Taking a new look at history

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 23, 2006

The Selma Times-Journal

Last summer, I made a trip with my mother, two nieces and nephew to Washington, D.C. and Virginia. One of our stops included Colonial Williamsburg.

I was excited to go back to Williamsburg, because I remembered going as a child. Among the craftsmen I was looking forward to showing my nieces and nephew were the glass blowers and the candlemakers.

When I got my map of Colonial Williamsburg, however, I saw no glass blowers, or candle makers. We did see wig makers, cabinet makers, coopersmiths, blacksmiths, tailors, even a printing press and apothecary. But no glass blowers.

Looking for a place to rest, I sat on a bench next to one of the re-enactors of Williamsburg. I said I remembered the glass blowers from when I visited as a child and wondered why I hadn’t seen any on this trip.

He told me that upon further research of Williamsburg, it was determined the city was quite cosmopolitan, having regular trade routes with Europe. So luxury items, such as soap, candles and glass were shipped in, instead of made locally.

The organizers of Colonial Williamsburg had corrected their historical mistake.

Lately, we’ve heard from some local folks who are concerned about those who would “re-write” history.

The truth is, history is constantly being re-written – by historians, researchers, archeologists. Every time a diary, journal or letters are found, every time an historic site is excavated, new information comes to light.

We also view history from the perspective of who wrote it – usually the winners. But what happens to our view of history if we only see westward expansion in the United States from the viewpoint of the federal government?

What about the viewpoint of Indians?

Or Mexicans in the Southwest part of the United States?

Wouldn’t their version of the westward expansion be a little different? Does that mean it’s not accurate?

I watched a movie last weekend, “The End of the Spear.” I’ve written before about the story – five missionaries killed in the jungle of Ecuador in the 1950s. I had read about it in Elisabeth Elliott’s book, “Through Gates of Splendor.”

Elliott, wife of one of the missionaries, Jim Elliott, wrote from the perspective of the missionaries and their families.

“The End of the Spear” was based on a book written by Steve Saint, son of missionary pilot Nate Saint, who was also killed. Saint tells the story from the viewpoint of the Waodani Indians who killed the missionaries.

Same story. It doesn’t change what happened. But it does give a better understanding of why it happened.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.”

While the facts of history may or may not change, our perspective certainly can be influenced as more facts unfold.

Tammy Leytham is editor of The Times-Journal.