Saturday, August 3, 2013

Wild and Wicked - Rewriting History

Rewriting History

I have been researching for a historical novel set in East Texas back in the 1920’s. A branch of our family lived here at that time, and I had heard the story of how a great-great -great uncle was shot by an outlaw after he beat the man in a poker game. My folks have always loved to gamble and I had regretted his young death, but enjoyed the tale about what he had in his hand and how they had been drunk and the duel they had fought. I can still remember my Nana showing me the tree where they had engaged in the heated battle. But after I read some diaries and old letters which I found in a shoe box tied with a brown ribbon – I discovered that none of it was true. Great Uncle Jim had been killed by a shirt-tail deputy. (It is important to note here that the words shirt-tail were always used by the old-timers in my area to indicate someone who claimed a status but had very little right to it). Apparently this deputy was a sometimes helper of the local sheriff who was a bit too enamored of the status he had been given and thought the gun in his hand and the badge on his chest gave him indisputable power.
I was surprised to find out that he had been killed, not over a poker game, but over a woman. My great uncle was a looker. Pictures of him make me think of Jess. He had dark hair, blue eyes and a face very much like a young Elvis Presley. The more I found out about him, the sadder the tale became. He was a ladies man, undoubtedly, but he did not carry a gun. Uncle Jim met and started courting a young woman named Lucinda who had charmed many local boys with her long blonde hair and winsome smile. Apparently, she also played one guy against another – to my Uncle’s misfortune.
He had been to see Lucinda and had presented her with a big bouquet of black-eyed Susans. They had enjoyed lemonade and cookies while sitting and rocking on the front porch of her family’s home. Nothing risqué had taken place, but they were being watched. When Uncle Jim had finished his courting, he set out to ride the few miles back to his family home – but he never made it. That tree that Nana had pointed out to me was the site of his death, but not by a duel. He had been killed in cold blood by a jealous man. Uncle Jim had been unarmed.
I was stunned. Why the lie? I searched and searched trying to determine what the reason for the cover-up was. I was seventy-five years removed from the event. What could be the possible purpose of perpetuating a falsehood like that for so many years?
And then I found out.
Family feuds are long drawn out affairs in my part of the world. The Hatfields and McCoys have nothing on us. If we get cross-ways at someone, we can stay angry at them for generations. Everybody associated with you will take up the banner and perpetuate the conflict. And in the same manner, you are also distrustful of anyone they are related to or friends with. It was like a girlfriend of mine once said – “tell me who you’re mad at so I can be mad at them, too.”
But sometimes there are reasons to change history. Money. Love. Pride. Whatever. But our family story was changed because my grandfather decided to go in business with a man, decided to merge their families in marriage and present a united front in order to make a fortune in East Texas resources. The man was the nephew of the killer who murdered my great uncle. And my grandfather didn’t think they could convince people of their integrity if they knew this taint existed between the families.
I was disturbed. How can you rewrite history? But apparently it’s been done over and over. I had a very wise friend who told me that history is written by the victor with whatever spin he thinks will benefit him most.
Let me give you some other examples of things you might think are true – but aren’t.
Columbus didn’t discover America, Leif Ericson – among others – beat him here.
The Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony was not the first celebration of thanksgiving in the New World. There was one in Saint Augustine Florida in 1565 and in Jamestown Virginia in 1607.
George Washington did not have wooden teeth. Rather they were made with gold, hippopotamus ivory and lead.
Napoleon was not as short as we thought. He was 5 foot 2 French feet which is our 5 foot 7 – eh – still sorta short.
The Great Chicago Fire was not caused by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern. A newspaper man made it up to make his story more interesting.
Albert Einstein did not fail mathematics. In fact, he said he mastered calculus by age 15.
But most disturbing of all to this Texan was the possibility that Davy Crocket did not die at the Alamo at all but was captured and taken prisoner by Santa Ana and later executed.
What the heck?
It’s intriguing to find out that just because something is told and retold doesn’t mean its true. And just because you learn something at your mama’s knee – she might be mistaken. My family history certainly has proved that point.
So – I learned their technique but rebelled at their methods. I write stories, too. But I don’t claim they are fact.

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