous as the poet Joaquin Miller. The poet was both fabulous and preposterous, with a genius for self-promotion that far outshone any other visible quality. And yet, in 1864 the citizens of Canyon City selected him as the captain of a military expedition into the Alvord Desert against the Paiutes. As with so much of history we have a fragment that seems like this from one angle and completely different from another and we will never ever know the whole story. We can only keep trying.
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