Historical Accuracy

When the average student opens a textbook they are expecting what is written down to be proven, factual information. They trust the author to provide them with useful and valuable facts, which they can apply to help further their education. In most cases, the students have to look no further than what is written down in their textbook, because the material presented has been verified over and over again, through countless experimentation and observation. For example, if a science experiment is tested many times and the same result is found, then it can be said that the findings will be universally the same for all experiments that follow this same procedure. Also, if a problem is worked countless times in math and the same answer is found, that answer will always be the correct response to that certain question. However, this is not the case for all subjects.

In history, for example, what is written down is often a collection of various findings and observations found over a long period of time. The information presented in textbooks is usually factual, but only covers a small portion of a given period in time. It is the job of historians to gather all known information about the past, select what is the most important, and re-construct these facts into a narrative account. As James Davidson puts it, “History is not ‘what happened in the past’; rather, it is the act of selecting, analyzing, and writing about the past (xxi).”

In Davidson’s After the Fact and John Gaddis’ The Landscape of History, the tools and techniques of gathering, analyzing, and selecting historical facts is displayed to the reader. Through these readings the reader can get a better understanding of the comprehensive, somewhat tedious work of historians. Through extensive research and in-depth analysis historians attempt to re-create the past, using anything from original journal entries to modern day anthropologic evidence.

James Axtell’s article, “The Unkindest Cut, or Who Invented Scalping?” uses some of Davidson and Gaddis’ methods to try and give an accurate historical account of the true origin of scalping. He sets out to find if scalping was first introduced by Europeans settling the New World or if it was practiced by Native Americans before Columbus’ arrival. When talking about the word “scalp”, Axtell goes in-depth and provides three different meanings of the word as it was used in the time of 17th century Europe. Axtell uses the different interpretations of “scalp” to “strengthen the documentary argument for pre-Columbian scalping because the lack of precise and economical words to describe the practice indicates the lack of a concept of scalping (15).” The tactic of finding more than one definition of an object is suggested by Davidson when he says “the difficulty of taking any document at face value becomes quickly apparent (1).”

When John Gaddis argues that the historian of the past is much better off than the participant in the present, his main point of emphasis is the historian studying the past has “an expanded horizon (4).” In researching more about the practice of scalping, James Axtell resorts to this “expanded horizon” by using modern archeological evidence to help paint a clearer picture. Axtell states, “If Indian skulls of the requisite age can be found showing unambiguous marks of scalping, then the new wisdom of scalping must be discarded (19).” After Axtell dug through all the journal entries, letters, and ancient descriptions of scalping, he still wanted more evidence of its occurrence. So he turned to archeologists to help in his findings. By implementing this technique into his work, he discovered valuable clues, which would not have been possible without this “expanded horizon” on the issue of scalping.

In John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive, he describes the invasion of Frenchmen and Indians on a small village in Massachusetts in the early 1700’s. He uses the journal entries of the town minister, John Williams, to help give first hand accounts of the situation. In Demos’ story, he tells the story in narrative form. He describes events just as if the reader was watching a movie. One aspect that is intriguing about Demos’ writing, is that he tells the story basically from two points of views; the attackers (French and Indians) and