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In which the footnote to history perhaps gets its own body paragraph

There are times when people question why I have a blog. Particularly in the early days, my wife wavered from not understanding why anybody would ever have one to actively resenting the existence of the entire medium from time to time. Some fellow academics have (correctly) warned that you have to be very careful about what you post lest a journal down the road decide that you’re the person they’re going to take a hard line on with respect to how “previously published” is defined. Particularly in those moments when I feel burdened by a lack of time to put up posts, there are times when it just seems it would be better to take it down. Then, at other times, I realize that it’s very useful as a way of developing writing discipline, a way of spitballing certain kinds of ideas (even if it’s best to not fully develop them here), and that even if I’m not Rod Dreher and can just put up five 3,000 word essays a day before I’ve even finished my first cup of coffee, there’s a utility to keeping it up, even if I do so irregularly.

Then, every so often, there are other things that happen that make me glad that I have the blog.

Earlier this week, I got an e-mail from one Michael Kukowski, who had come across my earlier post on my great-great-grandfather, General Theodore H. Barrett. He believed he was in possession of a letter written by Theodore, dated 22 July 1871 from Fort Arbuckle, “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma). The letter is requesting equipment for the effort of the initial survey of the Territory, making the document a witness, as Michael put it, to “the literal birth of Oklahoma”.

Initially, however, it seemed like perhaps there had been a mistake. The letter was actually signed “T. H.”, not Theodore, and a timeline to Oklahoma history that Michael pointed me to referenced the survey work being done by Thomas Barrett, not Theodore. A quick Google search did turn up mentions of “Theodore Barrett” as the surveyor, but it was enough to generate questions. I had also never heard of Theodore doing any surveying, so I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all of this.

So, like the good historian I aspire to be, it was time to check my sources. As it happens, I have in my possession a scan of a different letter that we know was written by Theodore in 1889, so there was a handwriting sample against which Michael’s letter could be compared. I also knew that I had seen a fairly extensive obituary for Theodore at some point, but since my dad, uh, appropriatedall of the stuff his aunt Frances sent me all those years ago (“What are you doing with that? She must have meant to send that to me, not you. Why would she send it to you? I’d like it back, please.”), I didn’t have recourse to it. I started to see if there might be an electronic version of it anywhere, and curiously, I came up with — of all things — an Amazon.com listing for a publication called “Gen. Theo. H. Barrett: Address Delivered before the National Farmer’s Alliance At It’s Seventh Annual Meeting Held at Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tuesday, October 4th, 1887”, AKA “Address to the American People”, published in an undated (but no earlier than 1900) “memorial edition” by the Morris Tribune of Morris, Minnesota. I remembered this being referenced in Frances’ materials, and it seemed like it might be worthwhile to track down. Amazon listed it as, surprise of surprises, “Presently unavailable”, but it occurred to me that if Amazon listed it, maybe WorldCat might be able to find it, in which case I might be able to get it via interlibrary loan.

WorldCat listed two libraries in the world that have a copy: The Minnesota Historical Society Library, and — wait, what? — yes, no kidding, Indiana University.

Two libraries in the whole world. Sometimes, I tell you, it’s just clear to me that there are no accidents.

Within 24 hours, I had IU’s copy of the booklet in my hands. I appear to be the first person to have ever checked it out. It was just waiting for me.

The pamphlet is prefaced with a biographical sketch of Theodore, and it contains the following helpful information:

[Barrett] taught school for a short time and at the age of 19 [~1854] went to Wheeling, Virginia, where he engaged at surveying. He came to the then territory of Minnesota in 1856, and engaged in the practice of his profession, surveying, until 1862… [Following the Civil War,] General Barrett was mustered out of the service on the 19th day of January 1866 at which time he was brevetted Brigadier-General of the United States Volunteers, to take rank from March 13, 1865. After he was mustered out of the service he returned to Minnesota, and was for several years engaged in surveying the Government lands in Minnesota, Dakota, Canada, Oklahoma, Texas and the Indian Territory (emphasis mine).

So, there you have it. The other part of the happy ending is that Michael sent me a scan of his letter, and the handwriting on the two letters matched. So, yes, no question it’s the same Theodore. My great-great-grandfather invented Oklahoma.

The address is actually a fascinating little document on several levels. I plan on scanning it before returning it to the library, and I’m also really curious to contact the Morris Tribune (which still runs) to see if they have either any archival copies or any documents related to its publication. There seems to be a particular historical circumstance that he’s responding to in his speech, and I don’t feel like I know enough about what it is, but much of what he says seems applicable to present circumstances. I will perhaps more to say about that later.

In any event, while I’m definitely not a Civil War historian or an American historian by any means, I’m still a historian, and there’s part of me that is curious to see if there’s enough here for an article, particularly given the raw deal the history books have given Theodore when they do see fit to make mention of him. Michael wants to put the letter in a museum, possibly in Barrett, MN, and while I don’t know that they’ll have the right kind of facility for it, it would be great if it could wind up there. We’ll see.

In any event — these are the kinds of things that make me glad I write a blog. Thanks very much, Michael!

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