January 11, 2012

On Plausibility: Trying to Assess "Influence" in the American West

a.k.a. The ASCH Recap, Part II
by Cara Burnidge

Editors' note: The first part of Cara Burnidge's ASCH recap was published on Monday. Click here, or just scroll down, to see it. Here's the second, and concluding, part.

In his response to the ASCH panel “Violence and Religion: Nineteenth-Century Massacres in the American West,” Gilded Age and Progressive Era historian Walter Nugent drew attention to the way in which the panel focused on cross-cultural “borrowings.” Indeed, Jan Shipps and Sarah Gordon emphasized how both Mormons and Native Americans utilized sacred garments to protect themselves in battle. Just as the Lakota believed that their shirts could protect them from bullets at Wounded Knee, Saints felt assured their undergarments would protect them from injury at Mountain Meadows. Though interested in these points of convergence, Nugent was not convinced that the relationship was necessarily mimetic. He offered a subtle caution in overstating the influence of religious worldviews when direct evidence of interconnectedness is lacking.

Although connections were present, Nugent considered the associations only plausible, wondering out loud to the group “Is that good history?” Without clearer indications that the presence of an idea—however prevalent it may be—shapes historical actors, to what degree can we, as historians, claim its “influence”? Or, as Nugent asked the audience: How much does “floating around” solidly cause influence?

In my own musings on Nugent’s questions for the panel, I understand the import of ensuring the certainty of our evidence. However, I also contend that when we ignore what is merely plausible, we would have “good” history but we might not have better history. Perhaps my specialization in religious history has caused an exaggerated sense of comfort in light of insufficient materiality, but I find “solid” evidence a rare occurrence in the historical record. My doubt (pessimism?) in writing the unquestionably certain historical narrative does not dishearten the search for “what happened,” but rather animates it.

Take for instance the massacre at Mountain Meadows: For nearly 150 years, many believed that Native Americans—and not Mormon Saints—were responsible for the tragedy. Uncovering the truth behind Mountain Meadows required historical inquiry based on the plausibility of errors in the historical account, in this case the band of Mormon men lying about their experiences. Eventually, the nagging plausibility of another explanation led to more accurate information about what happened.

How do other readers reconcile potential narratives that are plausible but not certain in their own research?

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