J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

The Deborah Champion Story Today

Yesterday’s posting brought the tale of the Deborah Champion letter up to the present, with versions of the text appearing on websites as well as books as an authentic historical source about a young Connecticut woman early in the Revolutionary War. It’s linked to authoritative institutions like the Library of Congress and the University of Connecticut. And now that it’s appearing online, the Deborah Champion story can reach more people more quickly than ever.

Yet, as I laid out before, the letter’s historical details, language, and narrative style strongly suggest that it’s a fiction created around 1900. No one has ever come forward with an original document. The two divergent transcriptions are both said to be accurate, but I suspect the second to surface was created to correct the more obvious problems of the first.

The letter was probably inspired by a tradition among descendants of Deborah’s father, Henry Champion. As put into print in 1891, that tradition implied Deborah had undertaken at least two rides, one to bring dispatches to Gen. George Washington and the other to carry a payroll past British patrols. The letter gathers all those details into one mission.

Unfortunately, the family lore had already become garbled as to Deborah’s age and marital status by the time it was printed. There doesn’t seem to be concrete evidence or independent strains in separate family lines to support the story. Thus, though there might have been a kernel of truth in the tradition of Deborah Champion’s ride, it’s impossible to sift that out in a convincing way.

Some scholars I know have taken one look at the Deborah Champion letter and recognized it as inauthentic. They’re historians used to reading real eighteenth-century correspondence, versed in the events and customs and language of that period. There are so many unreliable tales from the Colonial Revival that they weren’t surprised to encounter one more, and simply moved on to more promising material.

On the other hand, researchers with less specific experience might come across the text, look for Deborah Champion’s name in other books, find an increasing number of authors accepting the story, and conclude that the letter is reliable. After all, some fine historians have accepted it.

This series of postings appears to be the first thorough analysis of the Deborah Champion letter as a historic source. It’s the first to unearth the most dubious version of the text, the 1926 newspaper publication that said it was dated 1776, and to trace the links among the Champion descendants who shared the story in the early 1900s. Dr. Sam Forman deserves the credit for initiating the project and leading the research team, including myself, Rachel Smith, Derek W. Beck, Tamesin Eustis, and the timely assistance of Kevin Peel and Will Brooks.

Our work was possible only because of all the digital resources we’ve all gained in recent years: Google Books, newspaper scans, genealogical sites, and of course email. The internet also made it possible to publish such a detailed debunking economically. A print journal would probably be able to justify only a couple of pages warning scholars off (as the William & Mary Quarterly did with Mary Beth Norton’s warning about the Dorothy Dudley diary in 1976).

So now the question is whether the worldwide availability of the two texts of the letter, information about their publication, and our analysis can catch up to the books and websites that promulgate the letter as authentic reliable. Once someone raises doubts with a few strong points, people’s skepticism usually kicks in and they can spot a lot more holes for themselves.

At least I hope so.

8 comments:

Brian Mack said...

What a great series of articles this was. Glad this team was able to raise great points about the letters and I hope people take these points into consideration before passing false history on. All too many times history is rewritten to glorify a family member. Thank you all for this great work.
Brian Mack

Historian said...

I am reminded of the quote from Andy Rooney "The whole business of reporting makes me suspicious of history. It is far from an exact science and by the time the story of an event or the description of a person has been set down on paper, the truth about either is changed or distorted, even by the best reporter. It's a fact that accounts for the popularity of revisionist history." Thank you very much for clearing up the "obvious" dubious "history" connected with this story. I would like to think that readers would in the future take a hard look at what is presented as "history" and weigh the evidence rather than blindly accepting it merely because "...it's in a book." Thanks!

Anne B. Hill said...

I enjoyed this series of articles. It is a useful warning to family historians and amateur genealogists to always look for the primary source, or at least contemporary sources that corroborate those precious family stories. Just because the DAR bought into it doesn't make the story true. Thank you!

Anne B. Hill

J. L. Bell said...

Gladly. We enjoyed the research and analysis, and it may benefit someone else.

As for the D.A.R., I think the historical standards of its recent publications are quite solid. A hundred years ago, the society was most interested in genealogy but apparently accepted family traditions uncritically. Of course, its members were denied opportunities in education, professional training, and resources then, so it doesn’t seem fair to blame them for not being able to come up to the same high standards yet.

Derek Beck said...

Thank you for posting this long bit of research on your site. Your execution of the details and telling of the story are top-notch. There is but one question that remains in my mind: can we get the Library of Congress to expel their version of the letter from their archives, so as to devalue it completely? Any ideas on how to go about that?

J. L. Bell said...

In my experience libraries are loath to "expel" unique holdings, especially if they've been cited in research already and therefore might be requested again.

On the other hand, libraries can add material to a file that would be helpful to researchers. In this case, the Library of Congress might wish to add a summary of our findings highlighting the other transcription and historical anomalies.

Phil O. said...

Very, very interesting. I really enjoyed reading this (and the comments!).

For those who are interested in War of 1812 history, this reminds me of the story of Billy Green -- a Canadian folk hero whose story appears to have emerged only posthumously (late 19th century), is very thinly sourced (a single 3rd-party, semi-anonymous account), yet was quickly accepted as gospel until an author started poking holes in the story about a decade ago. (If you're interested, you can start with the Billy Green page on Wikipedia, though I am 90% certain it is maintained by his descendants, who are very protective of family lore, true or not -- but it does contain useful links). The author postulates that the Billy Green story was an effort by the local community to create their own Laura Secord-type hero, a somewhat better "authenticated" War of 1812 folk hero from a community not far from Green's whose recent death had sparked lots of attention in Canada around the same time Green's story first emerged.

Anyway, seems like these stories are easy to get started, and pretty hard to dislodge from the public consciousness.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the tip about Billy Green. I'd heard of Laura Secord (used to work with Canadians), but not him.