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History is Not Markers, It's Perspectives

There is a larger conversation happening right now across the country involving statues and memorials and the way we as national and local communities commemorate our shared history. This conversation is about much more than just the statues themselves - it's about how we heroize historical figures, it's about the choices involved in historical representation, the power behind those choices, and so much more. In listening to these conversations that have accelerated in the past weeks, we felt like there was an underlying thread to many of these arguments that must be addressed: the idea that history is factual, apolitical, and that historical representation is applied equally in order of importance. For example, it is the idea that a statue of a Confederate general in front of City Hall is not connected to political and community discourse; that the statue is simply a representation of fact, that fact cannot be changed, and that the general was immortalized with a statue simply because he ranked highest on the Great List of Historically Important Things for the local community. This, of course, also suggests that historical importance itself is not swayed by political motivations, social biases, and other factors of influence, like religious affiliation. Most importantly, this idea communicates an incredibly subtle, yet incredibly powerful, misunderstanding that replicates the same motivations that informed the monument in the first place: that if a historical figure, idea, or event wasn't ever given a monument, it was simply because that piece of history wasn't as important as the pieces that were memorialized. E.g., it subtly reinforces the idea that Confederate General John Doe was more important than Freed Black Abolitionist Jane Doe because if Jane Doe was so important, she would have been given a monument just like John Doe, right?

It's easy to fall into the trap of regarding history as immutable, a naturally occurring phenomenon that simply springs into being after events take place, but the reality is that historical narratives (defined as a spoken or written account of connected events; a story) must first be created, and then, just as importantly, they must be maintained. This means that the people who are creating and maintaining our historical narratives inevitably impact them. Once we accept this as a fundamental reality, it is easier to see the way our narratives have been impacted. Moreover, we can see the ways in which the stories of our past must be updated to reflect our present.

We often think of history as unforgettable and unchanging, and that historical "facts" aren't influenced by people once they have entered the history books. In reality, we forget and change history all the time, and we as communities are constantly deciding and reaffirming what we consider our collective history to be. Historical narratives are much more fragile than people often think, and they must be constantly exercised, like a muscle, or they begin to atrophy. This exercise requires equipment like muscles require a gym, and this is why monuments are important. They signify the history we choose to exercise, and therefore they signify the things we choose to identify as significant.

TLDR - our local and national historical narratives (the stories we tell about our collective past) are not facts that exist separate from current political, social, and cultural discourses, but are in fact first created, then reified, by humans in positions of power.

This idea that history is factual seems to come up time and again in the arguments surrounding monuments. That the removal of the statues, monuments, plaques, etc. is ignoring or rewriting a history that we as a country should embrace; or that leaving these statues means dealing with the entire legacy of an individual, the good and the bad. After all, not even MLK Jr. was a saint. The truth about history is that history is a perspective and history gets re-written from different perspectives all the time. Sure, there are historical facts, but how those facts get retold, contextualized, and interwoven into the framework and history of a particular community is all about perspective. For example, Custer's Last Stand at Little Big Horn means different things to different cultures. And it means different things at different points in time. Even the name of the event is subject to change, as the phrase "Custer's Last Stand" stems from a narrative that prioritizes the perspective of the U.S. military forces.

Now what on earth does this have to do with Texas historical markers?! It has everything to do with who and how communities in Texas decide to memorialize on a state-approved plaque, which is the focus of this post. We recently came across what we feel is an excellent example of the nuances of this process on a local, and seemingly innocuous, scale.

If you are traveling along HWY 144 in Bosque County and are passing through Walnut Springs, you will find the small and lovely Katy Park with several state and local historical plaques.

Markers in Katy Park, Walnut Springs, Texas

The local marker, in the middle, is for those who fought and died in WWI and WWII. On either side are state historical markers for two famous Confederate locals. The first being J.J. Cureton the "Indian fighter, lawman, and rancher". The sign tells us that he was crucial for protecting the frontier from "Indians" before, during, and after the Civil War and helped rescue Cynthia Ann Parker (remember her - she's important to our story).

State Historical Marker for J.J. Cureton

Before the Civil War, he was part of a party of citizen-soldiers (who became the Texas Rangers), led by Capt. Lawrence Sullivan Ross (the same man who's statue is currently the center of much hot debate on the Texas A&M University campus). This group of citizen-soldiers led by Ross killed the prominent Comanche chief Peta Nocona, who, incidentally, also happened to be Cynthia Ann Parker's husband (there's some controversy regarding whether he was actually killed). While Parker is mentioned only briefly in the sign, further research suggests she was a more prominent individual than the sign let on. Turns out she was part of the Fort Parker Massacre.

In the early 19th century, her family and extended kin moved to Texas and built Fort Parker which was raided by a Comanche tribe; most of the men were killed but they seized 5 captives including Cynthia Ann. She was soon adopted by the Nokoni Comanche tribe and later married Peta Nocona and the couple had three children. Cynthia Ann was one of thousands of children and women captured by raiding Native American groups and after the war with Mexico, Texas turned its attention towards "recovering" these "captives", which is why it was 24 years before Cynthia Ann was recovered.

