What is history? This isn’t some rhetorical question, and I’m not talking about Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “history is written by the victors.” Nor am I referencing Napoleon’s “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”
To the Ancient Greeks, history meant knowledge from inquiry. That’s pretty much what it still means, at least to me and other historians. History is the study of the past, using what was written down (letters, newspapers, and books), what was said (oral histories, family histories, and legends), and what’s left (buildings, archeological sites, and stuff). But, not everything that was written down or said is true. To that end, history is also a sort of science. Not like chemistry or biology, but there is a certain method that historians follow to get at what we can consider a fact.
Every historian begins with an idea, usually centered on whichever period of history that they specialize in. After some basis research, that idea becomes a theory, followed by more research until it becomes a thesis. That thesis essentially takes the historian’s argument and sums it up in a single sentence (or two). For example, “Point Pleasant, while important to the history of the revolutionary era, cannot be considered a part of the Revolution itself due to the motives driving the conflict and the overwhelmingly positive response to Dunmore’s actions, specifically the Fort Gower Resolves.”
That is clear, specific, and it sets up an argument. The historian then has to defend their position with their research, and that’s the work that few people see. For something as long as a book, that may mean multiple years of research in dozens of archives. Even for something as short as these articles, there might be several hours of research.
That research then takes the form of an article, essay, thesis, or book which aims to convince the reader that your argument is backed by solid fact. For articles like these, I try to stick to one event, person, place, etc. and perhaps half a dozen sources. But if I were writing a book, which coincidentally I am on the history of Mason County, a single chapter may have a hundred sources.
All of this, from the argument to the years of research, is because of a single reason. History, contrary to what many think, is much more than simply names and dates. Pretending that it is only names and dates only answers three questions. Who was involved, when did it happen, and where did it happen? In reality, there are several more. How or why did it happen, what is the larger context, what was the result or impact, and are we still dealing with the effects?
For example, Point Pleasant… Lord Dunmore’s War was a conflict between Virginian settlers and Ohio Country Native Americans in 1774 that culminated in the Battle of Point Pleasant. That’s where most people stop, but it’s so much more than that! The stage for the war was set nearly a century earlier, when the British and French first began to explore the Valley. The war itself was driven by a complex mix of manifest destiny, revenge, and racism that sets it apart from the Revolution, but the Revolution is still very much in the background. It also had a major impact on westward expansion that, ironically, completely skipped the Ohio Valley that they were fighting over. And of course, we’re still arguing today over whether it was the “First Battle” or not!
One of my favorite quotes about the purpose of history is from poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren. “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we may better face the future.”
History is about knowing where we came from, how we got here, our victories and mistakes along the way, and perhaps, just maybe, learning a thing or two along the way. Historians are always criticized as “stuck in the past,” but that could not be further from the truth. History admits that we can’t predict the future, but armed with roughly 5,000 years of written history covering millions of scenarios and solutions, we can certainly meet it head on. History is the march of progress, humanity meeting and overcoming every challenge.
As noted British historian G.M. Trevelyan once said, “Every true history must force us to remember that the past was once as real as the present and uncertain as the future.” In other words, knowing how our ancestors arrived at and met that uncertainty can provide some measure of certainty today.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.