History, Memory Make Geographic Identities Unique, Cronon Says

February 12, 2009

Time, memory and storytelling combine to give a place a unique historical identity, an award-winning environmental historian told law students at the McCorkle Lecture last week.

William Cronon

"History is not the past, it's the stories that we tell about the past. In a way, we are engaged in a small act of resurrection," said William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies and the Vilas Research Professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Cronon has served as president of the American Society for Environmental History and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Cronon's lecture, "The Portage: Time, Memory, and Storytelling in the Making of an American Place," used the local history of Portage, Wis., to explore the ways in which people's sense of place is shaped by the stories they tell about their homes, their lives and the landscapes they inhabit.

Historical accidents have the power to cast otherwise unknown places into the limelight through storytelling, Cronon said, citing as examples what Napoleon Bonaparte's downfall did for Waterloo or the bloodiest battle of the Civil War did for Gettysburg.

Portage's equivalent of a historical accident, Cronon said, was Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War who was once stationed at Wisconsin's Fort Winnebago. Davis' name was one of several carved onto a slab commemorating the soldiers of the fort.

"History and memory affect how we see landscape. Only when they are connected with things we already know do they become significant, " Cronon said.

Portage was also home to three people known for their work on American nature — historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who famously wrote about the U.S. frontier, the naturalist writer and conservationist John Muir, who advocated wild-land preservation, and University of Wisconsin professor and agricultural economist Aldo Leopold.

"It is interesting that the three men who profoundly shaped our thoughts on nature were all here, and it suggests that this place gave them inspiration for contemplating about the American wilderness," Cronon said.

Despite our obsession with historical fame, Cronon suggested that some of the most revealing accounts of Portage's history and environment came from more pedestrian sources that history often ignores, such as the book "Wau Bun: The Early Day in the Northwest," written by Juliet Kinsey.

Kinsey's book details her daily life on the prairie, from town gossip to her observations about the architectural shortcomings of Jefferson Davis and his men as they built military fortifications.

"This reminds us that not all the stories we tell of the past are of great things by great men...we don't read works like Kinsey's because they are about important men, but precisely because they aren't. It allows us to imagine what it was like to live back then," he said.

And while Portage may seem obscure to today's observer, Cronon emphasized that it was crucial in shaping the history of North America, serving as one of the continent's key strategic points for over 10,000 years.

Native American tribes and later European traders used the lowlands between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers to move goods, turning Portage into a trading hub and cultural center. In fact, the term "portage" is derived from a word French fur traders used to describe it, "le portage."

"Seen in a broader frame, it is a story of America in the small," Cronin said.

When asked how his work affected his relations with the Portage community, Cronon said his research gave him an interesting window into historical memory.

He cited the case of Helen Lang's death in Portage in 1927, which remains unsolved today. In interviews conducted throughout the 1990s, Portage residents speculated endlessly about the cause of her death, advancing various theories of their own.

"What is interesting is that they are all attempts to provide closure to something that history hasn't resolved. It shows what a ghost an unfinished story can be," he added.

Cronon's work focuses primarily on American environmental history and the history of the American West, and his research seeks to understand the history of human interactions with the natural world. He has authored and co-edited various books, including "Metropolis," which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

This was the 12th McCorkle Lecture delivered since they began in 1983. The lecture series was established in memory of Claiborne Ross McCorkle, a 1910 Law School graduate who went on to become a respected member of the Wise County bar.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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