“History is written by the victors.” This is variously attributed to Alex Haley, Tom Landry, Dan Brown, Winston Churchill, and Napoleon Bonaparte. We will never be sure where the phrase came from, but that doesn’t diminish the truth behind the concept. History is written by the victors because often the vanquished had lost everything; their cities were destroyed, their wealth stolen, and their literature and their culture buried.
The stories that people pass on as oral histories can be very revealing, but as oral histories they are subject to change and misinterpretation. Historians have preferred to use “primary” sources, sources that are closest to the event being studied. They are first hand accounts of the time. They still may be prejudicial or even inaccurate, but they are of the moment and generally far more reliable than retold stories. So, perhaps it is more accurate to say that good history is written by people who can access preserved primary sources. This sometimes requires a great deal of analysis or even major translation.
Egyptian hieroglyphics were thought for hundreds of years to be mere decoration. Many examples were preserved in the dry climate of the desert, but the meaning had been lost for nearly 1,500 years. When the Rosetta Stone provided the key to translation, then and only then, could Egyptian history be written. The translation would never have occurred if the primary sources had dissolved and faded into dust. So the key to writing history is the ability to preserve and protect the primary sources that have the necessary information.
Some primary sources, like the hieroglyphs, can wait for centuries before they can be read and understood. Paint and stone have proven to be fairly hardy, and in some climates the information remains vibrant and easily read even after thousands of years. Graffiti painted on the walls of Pompeii were sealed from the weather by volcanic ash, and, once uncovered, the color and form appeared almost new two thousand years later. Some other primary sources are far more delicate, and the information is much more at risk. Most of the primary sources for modern history are now found in the medium of paper and ink. And while ink can fade and paper can decompose, the real threat to this medium is simple carelessness. Damp conditions, haphazard storage, and the very real threat of ignorance (not recognizing the potential historical value) have eliminated most of our primary sources. Landfills across the nation have absorbed and composted much of our national history. Thankfully, we do have libraries and historical societies that have preserved a percentage of the information that has been produced, but only a small percentage at best. And it is entirely possible that many of our conclusions have been generalized incorrectly because the sample was so small.
As each decade passes, our sources diminish. Last year’s bills are saved only for tax purposes and after that they are shredded and thrown in the recycle bin. The receipt for a pair of pants purchased at Macy’s may only last a few days, the grocery receipt a few hours at best. Are these important pieces of history? Last week’s junk mail is simply junk. Last year’s junk mail is still junk. Junk mail from fifty years ago somehow becomes interesting. Advertisements from the 1860s are absolutely fascinating. The older the document, the more important it becomes, regardless of the content. And if the content has importance, then the document becomes priceless. This is the story of one archive, a collection of papers, photos, letters, etc. that one family collected and preserved. It was passed down from generation to generation with some care, until the meaning was lost, and the collection was finally consigned to the local landfill. What other histories are hidden in dusty attics, shredded by mice, and edging closer each year to the annual curb side pickup?
The bulk of the archive is the personal correspondence. Over 1500 letters, most with envelopes and mailing information, make up the collection. The family name that appears most often is Truesdell, and the addresses on the envelopes are in often in New York State, New Jersey, and Boston, Mass. The earliest letters are dated from 1856 and they continued until about 1892.
Charles Carroll Truesdell from Syracuse, New York is the primary archive individual. He was born in Camillus. NY in 1833, and died in Germantown, PA on April 23,1894. The letters corresponded perfectly with his adult life span. Mary Fessenden is the prominent subject with dozens of letters addressed to Charles and almost as many addressed to her. In November of 1869 she married Charles Truesdell and eventually had two children, Harriet and John. This is the immediate family with a majority of the archive directly related to them. Charles was an engineer for the state of New York and as such he travelled a great deal. In some situations, he was able to move his family with him because the project was large and took some time to complete. In other cases it was a small project of only a few weeks duration. With Charles away from home it was natural that many letters were written between the family members. In many historic collections we only have the received letters but in this case we have both sides of the correspondence. In addition, there are many letters to and from Colonel John Fessenden, Mary’s father, and George Truesdell, Charles’ brother.