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Adventures in the Archives—and Beyond: An Historian’s Unconventional Research

Afternoon Lecture/Seminar

Thursday, May 30, 2024 - 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1NV075
This online program is presented on Zoom.
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For historians like Megan Kate Nelson, the “archive”—usually a library, university, museum, or historical society collection—is a sacred place. They go there to uncover the lived experiences of past Americans through first-person accounts: diaries, letters, family papers, newspapers and magazines, and other primary source materials. They sit at long wooden tables, put on gloves, and sift through documents produced hundreds of years ago. It’s an experience they covet as a vital part of their research process. However, sometimes the archive does not contain the answers they seek. What happens then? 

Nelson discusses three research adventures that led her to places beyond the traditional archives during her preparation for The Three-Cornered War, a book about the American Civil War in the desert Southwest that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2021. 

A visit to a mountain pass in the Organ Mountains of New Mexico revealed that battle reports, letters, and maps don’t always account for the environmental realities of warfare. Seeing Baylor Pass for herself changed the way Nelson understood the nature of the first engagement of the Civil War in the Southwest: The Confederate pursuit and forced surrender of U.S. troops at San Augustin Springs in July 1861.

Biographers have always argued that Mary Canby, the daughter of Louisa Canby and U.S. Colonel E.R.S. Canby, who commanded U.S. troops in New Mexico, died as a child in the early 1850s. But a stray mention in the letters of an officer serving with Canby in the Mormon War of 1858 led to a two-month search for Mary, and showed Nelson how and why women often disappear from the historical record. 

For Nelson, the research process often involves “reading” sources that are not in print. During a trip to the Navajo Nation Museum, she saw baskets and blankets woven by Navajo women to provide for their families and tell the histories of their people. Material culture is an under-utilized source in many American history narratives, and the ability to see and understand these objects helped her tell the story of Juanita, a Navajo civilian whose story is at the heart of The Three-Cornered War.

Nelson’s behind-the-scenes glimpses offer unique perspectives on the historical research process for her book and the challenges historians face as they try to reconstruct the large-scale and intimate details of past events.

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