Are historical records true?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (


Picture from Frontispiece of Riparian Lands of the Mississippi River: Past—Present—Prospective, by Frank H. Thompkins (1901, published in New Orleans, available as a free download from Google Books). Picture post-dates de Tocqueville’s trip.

At last, at last, my dear Mama, the signal is given and here we are cruising down the Mississippi, as rapidly as possible under the combined influence of steam and a strong current. We were beginning to despair of ever escaping the wilderness. If you take the trouble to examine your map, you will see that we had reached a pretty pass. In front of us, the Mississippi half frozen and no boats launching; overhead, a Russian sky, pure and frozen. We could have retraced our steps, you say. But that option was fast disappearing. During our sojourn in Memphis, the Tennessee had frozen, and carriages could no longer cross. So there we were, in the middle of a triangle formed by the Mississippi, the Tennessee, and impenetrable backwoods to the south. We might as well have been marooned on a rock in mid-ocean, inhabiting a world made expressly for us, without papers, without news of the rest of mankind, and facing the prospect of a long winter. That is how we spent a week. I must say, however, that except for our anxiety, those days were not disagreeable. We were staying with good people, who did their utmost to ingratiate themselves. Only twenty paces from our house was the edge of the world’s most beautiful forest, a sublime place, picturesque even under snow. We had rifles and plenty of powder and lead. A few miles from the village lived an Indian nation, the Chikasaws; once on their land, we always found a few natives happy to join us in the hunt. Hunting and warring are the sole occupations of the Indian, his pleasures as well. For large game we would have had to go too far afield. Instead, we killed a great many pretty birds of a species unknown in France. We found this highly diverting, though it didn’t do us much credit in the eyes of our allies. I killed red, blue, yellow birds, including parrots with plumage more brilliant than any I had ever seen. That’s how time passed, lightly at any given moment, but with the future weighing upon us.

So wrote the French historian known as Alexis de Tocqueville, in a letter dated 25 December 1831, while he was staying along the Mississippi River waiting for winter to let up so he could continue his trip. He had landed in New York City in May 1831, and had been traveling ever since researching American prisons, along with his supervisor, Gustave de Beaumont. Both worked for as prosecutors for the French government. (This letter has been excerpted in The Hudson Review, volume LXII, no. 3, translated by Frederick Brown, and available here on the web.) De Tocqueville is best known for the two volumes of De la démocratie en Amérique (usually translated as Democracy in America) that were published in 1835 and in 1840.

Toward the end of this excerpt, de Tocqueville describes Native Americans of the Chickasaw tribe (one of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, which also included the Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole groups; all were officially removed from southeastern North America beginning in 1832, just after de Tocqueville’s visit, but that’s a story for another time/place), and their enjoyment of going hunting. What does he mean? Do all Chickasaws like to hunt? Perhaps de Tocqueville really means that MALE Chickasaws liked to hunt?

There’s another good clue for an archaeologist in this letter that would be difficult to document archaeologically. De Tocqueville writes that large game had been extirpated from around the community where he was trapped by the winter weather. Why was this? Do you think it was due to overhunting? Instead of hunting large game, when he went out nearby, de Tocqueville killed birds. He also describes those birds as very colorful, probably suggesting particular species to any ornithologists knowledgable about this area.

Historical archaeologists have the distinct advantage over their peers who work primarily with prehistoric peoples in that they have historical records that may illuminate the archaeological record. Sometimes, however, the historical archival materials are at odds with archaeological remains.

For example, written records may indicate that a family abstained from alcohol, yet among the foundations of their house, archaeologists may find a trove of bourbon bottles. What is the best way to interpret them? Does their location beneath the house necessarily mean that the family inhabiting the house above consumed their contents? Or, does their location, hidden in the basement, instead suggest secret consumption of alcohol? What additional archaeological data would help refine interpretation of the buried booze bottles?