“Source Material” and The Frontier Army

27 June 2019

If money is the “mother’s milk” of politics, then “source material” is the same to the study of the frontier American army. Primary sources from the nineteenth century—letters, diaries, reminiscences, American Indian oral histories, maps, eyewitness accounts buried in public records, official government records, and photographs—serve as the foundation of the research carried out by the contributors to The Frontier Army. Documentary evidence shapes and drives the narrative of each essay. To those of us who have long labored in this fascinating field of study, it truly may be our “golden age” of source material.

Most of us authors came of age when finding, gathering, and organizing the primary sources of history was a chore. We started with a shelf of books, a library card, and an empty file cabinet and moved hell-bent-for-leather to fill more shelves and more cabinets. This method required countless hours of ranging through library stacks, leafing through manuscript guides in archives, standing at copiers, and rolling through reel after reel of microfilmed newspapers. The yearly trip to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., always meant a costly venture, more like Black Hills prospecting than anything else, but usually resulted in a gold mine of relevant, thought-provoking documents.

My friend Thomas R. (“Tom”) Buecker—one of the pair of historians to whom we dedicated The Frontier Army—relished such trips and brought back to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, armfuls of copied primary documents after each undertaking. Every page was carefully studied, annotated, and systematically placed in its appropriate subject folder, to join thousands of other documents in his relentless effort to learn all things about this important frontier army post. The “Fort Robinson files” were essential in his two-volume, comprehensive history of the post and after his death made their way to the archives of the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincolnwhere they await researchers today.

The more adventurous traveler—I’m thinking of John D. (“Jack”) McDermott, the second person whom we recognized in The Frontier Army—used his cross-country trips to stop at small, out-of-the-way libraries and archives to scour their collections for hidden gems of the American West. For Jack, decades of dedicated hunting resulted in a vast trove of source material that he turned into a host of significant publications on the frontier army and the Indian wars. His two-volume Red Cloud’s War, coming as it did in his last years, epitomized this life-long endeavor. A truckload of research material in his Rapid City home came to Black Hills State University shortly before his death, where the collection will be preserved and processed, eventually to promote and inspire the research of others.

We consciously keep the research efforts of our late colleagues in mind as we continue their work to find and bring to public attention new and essential documents for studying our collective past. Three of the essays in The Frontier Army are prime examples of this effort. My chapter on “Harney’s Aide-de-Camp at the Blue Water Fight” and Paul L. Hedren’s “The Fourth United States Artillery and the Great Sioux War” rescue and bring to light the valuable accounts of two Indian wars participants. The first is an intimate personal correspondence from a love-struck lieutenant to the object of his affections; the second consists of revealing letters sent “back home” that, although meant for a public readership, did not carry any sort of official stamp of approval. The third example is Lori Cox-Paul’s essay “No Time to Fight,” which plumbs two vintage military periodicals to uncover the rich details of the everyday life of the frontier officer, enlisted man, and their dependents, often through their own words.

Historical fads and fancies may change with the times, and each generation will quite rightly pose the questions that most interest them, but doing basic research—discovering, arranging, and analyzing primary documents and presenting the critical information they hold—should never go out of fashion.

 

R. Eli Paul

 


 

R. Eli Paul is the editor of The Frontier Army: Episodes from Dakota and the West, published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press in May 2019.

Image at top a sketch of the Blue Water Creek by Gouverneur K. Warren in September 1855, redrawn by Robert Harvey in 1911. Nebraska State Historical Society