Public Lands History Center at Colorado State University

Posted by Dr. Adrian Howkins

Early in the morning of Friday April 18, Doug Sheflin and I drove from our homes in Boulder and Longmont to Scotts Bluff National Monument to conduct preliminary research for the environment history portion of our project. On the two-and-half hour journey we discussed the project, and thought a little about the way we were two PhD historians traveling to a place that we don’t really know to help them think about their history. Unfortunately, Superintendent Ken Mabery was unexpectedly off work with illness and so we couldn’t meet with him to discuss the project. But two NPS staff members (Bob Manasek, the resource management specialist, and Justin Cawiezel, a law enforcement ranger) stepped in and generously gave their time to talk to us about the history of the park and the nature of the project. We also met with Jack Preston and Barb Netherland, two experienced volunteers at the nearby Legacy of the Plains Museum to discuss our project and talk about potential resources. While having dinner and a beer in the evening at a local bar we talked about the history of the Moment and the local towns of Scotts Bluff and Gering with Dick Hoffman, a retired publican who had run the Union Bar in Gering for around 30 years.

We drove back from Scotts Bluff on Saturday afternoon enthused about the project with a much better sense of how we intend to approach the work. We are thinking of writing a series of thematic essays about the environmental history of the park accompanied by concise outlines of how these themes might be used by the Harpers Ferry team to renovate the visitor display (e.g. lists of possible quotations, pictures, artifacts, maps, etc.). This thematic approach would be something different from the Historic Resource Studies and Administrative Histories that have already been written, and would permit a high degree of flexibility with publication. Perhaps most importantly, it allows for an approach to the project that is both collaborative and workable. For me, it seems like the existing display is a classic example of an “old western history” focused on the frontier and the pioneering spirit of the western migrants (in fact it is so classic that it would be great to preserve some of it and put it in the new display as a demonstration of how people talked about this history in the middle of the twentieth century). Native Americans disappear from the story shortly after the arrival of the “white man,” and Mexicans and other minorities are almost entirely absent. Our remit is to focus on Native Americans, women and minorities, and the environment – a holy trinity of a new western history. While I very much like the focus of these topics, they also seem a little dated. Most of the people we talked to were already much further ahead of us in thinking about their history in these terms.

I think the biggest contribution we can make to the history of Scotts Bluff is by putting into practice the collaborative approach to history that we’re developing at the Center. Scotts Bluff is a place of multiple histories, sometimes coexisting and sometimes conflicting. For example it is both a place of transience and a place of settlement – it is unlikely that the Oregon Trail would be commemorated in the way it is at this place without the nearby towns. A collaborative approach – both within our own project team and with the broader communities of the Monument and the towns – offers the best chance of bringing these different narratives to the surface in a way that honors different perspectives, and allows the Monument to celebrate its history without overlooking its problems. I would suggest that some of the approaches being developed by digital historians have much to offer this goal. For example, digital tools might offer a way to collect historical material at the same time as encouraging an ongoing dialogue with the communities we’re working with. A digital approach might also move beyond a linear, winner-takes-all narrative.