Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In Special Collections

I finally got back to Trinity University library yesterday. The last time I tried to go was the day of the hard freeze and the temporary death of Moby Dick, the Great White Car. Although it's theoretically possible to ride my bike to Trinity, it's farther than I've ridden since I was in junior high, and the weather hasn't been conducive to it. But now I have the car back and, although I technically should have been prepping queries for the SCBWI Austin agents and editors, I decided I wanted to go to the library.

First I finished what I'd started last time I was there, when I ran out of money photocopying the pages of Vinton Lee James's Frontier and Pioneer: Recollections of Early Days in San Antonio and Western Texas in which he describes postwar San Antonio, so I'll have them to refer to. (I still need to get a map). I'd made a note of which pages I needed, so that didn't take long. Then I went to Special Collections to read Amasa Clark's Reminiscences of a Centenarian.

Special Collections at Trinity is a large comfortable room like a library in a stately house, with locked bookcases, tables, a cozy arrangement of chairs and sofas in front of a fireplace with a floral arrangement in it, and a huge Mannerist tapestry on one wall, depicting an American Indian noble with a crown of feathers and a pet gator, or possibly Komodo dragon. I had to surrender my ID and use only pencils in making notes, and the book wasn't where it was supposed to be so the student at the desk wound up calling the retired research librarian who has the place memorized for help locating it.

Clark is refreshingly detailed in his recollections of the Civil War era compared to most people - which still leaves out a lot of what I wanted to know. He was injured in a robbery in 1857 and claims to have still been recovering in 1861; otherwise, he says, he probably would have joined the Union army, though really he didn't want to fight either his neighbors or "the flag" that he fought under in the Mexican War. This makes him sympathetic to the victims of the political violences he recounts, both military actions against groups of men attempting to avoid conscription into the Confederate Army by heading for Mexico. He describes with certitude and circumstantial detail the robbery and lynching of eight draft evaders by soldiers from Camp Verde, but this creates a puzzle for the researcher.

Per Clark, the men surrendered peaceably on being assured of a fair court martial, that when the arresting party made camp some of the men suggested that they proceed with the hangings; that those who objected to this proceeding left in order not to witness it; that the officer in charge was not among those who left; that one of the men was shot with a gun that still had the ramrod in it; that the boy with the eight men was spared but no one knows what became of him (there's a central character for a historical YA if you like); that the men were hung one at a time with a hair rope, strangled, then cut down with the noose still around the neck and the next one hoisted; that the officer and soldiers were indicted after the war but never brought to trial.

Now, the ramrod was still in the body of one of the men when Joeseph Poor, on his way to visit a neighbor, stumbled upon it, mistook the ramrod for an arrow, and ran to warn of an Indian raid. The posse that he collected found the remains and presumably reconstructed the method of execution by examining the evidence. Clark doesn't say that he witnessed any of this, but names the people who examined and buried the bodies. Presumably everyone in Bandera County knew pretty much everything this party of men observed and accepted the conclusions they drew. But what is the source of the information about the surrender, the dispute over whether or not to summarily hang them, and the boy being "let go" rather escaping? How much of this is speculation? How much is derived from the testimony of members of the military unit who left rather than participating in the hanging? Was any of this information divulged under oath when the indictment was made after the war?

These questions are not answered, or even addressed, either in this volume (edited by his daughter-in-law) or in the Pioneer History of Bandera County written by Clark's friend, J. Marvin Hunter. It is possible that later research will turn up other versions of the story, or more source information, or even the documents connected with the indictment. It's possible I will always wonder. For purposes of my story, it's enough that this is a version which my heroines will be familiar with, and believe; if I need to, I can have one of them wonder the same things I wonder, but since this all happened in 1863 and my story is set in 1865, it probably won't come up.

Same thing with the discrepancy between Clark's version of the fate of Bill Hurt, one of the men suspected of the attack on him, and that given by Mr. John Dobbin in William Corner's San Antonio de Bexar (1890), which I also saw in a facsimile edition yesterday. Clark, Hurt's victim, was presumably still being nursed back to health when Hurt died of excessive numbers of gunshot wounds in the streets of San Antonio, but he would have been very much interested in the news and would have repeated the story numerous times between 1857 and the late 20s, when his daughter-in-law was taking down his reminiscences. Mr. Dobbin was in town during the event and talks like an eyewitness when he recounts the story for Corner in 1889 or 90. He doesn't mention the crime for which Hurt was wanted, Clark doesn't describe the tactical situation of the Vigilance Committee's ambush of him; the overlap of names in the two accounts is minimal. I am happy I don't have to choose between the accounts for this particular story. If I were writing a different book, I might have had my work cut out reconciling them!

Corner's book is an excellent one, but a source of frustration for me. It's a guidebook for visitors, which made it perfect for Switching Well (in which a girl from 1991 swaps places with a girl from 1891), but Corner in his historical overviews and recordings of the oral history of old-timers treats the eighteenth century and the 30s and 40s as the most interesting periods. When introducing the reminiscences of Dr. George Cupples, he taunts me by referring to the story Cupples could tell of his "recollections of the know-nothing movement here, of the great war and of the famous Vigilance Committee troubles. But as Mr Kipling would say -- that's another story." Yes, and it's a story I want, thank you very much! Perhaps Corner took that oral history in another publication that hasn't turned up in my researches yet, or perhaps he let the opportunity slip. Somebody, sometime, should have recorded the history of the Vigilance Committee.

But if I ever find it, it will have many of the same faults and virtues as the accounts I read yesterday. That's the deal with research. People write history for the reasons that suit them, not for the reasons that suit me. It's my job to hold these fragmentary names and events in my head, ready to pounce on the clues casually dropped by folks interested in something else and put them all together until I know enough to write my story.

I have this advantage over the professional historian: What I can't find out, I am at liberty to make up, within certain parameters. It is only my own preference for fitting my made up stuff as seamlessly as possible into what really happened that keeps me on the trail at this point. I know enough to plot the book and with a little bit of physical exploration of locations I'm about ready to write it. But I will feel better if I know about the Vigilance Committee, if I have eliminated all possibility of putting my characters in places where they should witness or participate in an event, and don't, or of misrepresenting a real person - whether well-known historical figure or not.

When I was young, I assumed that all authors researched like this and that the way they depicted real people was based on more than their imagination. Now I know better; but I don't want to mislead the kids who don't know better yet.

Besides, someone out there knows more about this stuff than I do; that person is part of the natural audience for the intended book. I don't want a scathing letter explaining where I went wrong!

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