Finding Apolonia Ada: A case study in assembling direct, indirect and negative evidence in the search for her parents
Most of us, I assume, have a picture of what Guam’s past might have looked like. For many it might be a romantic view with everyone having what they need and living in harmony with each other and nature. Others might have a darker perspective filled with visions of war, violence and illness.
I believe, just like today, that the world of our ancestors was neither and both. I say neither because it was not one or the other. I say both because I envision as having elements of both these views. I believe it was made up of moments of pure ecstasy as well as the mundane, anguish and joy, hatred and love, curiosity and exploration, reverence, fear and numerous other emotions.
It was made up of individuals of great strength, mental agility and wisdom as well as those of diminished mental ability, and those of sickly constitutions. Some were driven by greed, others by love. Some strove for power, some for enlightenment. In other words, our past was much like today – a beautiful diversity of characters, motivated by a variety of motives, emotion and values.
Sure, the world they lived in differed from today in terms of natural resources, politics, society and influences from outside their realm of consciousness, but I believe that people were pretty much the same.
For those of us with a passion for history, these images of the past change as our knowledge of the people, time and traditions grows. The values and mores of the time and society we live in also influences our perspective. This then creates a never-ending search for the “true” history. Of course we can never really have a definitive history since we don’t have documents that tell us what people were thinking and exactly what transpired in detail. Even if we did, how could we be positive that what was written was is it was? As humans, we pickup on nuances in life, and so much is unsaid and undocumented. Researchers scour officials records and documents to get facts, but the back-story is usually much more interesting and revealing.
Journals and diaries are valuable documents and offer more insight into individual’s thoughts at a specific time. Letters can also offer a glimpse of the writers character and value system. But these too have limitations as time passes and memories fade.
The researcher also has to consider the source of the historical record. Whate were the motivations of the writer? Was a letter written in a certain vein to portray a specific perspective to the reader to obtain goods, favor or something else? Did the census taker document the name of the individual correctly or abbreviate it for efficiency? Was the report written to tell the true state of affairs or to curry favor, or to reinforce a specific political decision?
In addition, a person’s recollection of the same event can differ significantly depending on their perspective at the time. This never ceases to amaze me as in my own family each of my siblings sometimes recount different memories of the same event. Each person views the world through a lens of his/her experiences.
The historical record many times also contains documents that present conflicting versions of the same event. It is then up to the researcher, who through their own lens of experience must analyze the record to form their own “story.”
What I am getting at is that historians are like detectives, trying to uncover the truth through a series of clues, using their intellect to make assumptions. Without a living eyewitness they can never really know the real story but only add to the possibilities from their own unique perspective.
"Uncovering Stories That Bind" presented at the LDS First Guam History Day 2014 - Keynote address [slide show]