What does a writer do when sources disagree?
When I decided to set Cordelia’s Journey in Kansas Territory in 1855, I researched towns in existence during that time period. After reading about Pawnee, Kansas Territory, in Daniel Fitzgerald’s Ghost Towns of Kansas, Volume III, I decided Pawnee would be a perfect setting for a few early scenes in the novel. According to Fitzgerald, Andrew Reeder, first Territorial Governor of Kansas, informed the Pawnee town association in December 1854 or January 1855 that the legislature would meet in Pawnee if the town provided a suitable building. In April 1855, Reeder issued a proclamation that the legislature would convene in the town. Fitzgerald went on to report that a building boom followed, with hundreds of people arriving, new houses going up and new businesses opening. Because of all the activity going on, I described Pawnee as a bustling town, complete with a boarding house, restaurant, church, and livery stable.
I was pleased with my depiction of Pawnee until I started reading Bleeding Kansas by Alice Nichols, who proclaimed that at the time the Legislature met, the town consisted of “Two half-finished shacks and a windowless, doorless, two-story stone capitol building….” Although one of the members of the Legislature claimed there were accommodations such as boarding houses available, Nichols says that was not the case.
Dismayed by the discrepancy between the bustling boom town and the two-shack description, I looked for a third source and located The Old Pawnee Capitol, a thirty-eight page pamphlet published by the Kansas Historical Society. A quick review of the publication revealed that Fitzgerald had used large passages from this book in his description of Pawnee.
Almost satisfied with Pawnee as a bustling town, at least for a couple of months, I searched the Kansas Historical Quarterly archives for more on Pawnee. In the Autumn 1969 issue, I found the article “Scenes in (and En Route to) Kansas Territory,” a compilation of five letters by William H. Hutter written in the autumn of 1854. In a letter dated November 18, 1854, Hutter wrote:
About a half mile below the Fort (Riley) is the site for the projected town of Pawnee. It is a fine location and struck the fancy of our entire party, as a very desirable place. Several of them secured claims in the vicinity. … The streets are to be 80 and 100 feet wide. The proprietors number some of the best and most enterprising men in the Territory and as an evidence of their energy, intend commencing the immediate erection of a large Hotel, which will be open for visitors early in the spring. The wages of mechanics are very high here. Stone Masons get $2.40 a day and board.
The above description of activity in November of 1854 leads me to believe Fitzgerald’s description of town in the midst of a building boom as it prepared to be the capital of Kansas Territory, a role that lasted for only four days.
Finally, a Kansaspedia article notes that when the members of the legislature arrived on July 2, 1855, the capitol building was not finished in spite of the “building boom” going on. With the majority of sources bearing out my first impression, I’m keeping my Pawnee scenes as I originally wrote them. Having sources at hand to show critics who may have a different vision of what the town was like gives me some comfort.
For my readers: What about you? How do you handle discrepancies in research? What are your most reliable sources? Please post a comment.