Public History Has to Get the History Right

The explosion of digital technologies, falling prices for equipment, and the development of an online audience interested in history has allowed everyone to get into the business of public history. Anyone with a netbook and perhaps a Flip video camera can produce original history content, put it online via Blogger or Facebook or dozens of other free platforms, and publicize their wares with Twitter or listservs or whatever. But what good does this do us if they get their history wrong?

Exhibit A: This podcast on the Whitman Tragedy by what appears to be a one-man outfit, US History Travelcast. I very much admire what Jeff Linder, the author of this podcast series, is trying to do. His fledgling site has podcasts on topics as diverse as Plymouth Rock, Seth Bullock (of Deadwood fame), and a 1959 prison riot in Montana. Many of the topics are drawn from Linder's travels and his website includes photographs of many of the featured locations. Unfortunately the content, at least for this episode, is pretty weak.

The problem with Linder's podcast is that he tells the story of the Whitman Mission exactly the way historians of a hundred years ago told the story--of saintly missionaries who headed west and were murdered by superstitious (and faceless) Indians who did not know any better. Linder begins his story with the missionaries at their homes in the northeast, rather than with the Cayuse and Walla Walla peoples along the Columbia. He carefully recites the the full names of each missionary, while mentioning no native person by name until he drops the names of two of the individuals who killed the Whitmans. Indeed the first mention of Indians at all is when he says that the Whitman's joined a fur brigade for safety against "raiding bands of Indians." He repeats the idea that part of the importance of the missionaries is that their party included the "first white women over the Rockies," which is one of those racialized "firsts" that makes modern historians cringe.

The important back story to the mission--the fur trade, the native journey to Saint Louis, the religious changes before the Whitman's arrival--are absent. Linder has Lewis and Clark "discovering" the Columbia River, which would have been news to the American and English sea captains who had sailed up its mouth a generation earlier, let alone the native peoples who had lived there for a hundred generations. He repeats the old myth that a wagon train of immigrants gave measles to the Cayuse, an idea disproven by anthropologist Robert Boyd a decade ago. And Linder has the mixed bloods Joe Lewis and Nicolas Finley as instigators of the killings--a popular 19th century theory but one not widely accepted today.

In his introductory episode Linder explains that he was never interested in history until a recent visit to Washington D.C. where history really came alive to him. "I am not a historian," Linder explains, "I don't have a degree in history." And yet he does have a podcast about history, and his lack of historical training undermines his efforts.

I have spent too many words picking on this poor podcaster who wanted nothing more than to share his love of history.  Let me turn to the real culprit here--the historical profession, which has been slow to adopt new technologies and has left the digital path open to well-meaning but untrained amateurs. Most of us could easily create a podcast and some blog posts on some of our favorite topics. It isn't that hard. But we fail to embrace the new opportunities to reach a public that is hungry for history, and others fill the vacuum.

[Illustration: This diorama of the killing of the Whitman's used to be on display at Whitman Mission National Monument. It was eventually removed because of its factual inaccuracy and because it was offensive to the tribes. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Digital Archives.]