David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

The Deerfield Raid, in Multiple Forms

I looked forward to this week’s reading, about creating the websiteRaid on Deerfield: the Many Stories of 1704,” because it connected the strands of my career to-date in academic, digital, and public history.

When I took David Silverman’s Colonial North America seminar (syllabus in Microsoft Word format) in spring 2005, we read a scholarly monograph on the same subject: Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney‘s masterful Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield. As I read the article and explored the website, I thought back to that book and the resultant class discussion, particularly what the differences in format say about history in digital versus book form.

One of the similarities that struck me was the quest of Haefeli and Sweeney–both involved in producing the website–and the creators of the website to tell the story from multiple perspectives. This reflects a positive trend in recent historiography on Colonial North America. Richard Melvoin followed a similar path in his 1992 New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield, which differed from traditional New England town studies in that it begins with a Native American settlement, then the succeeding English settlement.

The website and Captors and Captives, due to their technology, approach this quest for multiple perspectives in different ways. The book follows a more traditional narrative strategy. With chapters on New England towns, New France, mission Indians, and independent Indians between New France and New England, it brings the reader to the time of the raid by discussing the development of the societies that clashed on that fateful day in February 1704. Then it interweaves the stories of the multiple groups into a cohesive narrative of the leadup to the raid, the raid itself, and its aftermath.

The website, meanwhile, allows visitors to explore the different perspectives separately. Instead of the multiple perspectives being narrated together, as in the book, the site provides the multiple perspectives through tabs, combined with an overview of each vignette.

Each approach, besides being suited for its technology, offers certain advantages and disadvantages instructive for any public digital history project.

The separation of the perspectives in the website can be both an advantage and a handicap. An advantage, in that each site visitor can more thoroughly “immerse” himself or herself in each side of the story. Indeed, one could follow the entire story from one perspective, then shift over to another perspective.

Or the person could follow the story from just one perspective–and leave it at that. As we discussed in class recently, such a layout makes it easier both to present and ignore multiple perspectives. When a visitor videotaping my history talk at the Alamo wanted to ignore the Mexican government side of my interwoven narrative, he had to make the effort to turn off the camera. Presumably his video appeared choppy.

A visitor to the “Raid on Deerfield” website does not need to make such an effort to ignore the other perspectives presented, whereas a reader of the book would have to make an effort similar to Jefferson’s with the Bible to do the same.

These caveats not meant to disparage the effort made on the website. They should only serve to remind us of an issue that we as digital historians should address; that said, we may just need to “let go” and allow visitors to do what they will with the content we put out there.

Thus, I concur with my classmate and fellow public historian Chris that “Raid on Deerfield” is what digital public history should be. As he notes, the website erases some of the issues that we public historians face with limited space for exhibitions: the Web allows us to go in-depth, as we would in a book, while presenting the story graphically and in digestible chunks, as we would in an exhibition. Rather than the “taste” that history exhibitions are supposed to provide (hoping visitors will then go buy the book in the gift shop), the website allows both for tastes and for in-depth looking.

The website also brings this story to many more people. The book, while widely available, has presumably not reached a large audience. It is not available online through the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association–creator of the website–nor Historic Deerfield (although a companion book is), and it ranks number 896,523 on Amazon.com. I was unable to find visitation numbers for the website, but I think I’m safe in assuming many more people have seen it than have read the book. Even if visitors to the website chose to ignore other perspectives, they were at least presented with them–and with a memorable, educational, generally neat website, at that.

4 Comments

  1. I would not have thought of the following without your post: when the various perspectives are so clearly presented, as they are in the Deerfield site, it makes it very apparent that they user who only follows one narrative isn’t hearing the other voices. There are those four other tabs sitting there on the screen, and at least they can’t tell themselves they’re hearing the whole story. I don’t know how much better it is for them to be willfully selective than passively.

  2. Adding to Megan’s comment (and her blog post) and the selectivity discussion, perhaps this is one reason it’s okay to have that opening “welcome” page. It very clearly shows you that you’re about to enter a site with different perspectives. Not to mention the subtitle of the site is “The Many Stories of 1704.” Because the truth is, even if the integrated narrative in the book is more effective, there are a lot of people out there who have no interest in reading a whole book. As public and digital historians, we can only do so much, right?

    • Completely agree. Having a “welcome” page can be useful in establishing what the site is attempting to accomplish and to encourage users to utilize it in that fashion. At some point though, we just need to give up trying to control how users and patrons use or view our exhibits. My experience in the museum taught me that most people (indeed the vast majority) come to your institution or visit the website with a willingness to learn and have their “horizons expanded,” as it were. However, some don’t. Some visitors come with their own biases firmly entrenched and no matter how much evidence you put forth they will ignore you. The story that David recounted about the visitor videotaping his tour is an excellent example of this (I have my own stories: one involving an elderly woman who clutched my arm so tightly after my tour that I had fingernail marks in my skin for two days, simply because she wanted me to know how horrible Lincoln was – who by the way I talked about for maybe 30 seconds during an hour and a half tour). I think we should probably not worry too much about these people as they are definitely a minority among our patrons. Whatever we can provide to help the average person understand the exhibit, whether digital or physical, is a good thing in my book.

  3. Fully agreed with all of your comments–as Geoffrey said, some people work hard at remaining ignorant, and as we all said, no matter what they have to put in some effort. And the choice of some to remain ignorant should not deter us from presenting multiple perspectives. As we all said, whether in book or web form, we can only put things out there, and let people take them as they will–as tough as that can be sometimes!

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