and speaking of oral history…

Family Storytellers - Harry and Dora Espy, 1896Papa and Aunt Dora circa 1896

Family Storytellers — Harry and Dora Espy, 1896

As most of us know, the spoken word is tricky – especially in the matter of reporting the what, when, where or how of events. Even first-hand accounts must be looked at through the filter of the speaker’s biases and acuity of vision, but by the time the story is told and retold by others – or even remembered later by the original speaker – things often change.

The age-old children’s game of “Telephone” is the clearest example of how words are misheard and ideas are changed as we tell a story again and again. We all know, though we often pay little attention, that ‘gossip’ can’t be quoted as gospel. We tend to put more credence into ‘first-hand accounts’ when they are written down. We also tend to place confidence in stories passed from generation to generation in cultures that have perfected their process of oral tradition — often by almost ritualized re-tellings.

Many of the family stories that I ‘know’ have come to me through several generations of telling. I am always a bit skeptical, especially of the details, and most especially when a story puts one of my forebears in a particularly good light. I try to repeat those stories exactly as I heard them but, if I write them down, I make the supreme effort to check out the facts insofar as I am able.

'Nahcati's Grave' by Earl Thollander

‘Nahcati’s Grave’ by Earl Thollander

The story of Oysterville’s founding is a case in point. All my life I’ve heard the tale of my great-grandfather, R.H. Espy and his friend I.A. Clark arriving here by canoe on April 12, 1854 in the midst of a rainy nor’wester. Their visibility was zero and had it not been for an Indian thumping on a hollow log on shore, they likely would have missed the Peninsula entirely.

Some years ago I found a written account of that story, recorded by my grandfather in an interview with his father, R.H. The one discrepancy between this first-hand written account and the oral account was the name of the Indian. I had always heard that it was Nahcati; in the written account, his name was ‘Old Klickeas.’

But look, though I might, I could never find anything that Clark had written, Although I knew two of his great-granddaughters very well – Edith Olson and Lucille Wilson – their story of Oysterville’s founding differed not a bit from the one told in our family, and none of us was ever sure if it came from their forebears or ours.

Envelope with I.A. Clark History

Envelope with I.A. Clark History

So, it came as a great cause for celebration (as well as a bit of a relief) when an envelope with Clark’s version of the story turned up not long ago. Written on the envelope was:

This envelope contains a history by my father Isaac Alonozo Clark about when he and Robert Espy landed in Bruceport, Shoalwater Bay (as it was then called), and later went together to Oysterville and lied together for a while in a log house which they built in 1854. He wrote the enclosed history later in 1942. His own handwriting. If I can figure out all his writing then copy for my brother Henry when the war is over.

Unfortunately, the notation is not signed, nor is the two-page letter that it contained. However, for starters, there are not many basic inconsistencies between the Clark and Espy versions of the story – only that they began their journey to Oysterville from Bruceport in the Clark version and from Astoria in the Espy version. And maybe there’s a bit of truth to both. Could they have begun in Astoria as Espy said, and stopped off at Bruceport where Clark picked up the story? I await the next installment.

One Response to “and speaking of oral history…”

  1. Stephanie Frieze says:

    And so do I!

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