Carrie’s post yesterday about the historical significance of Lewis & Clark was still rattling around in my head when I saw the following headline:
ARCHEOLOGISTS FIND 18TH-CENTURY STORE
FORT EDWARD, N.Y. – This history-rich Hudson River community has yielded a museum’s worth of 18th-century military artifacts over the decades, from musket balls to human skeletons. But a colonial soldier’s daily lot wasn’t all fighting and bloodshed. They had their share of down time, and that’s where the sutler came in, offering for sale two of the few diversions from frontier duty: alcohol and tobacco.
A five-year-long archaeological project has unearthed the 250-year-old site of a merchant’s establishment that sold wine, rum, tobacco and other goods to the thousands of soldiers who passed through this region during the French and Indian War, when Fort Edward was the largest British military post in North America.
This little news item might offer a few angles on the problem Carrie raises, regarding the general ignorance and/or incuriosity of the public about our period.
Lewis & Clark, as far as I can tell from Plotz’s dismissals, only became interesting because of their availability as narrative: they could easily fit into paradigms of exploration and conquest that were getting increasingly popular in the early ’60s (remember the Daniel Boone show from those days?), even if they weren’t really responsible for any particular event or significance beyond the fact of their travels. Plotz wants to demystify them as Great Men, and wants to demystify their travels as an event of national importance.
What this news item describes, however, is a much more typical kind of historical investigation nowadays: a site is discovered, but the names of those who smoked tobacco and drank in the little store/tavern attached to Fort Edwards will never be known, and no Great Man of my acquaintance ever traveled through there. And yet knowing something of the trade routes, the commodities bought and sold there (where did they come from, I wonder?), the military maneuvers, would give us a great deal of information about this region. But this kind of investigation will not give us a narrative as memorable as “The Lewis and Clark Expedition,” until some canny historian provides it.
Academic historians have until very recently taken a very anti-narrative turn, leaving earlier forms of historical story-telling to people like Ambrose, who takes a well-deserved shot in Plotz’s piece. But perhaps it is possible for historians (and literary scholars) to return to the story-telling function, without all the mythologizing, in the manner of Ginzburg or Natalie Zemon Davis, or perhaps even Simon Schama’s recent books. Then we might all know as much about the soldiers of Fort Edwards as we do about Lewis and Clark.