On Investigating Lost History

One of the particular challenges of investigating the past lies in the lack of evidence. This semester, I’m teaching a class in experiential storytelling that focuses on investigating lost stories and local history, and we’re uncovering some really interesting stories.

One of the first steps took us to the Marilyn J. Lass Center for Minnesota Studies on our Minnesota State University, Mankato campus. The archivists there showed students a wide variety of primary source materials, including diaries and personal papers, that form the basis for additional research or storytelling. Students found everything from cookbooks to community histories of soldiers from the first Great War, and each emerged from that session with three great ideas for future stories. Our archivists/librarians also demonstrated several databases available through the campus that provide information, images, and other resources for storytelling.

Our next trip took us to the Blue Earth County Historical Society, which hosts a wide variety of primary source materials that students found inspirational. One student was particularly taken in by a diary of a soldier from Mankato who served in World War II. I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

I, too, have been inspired. The challenge of seeking lost history, as I noted earlier, is a lack of evidence. Period newspapers only cover stories of interest to those who were producing and reading the paper. In some cases, that can lead to total ignorance about some people in the population. Women’s history, black history, indigenous history, and other overlooked history must be gleaned from the “margins”, or the absence of their stories in such public records. As regular readers of this blog know, much of my own research has investigated farm women’s history, in particular. That interest forced me to seek alternate sources, including a single farm woman’s magazine and oral history, to try and uncover their stories in the U.S. Midwest in the 20th century.

Primary sources such as those that start in archives, however, can lead investigators to new pieces of history that have rarely been uncovered. One item I was delighted to discover at the historical society was a meticulously collected series of “social notes” for communities surrounding Mankato, including communities that no longer exist. I plan to dig more deeply into these notes to see if they can shed light on those who lived in such lost communities, and into the character of those communities.

The class has a great deal more to do. We plan field trips to the Minnesota Treaty Center, as well as other sites related to the Dakota War of 1862, and we plan trips to “lost” Mankato sites such as old Front Street and Victorian homes. Along the way, we work to ask these questions: Whose story is told here? Whose story is missing? Where can that story be found? If it can’t be found, what have we lost?

We’re also investigating memory. Of the stories we find told, who told them? Why? And what compelled the original storyteller to preserve it?

Examining these questions will help us all become better storytellers as we uncover lost stories.

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