Examining Historic Documents

Facing his fellow countrymen in a British court, Attny. John Adams prepared to make his final statement to defend the soldiers charged with committing murder in Boston in 1770.

“Facts are stubborn things,” he proclaimed, “And whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Historians and researchers realize the message Adams was attempting to convey. We are all too apt to dismiss what we don’t know, before investing the time to understand it. As a public historian, the most common misunderstanding that I hear, is the interpretation of period documents. Then arrives that sentence that irks me the most:

“They must’ve gotten it wrong.”

This is backwards thinking.

It discredits the possibility that the author is capable of doing his or her job. An employer doesn’t interview a prospective worker with the belief that he or she may do poorly. They hire someone based on how well they perform.

Recently, I was asked to examine the record of a Georgia soldier, who was killed in the fighting at one of our park sites, Ft. Harrison, on Sept. 30, 1864. The descendant wrote:

Please take a look at the last document, it looks like a payment to DE Gibson dated 1865.

If he was killed in 1864, how could that be?

Good question.. considering the fact that he was, well, passed-on. Fortunately, this question isn’t one based in doubt; simply an honestly one, with the chief issue being the scan itself. I reply back with a better scan I acquired from Fold3, a company that provides better copies of the microfilm at the National Archives (where this document came from).
Image with higher resolution and better contrast.(Fold3)

Image with higher resolution and better contrast.


Forwarded image with clearly defined date, “May 15th, 1863″.

A quick e-mail is sent, the descendant is happy, and all parties are satisfied. Done and done.


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