Check out Washington history with historian’s new book
April 3, 2012
By Tom Corrigan
A public historian for the Seattle Museum of History & Industry, Lorraine McConaghy describes her new book as an “exhibition between book covers.”
For “New Land, North of the Columbia,” McConaghy visited at least 50 archives, from national registries to small-town history museums. Very little of the research was done on the Internet. One reason is that some of the items she hoped to gather just aren’t available electronically, she said.
But probably more importantly, McConaghy said she wanted to actually see and feel the documents, wanted to see the context from which they emerged.
“I wanted to look at the material, to hold it in my hands,” she added.
McConaghy’s efforts resulted in a book filled with document reproductions including menus, correspondence, drafts of poems and Ku Klux Klan materials printed for what turned out to be a large rally in Issaquah. The book consists almost exclusively of samples of various documents with, as McConaghy put it, as little interruption by the historian as possible.
Sponsored by the Issaquah History Museums and the statewide, nonprofit group Humanities Washington, McConaghy will speak about her book April 14 at the Issaquah Train Depot.
If you go
Lorraine McConaghy, author of ‘New Land, North of the Columbia’
“New Land” covers Washington history from 1853 to the present day. Documents include a telegram signed by Abraham Lincoln never before seen by the public. Still, McConaghy pointed elsewhere when asked about her favorite discoveries. In her opinion, one standout is a 1910 jargon book meant to aid traders in dealings with the native Chinook peoples.
The book was well-used, McConaghy said, adding it was easy to see where it had fallen apart and been taped back together. Smudge marks and fingerprints showed her what pages had seen the most use. Those pages included phrases dealing with bargaining over a cord of wood. McConaghy found the book in a small museum in Cowlitz County.
In Spokane, at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, McConaghy read the words of a prostitute named Abbie Widner recorded in 1905 on hotel stationary. The letters or journal entries were surprisingly honest about Widner’s life, according to McConaghy. The woman was more than willing to travel to the Yukon and sell herself in order to be with a man she claimed to love.
As for that Issaquah KKK rally, it was a large-scale convention that took place in 1924. McConaghy found copies of a KKK publication known as “The Watcher on the Tower” that spelled out in open terms what the KKK stood for. Some 55,000 people attended the Issaquah gathering.
“There were flaming crosses and the whole nine yards,” McConaghy said.
“New Land” took more than a year of digging through archives and records. McConaghy several times emphasized her desire to do the research directly, not over the Internet. She said she believes of the historic records out there, only a small percentage has been digitized. For example, MOHAI has some 4 million documents in its collection. Maybe 4,500 are available online.
“I think people are terribly misled into thinking everything is on the Web,” McConaghy said.
Word of mouth largely directed her search. She heard from friends and colleagues of certain places she might want to visit, of certain papers she might want to see. The overall task was made more challenging by the fact that McConaghy is an epileptic and doesn’t drive. Her journeys had to be places she could reach by some sort of mass transit.
Besides “New Land,” which appeared in November 2011, McConaghy is the author of several other books, including a history of The Seattle Times. Awaiting publication by the University of Washington, her next book is the story of a slave and his master and how they affected each other’s lives.
McConaghy’s local appearance is thanks to underwriting by Humanities Washington, Issaquah History Museums Director Erica Maniez said. As a speaker and author, McConaghy is well-known in the local history community and is a higher profile speaker than the Issaquah History Museums may have had in the past, Maniez added.
The history group is deliberately trying to improve the level of its speakers, she added, but does not have money budgeted for speakers. While no plans have been finalized, Maniez said the group may work with Humanities Washington again in the future. For now, Maniez said she is just hoping McConaghy draws a good crowd.
Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.