The Fact of the Matter Is…
From the Files of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities (GHAA)
Q - How is it determined who was at Strawberry Point, what they did, and when? How can you know for sure?
A - Considering that the first settlers at Strawberry Point came nearly 100 years ago, that is a good question! A lot of people associated with our spec of the world have come and gone, generations have been scattered, and a lot of history (for better or worse) has been recorded and etched in time.
So, what is the measure of historical fact? Here are some of the challenges. At times the essence of a story is known, but important details are lacking. On the other hand, some stories have great “details” but molt and change every time you hear them. And what if it is down in writing? It must be true, right? Yes—if it was accurate to begin with. Stories that get added to (or subtracted from), or “half of the story”—either by malicious intent or simply by mistake are every historian’s nightmare. If a story is misrepresented by someone 50 years ago (or even yesterday!), it can be innocently repeated, rewritten, quoted, and requoted until it becomes accepted fact.
Some “reporters” of history are determined to stick to accurate details and are careful about dates, places, people, and things. Others are not. Even our humanity plays a role—memories and perceptions are individual and can be unreliable. Then there are those who have an agenda—something to prove, and will attempt to alter history to further that goal. All of these scenarios present the same problem. Records only make sense and become important to the extent they are correct and can be collaborated.
At GHAA we use everything we can get our hands on! Every letter, document, photo, interview, diary, and story is taken into account. But what happens when they disagree with each other? What if the same person’s writings contradict themselves?! What if some commonly accepted facts prove to be wrong? The answers? They do, they have, and they are! For example, some homesteaders’ reports/writings more consistently align with provable fact, and others just as consistently (with great authority) hand out claims and dates as loose as Gustavus’ wild cattle. Whether the liberty takers are just entertaining story tellers, casual about the facts (or worse), is beyond the scope of GHAA to decide. But the result is that more weight is given to some accounts (when there is conflict) than others. Documentation that occurs at the time is preferable to later accounts, etc. In the end, do we always get it exactly right? Probably not. But we use everything at our disposal—research, hard documentation, cross-referencing, and time-lining, before we are confident enough to make a judgment call.
Can government records be trusted? Absolutely not. GHAA has the first 1920 and subsequent census records from Strawberry Point. From that we learn exactly who was here, their age, occupation, where they (and mother & father) were born, marital status, how many were in the household, veteran status, etc. But the information was only as good as the census taker, and much of it was obviously guessed at from a distance. Example—Harry Hall, Bert & Les Parker were all listed as born in Alaska. They were not. And that’s just the beginning of the problems.
Here is another example—a long “accepted fact” that is not true at all. It is said (and repeated book after book) that Abraham Lincoln Parker (age 72) was so determined (and confident) of finding gold that he built a stamp mill in Gustavus (ahead of time) and in 1938 he and son Leslie took it to Glacier Bay in search of the gold. What is always cited as remarkable is that it is the only known account of someone building a stamp mill in anticipation of finding the gold. And find gold they did! It makes a good story. But here are the simple facts. Leslie and Abraham had already been prospecting the Ptarmigan Creek area of Glacier Bay in 1937. Each had staked 3 claims to which they were returning with the stamp mill to crush samples of ore on site so as not to have to haul their ore all the way back to Gustavus. Yes, in 1938 the Leroy claim was staked by Leslie Parker and eventually mined commercially. But the “foresight” and building of the stamp mill had nothing at all to do with it. Go to www.GustavusHistory.org and search on documents “White Eagle”, “Last Chance”, “Big Thing”, and “Heap Skookum” for their 1937 claims.