Digital History

When I was 17, my father presented me a mystery: a thick, age-darkened packet of folded paper with crumbling edges and stiff creases. It was a letter, written in 1849, exactly a century before I was born, “from a valley on the west side of the rocky mountains.” This letter’s twenty-two densely written pages told the story of O.H.P White’s overland journey west in search of gold.

The letter had been handed down through several generations of my family, but neither the writer nor the two recipients of the letter appeared in the family Bible; nor were they lurking among the headstones in the family cemetery.

Who was O.H.P. White? How was he connected to my family? What happened to him? Did he make it to California? Did he find gold? Was he ever heard from again?

For decades, these questions, and the letter, were consigned to my desk drawer. While I knew, in theory, how to seek the answers through conventional historical research methods, the sources I would have needed to consult resided on paper or microfilm (remember microfilm?) in far flung archives and libraries. In practice, I didn’t have the resources to pursue such a quest.

And then came the internet, and the ability to access digital archives and share information with networks of other researchers without ever leaving home. I was able to travel in time back to Covington, Tennessee, and “meet” farmer James D. Holmes and innkeeper Jordan Brown, the two men who received the letter. As I explored their neighborhood through census forms, I discovered close neighbors who did appear in my family tree, and I was eventually able to determine that O.H.P. White was my great-great-great-grandmother’s brother.

California census records revealed that he did make it to California. In 1850, he was living in a boarding house in Sacramento, while his wife and four small children, left behind in Covington, showed up in the Tennessee census. By the time the 1860 census rolled around, White’s family had joined him in California. I was eventually able to locate and connect with one of his descendants.

He didn’t strike it rich, but he did prosper. Through digital newspaper archives, I learned that he started a freight forwarding business and became active in local politics.

I also found records of his burial in the Pioneer Cemetery in Sacramento, after an early death from an infection that today would have been dispatched with an antibiotic.

When I began this research, I was still living in Vermont, and had no idea that fate would send me to California, flying over the desert that White traversed on foot. I have now brought his letter back to him. It resides in the California History collection of the State Library, a few blocks from the place he is buried. The questions I have been able to answer — the who, the what, and the how— have led me to question why. What impelled a young man of 26 to leave a pregnant wife and three small children and strike out into the unknown? What was he running from? What was he running toward?  How was he shaped by life on the frontier in western Tennessee? What does his writer’s voice tell me about the kind of man he was? What did he learn from his experience? What did he leave behind?

The story does not yet have an ending. With the facts in place, the understanding has only begun.

And that brings me to the question of the digital, and what it means, for me personally, and for liberal education.

The digital world enables us — encourages us — to forage and explore, to make connections across space and time and disciplines, to engage new ideas, and to live many lives at once. I could have become an academic historian. I didn’t. But the digital world has given me the tools to be – in addition to my day job – an active researcher and creator of historical narratives.

If the goal of a liberal education is to learn how to learn throughout a lifetime of evolving interests and vocations and relationships, then the digital realm of new tools for exploring, connecting, and contributing amplifies our ability to achieve that goal.