Book Review: Inventing History in the American West

I first met Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard at a tea party. Not one that either of us actually attended, mind you. In fact, it is highly questionable the event ever took place, yet, it was this tea party that earned her my ire.

Esther Morris Cabin
Temporary Marker erected by Grace Raymond Hebard on July 6, 1920, marking the offices of Esther Morris. Made from the top of a box of canned fruit, ink and the safe end of a match, the inscription reads: Site of the Offices of Esther Morris First Woman Justice of the Peace 1870, Justice, Then The Law. Photofile: South Pass City, Negative Number 1658, Miscellaneous AHC Collections, University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center

The tea party in question would have taken place about 145 years before I dug into the details for my research course on western history.  Sharing my research in class, I declared Esther Morris manhandled by history, which my classmates insisted become the title of my research paper on female western officeholders.

That supposed tea party would have gathered 51 years before Hebard published her 1920 pamphlet, “How Suffrage Came to Wyoming,” putting that tea party into the national imagination. Esther Morris, the first female Justice of the Peace, became a caricature–more fiction than fact–regulated to a traditionally feminine engagement with politics by framing her imagined influence over a male politician as more significant than her service.

It is significant that T.A. Larson was the man to introduce me to Hebard. Larson’s Hebard is an unscrupulous suffragist looking for a heroine and fitting Esther Morris into an oversized role. Now, after years of research in Hebard’s Papers, I find it somewhat ridiculous that I grew up in Wyoming, learning Wyoming history and did not learn about Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard until 2014 while pursuing a Master’s degree in history in Nebraska. I think that in part, T.A. Larson is also to thank for this. His History of Wyoming keeps Hebard in the margins. Mention of her golf record is the only significant contribution of hers recognized. Her other two mentions dismiss her as a historian who manipulated and romanticized the history of Wyoming to serve her own purposes. Unfortunately, Larson’s debunking of the Tea Party Myth left behind a mannish Esther Morris of minuscule accomplishment. Larson favored the testimony of Ben Sheeks, the main opponent to Wyoming’s Suffrage Legislation in 1869, who claimed that Morris was “too mannish to influence Bright.” He used a quote from Hebard describing Morris as “heroic in size, masculine in mind” to further push this narrative of an unfeminine and, therefore, uninfluential Morris. [pg. 94-95, History of Wyoming, T.A. Larson] Thankfully there is a new 2019 biography, Esther Hobart Morris: The Unembellished Story of the Nation’s First Female Judge by Kathryn Swim Cummings. Without resorting to myth-building, Cummings restores Morris to a place of honor with a thorough exploration of her life. I have only started reading it, but so far it is the best, most accurate work on Morris I have ever read.

Larson, it appears, was no fan of Hebard’s and his influence as a professor at the University of Wyoming  and historian of the state has been long-lasting. Two of of Hebard’s biographers followed Larson’s lead, casting Hebard as the unscrupulous and untrustworthy historian. With T.A. Larson as her advisor, Jane Wenzel’s 1961 master’s thesis, “Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard as a Western Historian,” is the better of the two works produced under the influence of Larson. Not written directly under the guidance of Larson, the only published biography for Hebard by Mike Mackey was nevertheless, heavily influenced by Larson’s interpretations.

Hebard & Sacajawea
A photograph of Grace Hebard posing by a statue of Sacajawea, University of Wyoming American Heritage Center, Grace Raymond Hebard Photo File.

Mackey’s Inventing History in the American West: The Romance and Myths of Grace Raymond Hebard, was written out of the same ire I felt at that tea party. At the start of this slender volume, Mike Mackey acknowledges that negative experiences with Hebard’s “Sacajawea” claims resulted in pushing him forward on this biography.

Mackey began his research on Hebard in earnest during 2003, after a guest lecturer recounted her visit to “Sacajawea’s grave” on the Wind River Reservation. Mackey was determined to set the record straight concerning the erroneous claim. With Sacajawea being commemorated on Wyoming’s official state coin in 2005, Mackey concluded his research and hurried to produce a short work aimed at the general reader and student. His introduction frames his interpretation of Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard as a case study on romanticized histories and their supposed historians.

