The scientist who probably saved more lives in the 20th century with his vaccines than anyone else is virtually unknown in his Montana hometown. The massacre of a Missouri community of Mormons in 1838 — following a governor’s directive that the religious minority “must be exterminated or driven from the state” — was noted on a historical marker that was vandalized and stolen.
Or consider the confounding case of Madison Grant, a wealthy conservationist and friend of Teddy Roosevelt who played a major role in saving the American bison from extinction and countless redwood trees. Grant has received little recognition. Of course, that may be because he was a notorious racist whose pseudo-science rationalized the forced sterilizations carried out in many states.
Inspirational, shameful or contradictory, much of our nation’s history has been forgotten, neglected or suppressed. That always bothered Andrew Carroll, known for his popular histories and anthologies such as War Letters, in which he collected and published the correspondence of soldiers and civilians going back centuries. War Letters inspired a PBS documentary, and a film inspired by his book Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar.
So Carroll followed what he admits is an obsession to explore the nooks and crannies of neglected history, looking to give people and places their due. Here is Where is a road trip for history buffs. Carroll travels the country, discovering that what we choose to memorialize — or forget — is hard to predict.
There’s a large memorial at the top of Pike’s Peak that’s a tribute to Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote America the Beautiful after viewing the “purple mountain majesties” from the summit of the 14,115-foot mountain. But there’s no mention of another woman, J.A. Archibald, an adventurer who was the first non-native American to climb it.
Maurice Hilleman, a brilliant, humble scientist, invented a measles vaccine estimated to have saved at least 100 million lives over 40 years. He created eight of the 14 most commonly used vaccines, but “if I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman,” said Robert Gallo, codiscoverer of the HIV virus.
With the help of local history buffs, Carroll tracks down the house in Miles City, Mont., where Hilleman grew up. It’s empty and dilapidated. There is no marker in the town. His name is not even listed among noteworthy residents in the town museum.
The Hilleman story may be an oversight. In Missouri, the massacre of Mormon settlers at Haun’s Mill was an uncomfortable, painful part of history. The state’s governor didn’t issue a proclamation apologizing for the event until 1976, when he also officially rescinded the state’s 1838 executive order, the only government directive in U.S. history that called for a religious group’s annihilation.
“I actually think it’s a sign of strength when a nation owns up to its past mistakes instead of hiding them,” Carroll tells one local historian. “I also don’t believe the darker incidents represent who we are fundamentally.”
Then there are contradictory figures such as Grant, who make important, positive contributions in one field while promoting ideas we now generally agree are loathsome. Such complexities aren’t easy to fit onto a historical marker.
Carroll’s odyssey has its whimsical and quirky moments. He discovers that Daniel Boone, Jesse James and Sitting Bull have well-marked burial plots. The only problem is that research now casts doubt on who is actually buried at these sites. Steven Caudill, a professional historical reenactor who portrays the legendary frontiersman Boone, admits the body in Boone’s grave may be that of an unnamed slave.
Carroll finds that a devotion to historical research, aided by the Internet, is now thriving across the country, and local history buffs are the unsung heroes of his book. Some of the compelling stories in this book may send you Googling for more information.
Fittingly, Carroll’s book tour for Here Is Where will include the unveiling of markers at several sites of forgotten or neglected history. “At its best, history nurtures within us humility and gratitude. It fosters respect and empathy,” Carroll finds. It also reminds us of the “simple truth that we are, above everything else, all in this together.”
Frank Davies is a writer in northern Virginia.