I would like to spend a little bit of time talking about Cynthia Ann, because, again, the main theme of this post is perspective, and I wonder if Cynthia considered herself "rescued" by these citizen soldiers or taken from her family. By all accounts, her adoptive parents and husband were wonderful loving people and she enjoyed a happy life with both. After the citizen soldiers, "rescued" her and returned her to white society, she became famous throughout the country as someone who was "redeemed from the Comanches". It turns out that Cynthia was not as excited about her rescue as the rest of the country and after her relocation she refused to "adjust to life in white society" (Wikipedia). She tried to escape and return to her family and children and eventually, she was so heartbroken she stopped eating and died in 1871. Look at all of the different perspectives influencing the historical interpretation of this event. At the time, in the 1860s, she was famous and renowned for being "redeemed" though she absolutely did not see it that way and wanted to leave white society and return home. At the time this plaque was commemorated, J.J. Cureton is the one capturing the community's attention and being lauded for rescuing her. Reading this historical marker now, in 2020, even before I knew anything about Cynthia Ann Parker, I could not help but wonder if she saw Cureton as her savior or as a kidnapper. One event, multiple perspectives.

On the other side of the local stone marker, is another historical marker commemorating another Confederate James Buckner "Buck" Barry who was also part of securing the Texas frontier against "Indian" invasions and attacks.

State Historical Marker for James Buckner "Buck" Barry

Indeed, it seems like Barry was "deeply involved in Indian fighting and was especially outspoken as an advocate of the removal of the Comanches and Caddos from their reservations on the upper Brazos River" (TSHA). He too was part of the party that "rescued" Cynthia Ann Parker and a part of the Battle of Dove Creek. In 1865, 160 Confederates and 325 state militia came upon a peaceful tribe of Kickapoo and accidentally attacked them. The attack was not an accident, but the Kickapoo being on the receiving end of an organized Confederate attack was.

History is a perspective and none of our heroes are completely unproblematic (although some are more problematic than others). So who and how communities decide to memorialize people becomes crucial to why people and events are celebrated and commemorated. So, if you take a closer look at those signs you see that they were erected in 1964, a time of national racial unrest. Bosque County itself during this time was experiencing a severe depression as thousands of farms were abandoned in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, it is a predominantly white community (over 90% identified as Caucasian on the recent census), and over 80% identified as rural. Placed against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the timing of these monuments is significant. The Civil Rights Movement spurred a backlash of conservatism and racism, especially in the American South, as many individuals and communities doubled down on systems that reinforced racial inequality. This led to a resurgence in the KKK, and a fresh wave of pride in the history of the Confederacy. In 1963, the year before these signs were erected, 900 people marched for civil rights on the Texas state capitol in conjunction with the National March on Washington. The Texas state government at this point was deeply conservative, having become so during the early 1950s, helped along by additional Jim Crow voting laws put in place following WWII. The governor of Texas at the time, John Connally, was a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Bill. Viewed in the context of the social and political events occurring at the time these signs were erected, they can be seen as examples of a statewide reaction against the Civil Rights Movement, which led to an increase in the commemoration of Confederate narratives. These signs contain historical facts - but they are not apolitical, nor are they free from the bias of their 1960s political context. What's more, that 1960s bias does not go away - it is replicated every time someone engages with these markers.

The signs commemorating these two individuals also do not exist simply because these were the only historically significant people in the area. Another notable historical figure linked to Bosque County who could have been commemorated was George Bernard Erath the Austrian who fought in the war against Mexico, rose through the ranks of the citizen-soldiers fending off the Native Americans in the area, and who was instrumental in surveying and settling Bosque County. One might even argue that Peta Nocona could have his own Texas historical marker, being one of the most prominent chiefs of the Comanche. I would argue that Cynthia Ann Parker should also get her own historical marker. (Parker will get her own post at a later date, and it should be noted that her original gravesite in Anderson County, Texas, has a historical marker, but this marker includes very little information about her life.)

It could be argued that Cureton and Barry were more closely linked to Walnut Springs than other figures or that the timing of their commemoration is coincidental. But, it is worth considering that in 1964, during widespread backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and a heightened memorializing of the Confederacy, the community chose to commemorate these two men. We feel that the argument could definitely be made that it was at least in part because of their connections to the Confederate Army. Even though Erath also had an extensive history with the local Native Americans, he was unable to serve in the Confederacy due to ill health. So maybe, what is being memorialized by these plaques is also the Confederacy during a time of national racial tensions.

So - how does all this fit into our larger narrative? These signs do contain historical facts - "Buck" was born in a known year, did certain things throughout his life, and we know when he died. However, these facts are woven together into a narrative by political, social, and cultural perspectives. How the weaving is done, and the threads that are used, greatly impact the narrative. Indeed, that someone has chosen to do the weaving at all is significant. In this park, identified by signage on the road as "Historical Katy Park", there are signs connected to the Confederacy, but no signs at all connected to the history of the enslaved community in the area, or the history of Freedom Colonies in Bosque County following Emancipation. This choice, to visibly and literally mark the history of the local connections to the Confederacy, but not of the local Black community, has significance. The origins of the signs themselves, from a context of backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, has significance.

How we monumentalize our history, whether through statues or signage, is significant. Monuments are not static representations of facts - even seemingly innocuous signs like those in Historic Katy Park in Walnut Springs, Texas. Monuments are products of their context, and they communicate so much more than historical fact. They communicate, and assist in the reproduction of, political, social, and cultural ideologies. They bestow significance, which means they also withhold significance.

The meaning of monuments should be reconsidered over time. The political, social, and cultural contexts that produced the signs in Walnut Springs no longer exist. Recontextualizing history, viewing history through different perspectives, does not erase anything - it simply reflects our changing communities, and hopefully allows a greater degree of inclusivity that is commensurate with our current values.

A new perspective of the history of Cynthia Ann Parker recognizes her agency, her connection to her family, and the ways in which both these things were taken from her. It isn't a bad thing to give her story new perspective. We should be constantly revising our historical narratives to better represent our communities. Cynthia Ann Parker is not the single sentence included on the historical marker for another person - this is simply one perspective.

Because history is not static, and it is not communicated without bias. History is not markers - history is perspectives.

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