Unromancing history: Why the bad and the ugly is good to learn

Originally Published May 9, 2009

Those Who Fail To Learn History
Are Doomed to Repeat It;
Those Who Fail To Learn History Correctly —
Why They Are Simply Doomed.Achemdro’hm
“The Illusion of Historical Fact”
— C.Y. 4971

As humans, its natural for us to romanticize history; mothers do it with birth pains- forgotten soon after they hold their new child. Older people do it about their lives- their childhoods, their marriages, society as a whole, because it is easier on the psyche to remember the good things in life rather than the bad things.
Sometimes, the bad things in life are so bad that we cannot help but remember them. The Great Depression, The Holocaust,  9/11, Columbine. But even events as recent as nine years ago start to get their “romantic” edge- facts are changed, blurred, dulled a bit, so that we can take these events and more easily deal with them in order to get on with the business of everyday life, and hopefully happily.
So how have we romanticized history? Let’s look at the Victorian Era. Post Civil War, the opening of the West, a time of great opportunity for all. We have this image in our heads of the rugged individuals; strong men and women who come West and break ground, building farms and towns and the basis for Denver and Colorado as we know it today. We have this image in our heads of tan, lean men and women, proudly posing outside their cabins with their most prized possessions and children. We blame their lack of smiles on early photography (which could take up to 5 minutes to fully develop, so that actually IS a legitimate reason.) But no one mentions the number of people who gave up and returned East. Rarely is it talked about the number of folks, mainly women, who came down with “plains sickness” in which the open spaces of the plains literally drove them crazy. We don’t talk about the shortened lifespans our forefathers often had.
 In Colorado, we talk about prostitutes with hearts of gold and glorify them. We talk about Alferd Packer like he’s some school secret to giggle about, but not a real person who had his colleagues for dinner, in quite a literal way. We forget the “social clubs” a number of our founding fathers were involved in, the treatment of the Utes, the massacre at Sand Creek. Very few know the grotesque and highly sensationalized story of how the cemetery that used to be on Capital Hill came to be moved. At the time, the reporter in question wrote in glorious detail about how the bodies buried in Potter’s Field were dealt with.
These details about our state don’t lessen its value or dim the beauty of the mountains. Rather they add a sense of value, of belonging. When we realize that Baby Doe Tabor and Molly Brown weren’t always the perfect women, that Charles Boettcher and Horace Greeley weren’t the epitome of manhood, we can identify with them, we find the human side of them, which relates to the human side of us. It makes our history personal, makes us part of the state. It helps us realize that even the biggest movers and shakers of our past, present and future were and are still human at the end of the day.
By teaching our children the true history of our state, in context, we let them know that it is ok to make mistakes and still be a success in life, as well as show them through the example of our forefathers what things they can avoid in their futures to better ensure a good life for themselves and their future descendants.
Now, I’m not saying the early days of Colorado weren’t an exciting time, they most surely were. Things happened here in the West long before they happened in other parts of the country, mainly because the folks who did come to found our great state were indeed strong men and women; their actions have made us equally strong men and women.
But sometimes the strange and unusual facts, the parts that make our forebearers decidedly human, can be the most interesting parts of history.
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