2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Old Pieces of Paper

Just after 9/11 I was sitting on a dusty ladder deep in the stacks of the National Archives in Washington. Sirens wailed outside, non-stop. Anthrax dust was floating everywhere, it seemed. I had just started the research for Native American Son.

Surrounded by boxes of documents filling shelves from floor to ceiling, I had a chilling thought. If the terrorists had slammed a plane into this building, they would have wiped out the primary sources of our recorded history. Destroyed the records of millions of the already dead.

Like this one: the U.S. Army Enlistments of 1837. The name Hiram G. Thorp (Jim added the "e" later) is fourth from the bottom, indicated by the arrow in the left margin. He was Jim's paternal grandfather, white, born in Connecticut of English descent going back to the founding of New Haven. He enlisted in the Eighth Infantry, Company A at the age of 24. He had blue eyes, brown hair, fair skin, and was five feet, eight inches tall.

We only know all that information about his physical person because of this old piece of  paper preserved on microfilm. For me, starting work on this biography way back in those dark scary days, to find such concrete, evocative details from the past was oddly reassuring. Hiram's record had survived, so far. Maybe mine would too.