In vacation Bible school, I was pretty good at memorizing Bible verses. In high school Latin classes, I could conjugate verbs up one side and down the other. Nowadays these things don’t come so easy. Before singing a concert, I find I need to go over the song lyrics, and sometimes I still mess them up. Fortunately, I mostly sing for people who are tolerant and forgiving.
On the other hand, if you need 75 minutes on Plains Indians, or the Dust Bowl, or anything like that, no problem. I remember way more than you want to hear. College students come to my office, look at all the books, and ask if I have read them all. I tell them to pick one off the shelf, and then I proceed to recite its place and date of publication and the contents of, say, Chapter 3.
Nations, communities, and cultures have memories, just like individuals, and so I devote a lot of time to thinking about how we people of the plains remember our prairie experience. Generally, what we remember happened is way more important than what really happened.
What got me thinking about all this was an invitation from Mary Honeyman at the Kaw Indian Mission historic site in Council Grove, Kansas, to give a lecture. She asked that I revisit some work I had done in the 1970s—yes, the 1970s—on the explorer, George C. Sibley. Sibley was the guy who figured out that the Salt Mountain described by President Thomas Jefferson in a message to Congress in 1803 was not, as Jefferson thought, in the middle of present-day North Dakota. Sibley in 1811 went out and found Jefferson’s Salt Mountain not on the Missouri River, but on the Cimarron, in present-day Oklahoma.
So I in 1975, like Sibley in 1811, enlisted a native guide to help me locate the Salt Mountain, now known as the Big Salt Plain. My appeal for help was answered by a gentleman named Otis Bickford, an old rancher and history buff from the locality. Mr. Bickford was immensely helpful. He went out with me, pointed out landmarks, answered all my questions patiently. For a time there in northwest Oklahoma we were an investigative team, I the kid with the documents from the archives, he the crusty but kindly old hand possessing the knowledge of experience.
Now here’s the thing about memory: I cannot conjure in my mind today an image of Otis Bickford. I have forgotten him, can tell you of him only from my yellowing field notes. And here is the startling recognition that dawns on me: with the lapse of living memory, my expedition to Jefferson’s Salt Mountain in 1975 is fully as distant, fully as historical, as that of Sibley in 1811. Each episode today must be reconstructed in exactly the same way, through the written record generated by the explorer on the ground, coupled with fieldwork. I did that fieldwork twice, once in 1975 to retrace Sibley’s journey of 1811, then again in 2011to retrace my own journey of 1975.
It is things like these that make me thankful to have had, and to be continuing, a long life as a historian of the Great Plains. Some insights come only through the accumulation of decades of experience. God willing, there are more yet to come.