Washington history: Boring no more

Seattle historian Lorraine McConaghy has written a new book that is not only a treasure trove of state history, but a tribute to the gold that can be mined in our archives.

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Lorraine McConaghy's New Land, North of the Columbia, Sasquatch Books.

Seattle historian Lorraine McConaghy has written a new book that is not only a treasure trove of state history, but a tribute to the gold that can be mined in our archives.

Lorraine McConaghy is an author, friend, and colleague. She is also the public historian for Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, and has a wonderful new book out, New Land, North of the Columbia (Sasquatch Books, $40). McConaghy is a treasure of Northwest historians, and her book is a treasure trove, a must-read for anyone who wants an eclectic, entertaining survey of Washington state history. Not everyone does, but this book proves those who don't care are missing a lot.

McConaghy has her fingers in many historical pies. She's the face of local history at MOHAI and is playing a key role in the new exhibits that will anchor the new museum when it opens at South Lake Union in November, 2012. It's no easy feat to sketch out a new narrative for Seattle's history (Disclosure: I did a small amount of advising on that project a couple of years ago, which gave me a great chance to watch McConaghy at work.). She's also been very involved in the museum's project to collect oral histories. 

She's lately made a study of Washington's connections to the Civil War for the current Sesquicentennial. She's been researching the antebellum influence on the U.S. Navy on the Pacific Coast, and in 2009 brought out Warship Under Sail (University of Washington Press, $34.95), her history of the Decatur, the naval vessel that bailed out the city during the first  "battle of Seattle." It was not only solid maritime history, but fleshed out pioneer Seattle, making it seem more akin to Deadwood than the noble New York Alki.

All this to say that McConaghy is busy, dedicated, and intensely curious and productive. She digs, she thinks, she studies, she writes, she publishes. She also speaks. The official roll-out party for her new book in early December took place at MOHAI and after the 200-some guests sampled hand-picked local cheeses and wine, we retired to the auditorium, where McConaghy gave the first annual Denny Lecture, a new series devoted to our history from our best historians. McConaghy's focus was on her book, and what she's learned from writing it.

It was a labor of more than writing, however, and that's where to begin. McConaghy shares her love of research with the book's deceptively simple formula: find important documents in the state's history, reproduce them, and then explain what they mean, and why they are important. It's kind of like a scrapbook, or a well-ordered collage, but it goes deeper as Lorraine tells the back stories and fleshes out the context.

McConaghy traveled to archives all over the state to uncover gems. But she doesn't drive, so she traveled from Puget Sound to the Okanogan to the Palouse by Greyhound, Amtrak, local transit, and by bumming rides from friends. The results of her archival explorations are a delight. 

We see, for example, Abraham Lincoln's handwritten response to having received the first telegraph message ever from the Washington Territory in September of 1864. There is a crudely written death threat to Seattle Mayor, Henry Yesler in 1885, telling him not to interfere with the ejection of the Chinese from the city: "I warn you to go slow Let the China biz alone for I got 25# of Dinemite." There's a hand-colored lantern slide showing the Great Seattle Fire. There's a telegram from James G. Blaine informing the governor that Washington became a state at "five o'clock and twenty seven minutes this afternoon," Nov. 11, 1889.

There's even a manifesto "Why I am a Klansman" from the page of Washington's Ku Klux Klan magazine, "Watcher on the Tower" from the 1920s. "The Klan is 100 percent for White Supremacy, Restricted Immigration, Protestantism, and Americanism," it declares. As McConaghy said in her lecture, there's no mistaking it for the Kiwanis Club.

The documents range in time from the beginning of the territory to the present day. There are gas rationing coupons from WWII, sketches of Depression-era hobos and New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps workers. There are photos of icons like the Twin Teepees restaurant, blueprints of a fallout shelter, the rough draft of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke's "The Rose," posters for rock concerts, radio transcriptions from the Forest Service on the day Mt. St. Helens blew, a sample of the weather-beaten 1992 log book that oxygen-starved climbers sign when they reach the summit of Mt. Rainier, a Windows 95 box.

McConaghy's big-picture takeaways from her research include a sense of our contradictions here in the Evergreen State. We're environmentally friendly, but have a deep history of resource exploitation and destruction. We embrace of diversity, but have abused minorities, from the original indigenous inhabitants to modern immigrants. We seem like peace-loving folk, but our state would not have developed without massive military and defense spending.

