Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Katie Gale's Tombstone: The Work of Researching a Life

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Katie Gale's Tombstone: The Work of Researching a Life

Article excerpt

SOMETIMES A STORY just must be told. But how does a researcher proceed when there are no letters, journals, or even secondary sources to consult? On a late summer morning in 2004, I set off with two local history buffs, Stan Graham and Jan Parker, in search of a small burial ground near the Olympia Oyster Company just half a mile from my home on Oyster Bay at the head of Totten Inlet near Olympia, Washington. A local man had visited the Mason County Historical Society to report that he had seen a small burial plot when he logged the area in around 1960. We drove down the road with our clippers, leather gloves, and a small-scale map on which an oversize x marked the several acres of land we would need to search. We decided first to explore the flat land high on the bank overlooking the bay. There would be a grand view of Mt. Rainier across the water to the east from that bench of land. The hike up the steep hill from where we parked the truck was through a jumble of vines and stumps. The climb was the beginning of a much longer journey. Remarkably, given the heavy vegetation and the vague directions, we found the site.

The first inscribed stone we saw was leaning against a blocky, moss-covered base. The children of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, it read, Hattie and Henry. Henry died in 1895, age seventeen. Hattie died in 1897, age eighteen. (1) We stood silent for a few moments on this sacred ground, thinking about the children and wondering about the cause of their deaths. We imagined the grief of losing two youngsters, so close together in time.

Then, lying on the ground beside its base, we saw a column of stone--a pinkish stone, probably marble, engraved with a pair of low-relief doves:

KATIE, WIFE OF J.A. GALE, DIED Aug. 6, 1899, AGED 43 yrs. Gone but not forgotten

The grave itself was not evident, the grave site ungroomed; it had been unvisited perhaps for years. Nonetheless, the name on the headstone was familiar to me. We had found the tombstone of Katie Gale, an Indian woman I had read a snippet about years before in two memoirs written by white late-nineteenth-century residents of the area. On that warm rise encumbered by the exuberant foliage of big leaf maple, the pricking canes of invasive Himalaya blackberry, low-lying holly, and young Douglas firs, an ordinary late summer day in 2004 became special. I wondered what I could hope to discover about her life more than the anecdote or two, specifically stories of fights between Katie and her husband Joseph over ownership of land, that circulated among the few I knew of who had heard her name. So far as I knew from the one or two notes I had read about her in the memoirs, she had not kept journals or written letters. She did not, I decided later, read or write at all. She signed her mark with a firm cross. I would have to imagine the very texture of Katie Gale's daily life. Although the task seemed daunting, I knew in those initial moments that I wanted to tell her story.

Where to begin? If there were any truth in the stories of Katie's disputes with her husband, common-law or otherwise, might there not be some record of the land or tidelands in question and the disputes themselves? We turned to archived records, specifically legal documents, and found much more than a simple glimpse of the life of the woman called Katie Gale.

Documents do not speak for themselves. They must be deciphered. One must learn to read difficult handwriting, decode references to geographic places whose names have long since changed, and consult dictionaries and other reference material to sort out usage and terms in the context of the year in which the document was produced. To render the documents useful, historians proceed through a variety of intellectual exercises--analysis, authentication, verification, contextualization, and interpretation--without which the document is a meaningless scrap. Those who labor in the service of otherwise obscure subjects learn how to bring the relevant documents foreword, make their significance transparent, and weave them into a story. …

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