Why I Do History

Hello

My name is Brian O’Riley and this is “Why I Do History” 

Before I begin, I should clarify that I am applying my comments to the area of study which interests me the most, which is U.S. history. For myself, history has always been about the people. That may seem like an obvious but allow me to elaborate. I would say that history for me has always been about what people experienced during a historical event while at the same time looking at the psychological aspect of what they went through.  

Looking closely at the people who either participated in, or were simply present, during an event, and finding out more about them, helps me to better understand the historical event more in depth.I ask questions like Who were they? What were they thinking? Where were they going? What was their motivation? It also helps to know what the national mindset was at the time, and how this influenced the thinking of those living during that time. 

It seems to me, more often than not, major historical events included hardships, failures, and heartache. Of course, there are plenty of success stories that have happy endings, but it seems like so much of history is filled with stories of individuals facing tremendous trials, dangers and death. The sheer determination, perseverance, and bravery that it took these men and women to do what they did truly astounds me. Learning of the resolve, will power, strength of character, and sense of purpose that so many of these individuals displayed has inspired me to be a historian.

Perspective

Understanding what it was like for people at certain times in history helps give us perspective for today. One example might be the recent smoke here in the Pacific Northwest from the forest fires. Yes it was horrible, but thankfully it lasted no more than a week.

Now think about this, the dust bowl lasted 10 years. How horrendous it must have been for those who lived through this decade long event in the 1930’s, choking and gasping as they tried to breathe. Their homes and yards covered with dust, their cattle dead, and livelihoods ruined from the result of devastated crops. Hundreds of thousands of families were displaced from their homes.  

Another example might be how we react today when travelling across country. Most of us have experienced the dread when looking up at the screen in the airport and seeing that your flight has been cancelled. Sometimes, we may even end up having to spend the night in the airport sleeping on benches or the floor. We share the news of the tragedy with our close friends and family. Usually the worst that happens is that we end up at our destination a day late and short on sleep. 

 Now consider those who traveled on the Oregon trail to get across the country. It took them 4 to 6 months to travel 2,000 miles. For many, it was all on foot. Disease and sickness was a constant companion. Accidents were common. Roughly 5 out of every 100 people died.  

Or what about if we run out of gas on the freeway? Perhaps we have to carry a heavy five gallon can of gas and walk twenty miles back to our vehicle. Many today would think this an ordeal. Or how about carrying several bags of groceries into the house from 50 feet away. Do we thing it a herculean task?

Now consider those men during the Klondike Gold Rush (yes I believe this is just as much or more an American historical event as it is a Canadian one). These men, in the dead of winter, struggled through blizzards, sub zero temperatures, and avalanches. They had to carry a total of two thousand pounds of goods over a mountain pass that would tap the energies of a mountain goat. They would carry loads of 50 to 75 pounds or more on their backs up 1,500 steps cut in the snow and ice, and then back down again to get the next load. For many it took 30 to forty climbs to get all of their goods safely over. The trail shot up about 1,000 feet in the final half mile.  

Why do I do History

  • It helps me better understand the country in which I live, which enables me to share this understanding with others.
  • It helps me understand my national identity. What it means to be an American. 
  • It teaches me the mistakes that previous generations have made along the way, and helps me avoid those same mistakes.    
  • It gives me perspective for today. What was it like for those who lived before me, and how my life today compares with previous generations.  

Thanks for reading!