PSR Stay

Death Valley '49er Trails & How Artifacts Can Confound Unwary

     Everyone loves a good story, and—sad to say—the quest for a good story can lead historians astray.

     In a recent exposé of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki research, Richard Conniff said:

The trouble with a good story is that it has a way of distorting the facts: we see what we want to see and close our eyes to everything else…. [And] a good story can be so compelling that teller and subject become entrapped together in its charms.

     Conniff's article casts serious doubt on Heyerdahl's subsequent findings that evolved from his monumental odyssey aboard the balsa-log raft Kon-Tiki. In 1947, he sailed her from Peru to French Polynesia across 4,300 miles of ocean and then orchestrated data to support his hypothesis that New World Indians populated Polynesia.

     Researchers formulate hypothesis when they attempt to solve a problem. A hypothesis "is a logical supposition, a reasonable guess, an educated conjecture" (Leedy 1980: 5 & 61). Once a historian has formulated a hypothesis he or she must objectively collect data and aggressively try to falsify your hypothesis.

     If you cannot falsify it, possibly you have not found the requisite data—keep looking. After you make repeated attempts to falsify your hypothesis and it still stands, you will feel safe in provisionally believing your "educated conjecture." Rest assure, once you are reasonably convinced your hypothesis is sound and you publish it or present it at a conference, there are scads of other researchers who will aggressively try to falsify your hypothesis.

      During your trail research, always remember this admonishment of Professor Leady (1980: 131):

"One of the marks of the immature researcher is that, bewildered by many data he must handle or dazzled by a newly emerging concept, he makes extravagant claims or reaches enthusiastic conclusions that are not warranted by the data."

     Someone once said: "If you believe; it is true." Truth in historical research must not and cannot be based on the phrase: History is a myth agreed upon. Sadly, Death Valley's history is replete with myths that are too often accepted as facts. This stems from a human desire for a "good story" or a tantalizing myth rather than a true story. The following three examples demonstrate how artifacts were melded into a myth.

In this presentation I follow Webster's definition of artifact:

Artifact is an object made by human work. (In common parlance: Derived from the hand of man.)

     Thus William B. Rood's two rock inscriptions in Death Valley, Wheeler's map of the Death Valley area, and a trunk full of antiques found in Death Valley are artifacts.

     In the introduction of each of these examples, I paraphrased Conniff's quotation about a "good story" to make it relevant to the example at hand. These examples are selected to show how three trail researchers reached "conclusions that are not warranted by the data."