Mackey presents Hebard as a woman who was primarily concerned with her image and influence. His interpretation of Hebard’s prolific pursuits relies heavily on his own examination of her personality. Mackey writes, “Hebard’s psychological issue with the need to always be right and never to be challenged, contributed as much to her poor historical works as it did to her other jobs and projects.” [pg. 91] The Hebard presented in Mackey’s slender volume comes across as nefarious with self-serving intentions, plotting to lie to readers, quick to abandon a project, and overly concerned with self-promotion.

While many of Mike Mackey’s conclusions concerning the veracity of Hebard’s historic pursuits are well researched, his interpretation of her intentions is lacking. Mackey’s claims on Hebard’s motivations reproduces the same sexism Hebard faced during her lifetime with contemporary criticisms against her presented uncritically or even endorsed by Mackey. It is obvious from the records that Grace Raymond Hebard was a formidable woman with strong opinions, frequently in positions of power and influence. Contemporary criticisms weren’t necessarily without merit but they are also not without context and culture—both of which, seem to be missing from Mackey’s brief overview of Hebard’s life and other projects beyond her romanticized histories. Controversies and conflicts Hebard faced with her co-workers at the University of Wyoming are presented with the implication that Hebard was lying and using her connections to manipulate the investigations in her favor. When Hebard moved on from a certain pursuit, such as Americanization or child labor law reform, Mackey presents her as abandoning the projects because they became too demanding and stopped serving her self-aggrandizing purpose.

Two of Mackey’s key arguments are at odds with each other. Mike Mackey spends much of his book focused on Hebard’s “personality and her professional training, or lack thereof.” [pg. 5] Mackey criticizes Hebard for not joining certain historical associations while underplaying that she was published by several of them including in The Journal of American History. Mackey’s focus on Hebard’s detractors obscured the networks historians with who corresponded with Hebard and agreed with her conclusions. Still, Hebard was no historian according to Mike Mackey. 

The effort Mackey puts into dismantling Hebard throughout the book undercuts his assertion of her insidious influence in the final pages making it nearly impossible to believe. A reviewer from the University of Iowa, Brian Donovan walked away with the impression that Hebard’s “academic standing has never been high” and that her work was utterly rejected by contemporary historians– so why were her myths believed? [Review, Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 97, No. 3 (Summer, 2006), pp. 150-151]  Another reviewer refused to accept Mackey’s “caustic” interpretation of Hebard but even still Sheri Barlette Brown could not find in Mackey’s work “the factors that motivated such a bright, determined, and self-assured woman to persist with interpretive ventures that regularly challenged factual reality.” [Review, Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 76, No. 1 (February 2007), pp. 130-133] Perhaps, Brown could not find those motivations because Mackey’s research was limited in time and scope. His notes show that he did not explore all of Dr. Hebard’s collections concerning Sacajawea. He cites a total of eleven boxes from her 87 box collection, and only one of those from the series on Sacajawea (53-57). Among the boxes references are not Box 44, containing Hebard’s file on the burial controversy of Sacajawea. Mackey also neglected Box 43, containing over six folders of correspondence with Hebard’s research assistants. Without this insight into Hebard’s extensive research, we are left with the impression that Hebard was indeed “inventing history.”

As Hebard and I sit down for another cup of tea, I have come to realize that her own claims and controversies have grown to overshadow her accomplishments, just as that tea party grew over Esther Morris. Admittedly, I have softened on Hebard over the years. That is not to say that I am uncritical– just that I no longer carry an ire informing my interpretation. I will not shy away from the uncomfortable aspects of her legacy, nor the controversies they have stirred, but I will try to present them with context. I think that you can acknowledge the damage a myth can do, without destroying and demonizing the mythmaker. I am much more interested in Hebard’s process and what we can discover from her research. If the woman buried on Wind River Reservation is not Sacajawea, then who was she and can we discover the truth from the extensive interviews Hebard and her proxies conducted?

As a historian, I am not here to condemn Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard. I just want to explore and learn from her life– triumphs and failures, exaggerations and accurate accounts. I hope that I will deepen my understanding of what it means to be a woman in Wyoming while inspiring other Wyomingites with Hebard’s story because even with all her faults and mistakes, she is inspiring. And that’s the tea.

Edit: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Mike Mackey was a student of Larson’s at the University of Wyoming.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Inventing History in the American West”

  1. Pingback: Enebo: The Hermitage and The Hermits – #kyliethehistorian

  2. Pingback: The Missing Diaries – #kyliethehistorian

  3. Mike Mackey was NOT a former student of T. A. Larson’s. Larson retired long before Mackey attended the University of Wyoming

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