Washington may look settled on the map — a pretty state with a familiar shape — but it has been a rough, dynamic place with a human history that can hold its own with anyplace else. We brought the world Boeing, Hanford, Microsoft, but we're also a reflection of major, long-lasting conflicts and ambivalence. The book casts a wide net to capture this with telling documents and details.

New Land, North of the Columbia is also a tribute to the stuff of history itself, and it comes at a troubled time. With state budgets slashed and the Great Recession taking a toll, we are questioning our commitment to basic institutions. Funding has been slashed for schools, libraries, historical societies, archives, museums. McConaghy's book is a kind of banner to wave reminding us that much of our history, especially the documents that form the basis for how we know ourselves, are essential.

How can we make decisions without knowing who we are and where we come from? How can we gather facts when primary sources are lost, mildew, turn to dust?

"I am convinced that understanding the past makes the present make more sense than it would otherwise," says McConaghy, "and that when the present makes some sense, we can make better informed choices for the future. It’s not perfect and the variables are messy, but trying to make choices for the future when the present is an unknowable chaos and the past is a mystery, well, that’s just gambling. Museums, libraries, archives — these are secular places of absolute necessity in our society."

This is also a time when archives face technological changes. McConaghy's book celebrates physical objects in book form. The newspapers, drawings, photographs, postcards, letters, and ephemera she has gathered are wonderfully reproduced in color so you can read them and see the ink on paper, the folds, the stains. But they are not the documents themselves. Neither are digital files.

The state of Washington and other archives are working hard to get documents digitized for researchers and public access, a wonderful advance beyond card catalogs and microfilm. The digital archives of the historic Seattle Times (1900-1984) at the Seattle Public Library are an incredible new resource. But such advances should not replace preserving and studying original materials. The documents have their own clues to yield.

McConaghy gives an example: A copy of Gill's Chinook Dictionary she found at the Cowlitz County Historical Society. Chinook jargon was the trade patois locals used, made up of Indian, English, French. and other language influences. Widely used in the 19th century, it died out in the 20th. Yet this copy of the book from 1909 was well and long used by its owner. "The pages edges were stained in the middle where they were thumbed as the owner hunted for words and phrases," she writes. The book had also been repaired and rebound. It was clearly a workaday resource for years.

McConaghy says that it fell open to pages with translations for "Take this box to the steamer," "Cut it small for the stove," "Wash the dishes," phrases that suggest the types of transactions that were taking place between whites and Indians into this century. Her observations about the book's use could only be made by holding it in her hands.

One worries that this might be forgotten in technological transfer, with budget cuts and staff reductions. Documents created or saved digitally are problematic, partly because of fast shifts in technology. In a recent chat with KUOW's Steve Scher, he mentioned that he had interviewed the late writer Christopher Hitchens in the 1990s, but couldn't find it because the recordings had been saved to floppy disks, making them hard to find and who uses those anymore?

As I was working in the Puget Sound branch of the Washington State Archives recently, I was marveling at the organization and preservation of the Century 21 administrative files. But I wondered, with our newspapers withered and postal service on life support with the decline of first class letters, with so much electronic communication, how tough will it be for historians in the future to piece together our life and times from random collections of salvaged Tweets? We're leaving a very problematic trail of bread crumbs for folks to find us.

Of course, no trail, paper or digital, means anything unless someone is looking to follow it. And that's why people like Lorraine McConaghy are so essential: following the trail to obscure places to find cool stuff that's tells us something we didn't know, or that is long forgotten. Anyone can do it, historian or no. We can all play history detective because archives and their records are made to be used. 

But you have to be inspired to use them. If McConaghy's book is a reminder of the gold that's in those hills of documents stored in basements and back rooms, it's also a reminder that digging it out serves both the purpose of enlivening history and enlivening an interest in history. I well remember those old, pea green Washington State history books we used in school with their dated, muddy rotogravure illustrations and thinking: I live in the most boring place on the planet. I think about how differently I might have felt if I had had a book like McConaghy's to fire me up with the same excitement I felt digging through my grandparents' attic. 

Though I overcame the dare-to-be-dull era of Washington history, many never do. I hope books like New Land, North of the Columbia and exhibits like the ones planned for the new MOHAI can bring our stories to new generations in ways that are fresh, lively, and less stodgy than in the past. That will mean embracing and not whitewashing conflict and complexity. I also hope they will remind people of the importance of supporting the institutions, large and small, that keep history alive.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.