Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How to "do history" with a mountain bike and some great databases!

I got a chance to chat with local historian Richard Wright yesterday at the library, and we got to talking about how he started researching the history of this region. He knows so much about southern Appalachia and its past, it might surprise you that he doesn't have a degree in history. What he does have is a mountain bike, a pair of hiking boots and more than a kayak-full of natural curiosity! (A friendly relationship with the library doesn't hurt).

"I backpack and I mountain bike the whole Appalachian region from Charlotte on down," Wright said. He wondered about things he would see on his travels, and started asking questions about them. He quickly found that a lot of information he saw in history books was inaccurate or just plain wrong. For example, in the case of former Georgia governor Joe Brown, a Canton resident, Wright said the biographies are very inaccurate about his life in Cherokee County.

"His biographers have never been here. They're very inaccurate about his early life," Wright said. "In some of the biographies, Canton even isn't in the index." It didn't help that the politician fudged his own history, describing himself as a farmer when a large part of his income came from mining--something that should have been obvious to anyone who knew the topography of his property.

"You really have to put yourself where he was to really get a picture of who he was."

Compounding the problem of most southern historians is the loss of records kept before the Civil War. The war was so devastating, Wright said, that most histories of the area tend to start there. Wright is hoping to change that with his own project.

"I'm working on a history of the southern Appalachians up until the Civil War," Wright said, starting in 1787 when the first land was ceded by the British after the American Revolution. "That gives us a starting point. At that point you couldn't settle west of the Appalachians." This area was the western frontier,and,according to Wright, became very prosperous.

"The Etowah and Chattahoochee rivers are the first ones that do not flow into the Atlantic," Wright said. River trade made this area boom. Before the river traffic was supplanted by the railroad, Canton was a larger city than Atlanta. Its heyday, which Wright said fell somewhere between 1832 and 1850,unfortunately hasn't really been chronicled before now.

So how does Wright plan to research (or "do history" as he calls it), when the history books give him so little to go on? By finding his own primary sources. In a lot of cases, that involves tapping a resource that hasn't been given its proper due by historians before now: our own people. Wright knocks on doors, talking to genealogists and family historians who have done their own painstaking research, and sometimes have amazing documents in their possession. He's found local people who are still living on the property their ancestors owned, in the houses their forebears built.

"I've found local people who are passionate about history and have amassed huge amounts of primary documents," Wright said, and he would like to see them get the respect they deserve.

And where does our library come in? I bet you thought I'd never get to that. It's our databases Wright loves. From Georgia Historic Newspapers to Vanishing Georgia to Southeastern Native American Documents to JSTOR, Wright says he's been very impressed by what we have available, a wealth of searchable documents at one's fingertips. They are just the thing for a researcher, whether he's a historian or just the average student working on a term paper.

I hope to share more with you about Wright and his research in blogs to come! Cheers!

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