By James Bernsen
I spent Monday at the archives, meeting old friends.
That may sound odd without perspective: In my day job, I do public relations and strategic communications, but I have a secret, shadow life in academia. A few years ago, after returning from a military deployment to Iraq, I was given the opportunity to go back to school to get my master’s degree in U.S. History.
Of course, there are lots of great historical records online, and more are getting digitized every day. I’ve found logs of sailing expeditions and letters of Mexican revolutionaries. I found the petition of a young free black woman in Louisiana who saved up, bought her enslaved mother, and asked a court to have her freed.
For my thesis on Texas history, I discovered the lost past of a man all the history books say is unknown. I did this by putting modern internet searches to bear on a task abandoned as hopeless by most historians in the 1970s. Twenty pages into a Google search, I found a rare, recently digitized document that showed my shadowy frontier fighter had attended an elite private school in 1802. From this clue, I launched new searches that ultimately confirmed without a doubt that he was actually the son of one of the wealthiest families in New England.
But believe it or not, there’s a limit to the Internet. In this all-digital, all-the-time world, some people seem to think that if it didn’t happen online, it didn’t happen. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is true in all disciplines, but especially so in history.
This week, I was delving into the archives of the Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin, looking at the papers of a family from the early 19th Century. They had fought for Texas independence across two generations. The library has an amazing catalogue, but I’m fairly certain no one had seen these records since they were donated in the 1940s. I made some extraordinary finds.
There were two previously unknown letters from the president of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston, dated 1838. Most papers of historical persons include the letters they received and maybe duplicates of sent letters, but the originals were in the hands of the recipient, in this case, the family I was researching. Since Houston’s signature goes for sale on the Internet at around $10,000 a piece, I made sure I notified the archives to take special care to safeguard these documents. I also discovered an original, unknown survivor’s account of the Battle of San Jacinto and, in five or six moth-eaten binders, an apparently unpublished draft of a novel about the Civil War – written right after it had ended.
But what I mostly found were friends, people who lived long ago and lived lives much like us. They wrote heartfelt letters to their wives and children. They sacrificed to pay debts. They kept up enduring friendships. I know. I held the letters they held, saw the ink they wrote with and felt the wax that sealed their letters up. They did ordinary, but extraordinary, things to make our country the great place that it is, and because their names are obscure, we have forgotten them. After I closed the archives and walked back to my car, I made a special effort to say those names aloud. So they would live again.
The wonders of this world, and of its people, are far too broad to be seen with a face a foot away from a mobile device. There’s a time to take the power of our technology and unleash it, but there’s a time to step away and dig deeper, to learn the truths and insights we can only get from the world unfiltered, unplugged and undigitized.