Thursday, January 8, 2009

Research isn’t always easy

If I’ve learned nothing else in these past few months, it’s that research isn’t always easy. In fact, maybe it’s never easy – especially when you’re dealing with history and even more so in this electronic age.

History is objective, right?
In my previous scholarly pursuits, the research was easier. I majored in English and specialized in regional and non-fiction literature. As I do with my Lincoln studies, I always consulted a number of sources, but writing about literature can be pretty subjective. Writing about history isn’t, is it? Isn’t history and biography supposed to be objective - cut and dried – crystal clear? This happened or it didn’t. The sources will support it, right? Wrong!

Little did I realize until this fall when I really became a student of Lincoln and the history surrounding him how subjective things in the past can be. As I learned when doing my term paper, myth plays into things, and so do the many different memories people have – often two conflicting mental pictures of the same event. And, in this day and age, when anyone can publish anything on the Internet, there’s a lot of wrong information out there.

The real story of the missions

Early in my recent California visit, my daughter suggested we visit Mission San Juan Capistrano mission. We were barely inside the grounds when she directed me to a plaque which she knew would make my day. It stated that Abraham Lincoln had returned this mission to the Catholic Church in 1865.

Later on our tour, we learned more about Lincoln and the mission at an exhibit inside one of the mission buildings. We even saw a copy of the proclamation Lincoln had signed on March 18, 1865, less than a month before his death.

While at the mission, I bought a very nice book, California Missions and Presidios: The History and Beauty of the Spanish Missions by Randy Leffingwell and Alastair Worden. I’d hoped to consult the book for my blog entry and to share information about each of the missions and the dates Lincoln returned them to the Church.

Unfortunately, even though this volume is written from a more scholarly angle than many of the other books on the mission and is indexed, it still didn’t discuss Lincoln’s involvement with the missions to the extent I’d hoped – nor did it list the dates the proclamations were signed for all of the California missions. I then thought I’d supplement by finding details online. Oh, there were details alright, but often two different sources listed conflicting dates for the return of the same mission.

Opportunity knocks
If this weren’t the bicentennial year and if I didn’t have so much I need to communicate in the coming weeks, I would have taken the time to dig deeper into this subject. Maybe someday I will.

In the meantime, do we have a Lincoln scholar or California history authority out there who can point readers to a good source? Can you tell us – what was Lincoln’s role in this whole mission story? Why did he get involved? What are the specifics and the timeline? I find it interesting that he was dealing with San Juan Capistrano and other missions in the last month of his life with everything else he had going on at the time.

If I’m correct, Lincoln never made it to California. Yet, according to information I found on one of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s websites, Mr. Lincoln’s White House, on the day he was assassinated Lincoln spoke with Schuyler Colfax of his interest in California and Colfax’s upcoming trip there.

It seems to me we’ve got a topic for further exploration here – Lincoln and California. Has anyone ever studied this subject in depth? If not, it sure does sound like an opportunity for a scholarly paper - or maybe a thesis or dissertation or book. Any takers?
I’ve got my hands full here in Illinois, but the more I study Lincoln, the more topics grab my interest. Oh, if only time and distance were no object!

More than 70 years ago, Lincoln scholar J. G. Randall asked “Has the Lincoln theme been exhausted?” Nearly 30 years ago, Mark E. Neely addressed Randall’s question in an article in the Journal of The Abraham Lincoln Association. Today, more than ever, even with Burlingame’s definitive two-volume biography and scores of other new books coming out in celebration of the bicentennial, opportunity still knocks in the Lincoln world. Fortunately, bright inquisitive minds continue to answer the door, willing to undertake the challenge of research even though it isn't easy.


John Sotos said...

The topic of Lincoln and California has been explored, but I don't believe it has been published. Dr. Milton Shutes, of Berkeley, CA, wrote a manuscript on this subject, which I recall seeing in his papers at the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, CA. Sorry to say, I didn't even read it. But the people in the Special Collections Library are wonderful, and perhaps could help you out in some way. His papers are in two boxes, so it would not require an extensive search. Shutes published two books on Lincoln, in 1933 and in 1956. His California piece was probably written during or before the 1950s. I have been re-treading a lot of his medical work on Lincoln, and have found that he was extraordinarily accurate in his writing (though I disagree with some of his conclusions).

Lincoln Buff 2 said...


Thank you. This is good to know in case I do ever get to pursue this topic - after fully exploring my other three Lincoln interests: Lincoln and his mentors, Lincoln and David Davis, and why Sandburg's Lincoln still matters. If any or all of these projects get off the ground, I've likely got enough to last me a decade or two.

Thanks again for your help, and congratulations on The Physical Lincoln. It, too, is on the list of Lincoln books I hope to read within the next year or two. My professor had mentioned it in class this fall. Sounds as if you found a very interesting, little explored niche in the Lincoln world. Best wishes on your future endeavors.


John Sotos said...

By a complete coincidence, I moments ago (literally!) learned there is a copy of Shutes' California article in the papers of Dr. Harold Schwartz, at the Lincoln Shrine in Redlands, CA. By an even greater coincidence, I will be there next week. I'll see if I can shoot a digital photo copy for you.

Thanks for your interest in _The Physical Lincoln_, and thanks to your professor, too, for mentioning it!


Lincoln Buff 2 said...


Isn't coincidence amazing! Thank you for your very kind offer. I'm sure the paper would be interesting if it's not too much effort, but please don't go to a lot of trouble. Your thoughtfulness is overwhelming.

For several years now, I've sensed that the Lincoln community is very kind, supportive and encouraging. Your message confirms my suspicions.

My email address is If you could send your preferred email address to my yahoo account, I'll be glad to reply with any contact information you might need.

I will be sure to let Dr. Rager know you appreciate his mention of your book.

Thanks again. I'm touched by your kindness.


Lincoln Buff 2 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lincoln Buff 2 said...

On Feb. 12, 2009, I received a comment from Robert Casamajor of Fair Oaks (California). Casamajor said: "The daughter of Dr. Milton Shutes, my second cousin ///name omitted///* is living in ///location omitted///*. I have fond memories of visiting Aunt Sye and Uncle Milt when they lived just up the hill from the Carmel Mission. Aunt Sye and my Grandmother were very good classical musicians. I remember the Milton books very clearly while growing up."

Bob, thanks for the information and the memories. I'm sorry I didn't get this posted sooner. Still trying to catch up from my week in Springfield for the bicentennial.

* I've removed the cousin's personal information. Ann