There are two primary requirements for anyone who wishes to honestly study history or who desires to present history through writing, film, or speaking engagements. The first is the ability to move beyond preconceived ideals, to have an open mind, and to be willing to adjust cherished views of life.
Once you master this challenging exercise, you can work on developing the ability to see history through the eyes of those who lived it rather than through modern eyes that prohibit seeing a time, place, or person with clarity. This has never been an easy task for the historian as it is far easier to present sanitized versions that justify a modern view of a subject or to present a selectively edited version that justifies an opinion or philosophy.
With the current project, a Route 66 encyclopedia, the challenge has been to present the history of this iconic highway, and the people who wrote that history, in an honest manner without damaging the romanticised ideal and perceptions that make Route 66 a destination for those seeking renewal through tangible links to the past. It is my hope that by including in this history the dark side of this legendary highway – the devastating race riots, the Negro Motorist Green Book, or Nat King Cole having to use the rear entrance at clubs where he performed – I can add context and depth to the Route 66 experience as well as ensure its history is preserved for future generations.
Now, you may ask, how does this long winded introduction tie in with the title for today’s post. The obsession with political correctness and hypersensitivity in our modern American society has done more than taint the history of Route 66 and deny a generation the ability to learn from the mistakes of the past, or to be inspired by our nations heroes.
One of the items on display in my counter top at the office is a little paper back book entitled, Handbook for the Women Driver that was distributed by Phillips 66 in 1960. The little book is quite benign as it is filled with all manner of tips from how to check oil to buying a car, from changing a tire to tips on for packing when traveling alone.
The response customers have to this book provides me with a great deal of amusement. They range from the, “I should have that for my wife” to “I can not believe you have the audacity to put that on display.”
I wonder what the response would be if the display included my advertisement for the 1903 Jaxon, “A car so easy to drive a child, or women, can operate it.” Perhaps I should try the 1930 Pontiac advertisement that recommends bring the squaw to the dealership so she may see the savings.
See, we are now so conditioned to be offended that a useful book from the past is often viewed with the same hostility or derision as something that is offensive, yes, tasteless, yes, but that yet still serves as a milestone of our progress. To hide the historic in an effort to avoid offense is akin to keeping the lights off so you do not see the roaches.
How do you know if we have progressed without first knowing where we have been? We risk the danger of a repeat performance when we deny the holocaust or sanitize it for modern taste.
Let me leave you with this brief tale of a legendary heroine on the western frontier. I leave it for you to decide what pigeon hole to place this model of moral ambiguity in.
Sarah Bowman was born in about 1812 on the then western frontier. She grew up to be a women of overpowering presence; red headed, piercing blue eyes, more than six foot tall and weighing in excess of 200 pounds.
She enters the stage of history in 1845 when her husband enlisted in the United States Army at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and she signed on as a laundress. Now, when viewed from the context of modern, politically correct America a laundress would be seen as demeaning work most likely resultant of her inability to get an education.
Yes, Sarah was illiterate. However, a laundress for the army earned food, shelter, a salary, and an opportunity to sell various goods that she might make from quilts to pies. More than a few ladies in this profession honorably earned more than three times that of a private.
By 1846, in addition to being a laundress, she had become a proficient nurse and cook. When the Seventh Infantry was ordered into Mexico, her husband took ill.
Faced with the choice of loosing her lucrative business and staying at her husbands hospital bedside, or following the army, the couple chose the prosperous path. So, as army regulation forbid a women to travel with the infantry unless accompanied by her husband, Sarah gave up her position as a laundress, purchased a mule and wagon, and set out as free lance operator.
At Fort Texas the garrison was besieged by overwhelming Mexican forces and the women, save one, were escorted to the bunker to sew sand bags. Sarah, requisitioned a musket, and prepared food and coffee to men manning the walls. As the battle raged on, she also utilized her nursing skills. Her actions at the fort during this battle made her a national celebrity.
The history of her marriage is a bit sketchy at this point but apparently her husband died, and she remarried. She also established a boarding house, that in addition to lodging, also offered a stable, food, liquor, and “ladies of the evening.”
When the army moved south into Mexico, she resumed her free lance work. During the Battle of Buena Vista, Sarah prepared food, coffee, tended to the wounded and sick, reloaded weapons and helped carry the wounded from the field of battle, often under fire.
With the cessation of hostilities, and the loss of a second husband, Sarah set her sights on following the army to California. This time the commander was adamant about regulations pertaining to military wives accompanying the column.
Undaunted, Sarah remarried and set out with her new husband for the western frontier. It was during this period she became known in the southwest as the Great Western, a reference to the largest ship afloat at that time.
In 1849 she arrived in El Paso, without a husband, and established another boarding house. Her generosity toward travelers earned her the moniker, whore with a heart of gold.”
Between that date and her death in 1866, Sarah plied her trades at various locations before settling at Yuma Crossing in the Arizona Territory and earned the respect of most everyone she met. She also cared for orphans, provided free food and lodging to indigent travelers, and provided a home and education for Indian and Mexican children.
In a world dominated by men, she held her own and met life on her terms. John Salmon Ford, a hard bitten Texas Ranger, said of the Great Western, She could whip any man, fair fight or foul, could shoot a pistol better than anyone in the region, and at black jack could out play the slickest professional gambler.”
She was buried at Fort Yuma but later exhumed and reburied at San Francisco National Cemetery.
The moral of the story is this. Don’t let anyone whitewash history for you and don’t be afraid to see history as it was. You will be the better person for it and so will your nation.

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