Historiography: Methods and Approaches

This week, we looked at various types of historiographical essays, recognizing that while there may be wrong ways to treat a historiographical approach to history, there is no set “right” way of crafting an essay on the subject.  In fact, the approach and ultimate goal of writing historiographical essays seems to vary by the author, their interpretations of various historiographical trends in their chosen subject and how they choose to address often overwhelming amounts of research on the topics they’ve selected.  What is important for any historiographical project is to identify sources, identify the historiographical approaches that have been utilized over time and to write a clear interpretation of those approaches in whatever manner best suites the author.  In addition to understanding the basis of historiographical research, we were given three examples of historiographical writing that varied widely in organization and approach to the subject of Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition.

In the example laid out in chapter 6 of our textbook, Brundage gives an example of a historiographical essay arranged chronologically by order of the historiographical writings on the topic of the expedition.  While it is clear and concise, the topics are spread out throughout the essay, making it difficult to focus on one specific area of study within the field of the Lewis and Clark expedition.[1]  Ms. Autran’s essay which is quoted in the book is a great example of historiographic writing, but jumping back and forth between subjects based on the chronological time of writing was difficult for me to follow.

Our second example was the one that suited me best.  I’m not sure if it’s how I learn, how I process what I read, or how I like to organize things myself as a personal preference, but Moulton’s example of a historiographical essay on Lewis and Clark was much better organized in my option by subject matter instead of chronologically.[2]  He covered topics such as the source documents, the participants, the tools and many more aspects of the journey and how they’ve all been addressed by previously historical writing.[3]  It was a very easy-to-read narrative which summarized previously historiographical approaches to the expedition and it was easy to go back and re-read a particular section about an aspect of the journey that interested me personally after my first read-through.

The last example presented in this module by Cayton was an excellent example of a critical essay on an often studied subject.[4]  In the form of a book review, Cayton takes issue with some of the licenses that Slaughter took in his recent book about the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Cayton agrees that taking licenses with historiography is not a bad thing, but inferring those interpretations as fact without being supported by the evidence OR the previous centuries of historiography on the topic is.[5]  While I may not personally like some of his rhetoric in his narrative, it is a good example for me personally of when historiography goes too far into claiming speculation and interpretation as absolute fact when in reality, a lot of historical topics cannot be known with absolute certainty when assessed through the lens of bias and interpretation.

[1] Patricia J Autran, The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Changing Interpretations, quoted in Anthony Brundage, Going to the Sources, (West Sussex UK, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 96-108.

[2]Gary E. Mouton “On Reading Lewis and Clark: The Last Twenty Years,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 38, no. 3 (1988): 28-39.

[3] Ibid, 30.

[4] Andrew R L Cayton, “Telling Stories about Lewis and Clark: Does History Still Matter?” Great Plains Quarterly 24, no. 4 (2004): 283-287.

[5] Ibid, 284.

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