Remarks of Lynne V. Cheney
May 5, 2003
"Family History: Another Path to Uncovering America's Story" -- White House Forum on American History, Civics and Service, Washington, DC, May 5, 2003
Secretary Paige, Undersecretaries Burke and Hickok, Dr. Glass, Chairman Cole, Mr. Lenkowsky, John Bridgeland, assembled dignitaries all, it's a pleasure and an honor to be here with you this afternoon.
I thought I would begin my remarks today by talking about a decision I made last Christmas to make presents for my daughters. Now, had they known what I was doing ahead of time and had they thought that I would be baking or knitting for them, they would have been very nervous. As the vice president took it upon himself to inform the entire country not so long ago, I am an abysmal cook. And as for my knitting, well, there's a history. When Dick and I were in college, I decided to knit him a sweater for Christmas. Now I'm not sure exactly what happened, but the sweater turned out to be very, very large, so large, in fact, that Dick's mother, who was a frugal sort, unraveled it and used the yarn to make sweaters for two adults and a child.
I cannot cook and I cannot knit, but I have been writing for a long time, and so I decided that I would write my children a story about one of their relatives, my great-great-grandmother, whose name was Katurah Vaughan. My daughters have an interest in their forebears and so I thought they'd like such a present, and since the forebear they have been most interested in is a man on Dick's side of the family, I thought it was time for them to know about a woman from my side.
It was the best present I have ever given, and like most good gifts, this one benefited the giver as much as those to whom the gift was given. In writing about Katurah Vaughan, I learned so much. I learned about nineteenth century Wales, where she was born, and about what the end of the Napoleonic Wars meant to tenant farmers like her father. I learned about the early days of the Mormon Church, when missionaries were being sent to places like Wales even as persecution in this country threatened the very existence of the Latter Day Saints. And I learned about bravery and endurance.
In 1849, twenty-two-year-old Katurah Vaughan, who had never been more than a few miles from her birthplace in Carmarthanshire, traveled to Liverpool, England, and boarded a ship, the Buena Vista. With her new husband William and 247 other Mormon emigrants, she undertook a fifty-three day trip across the ocean to New Orleans. There Katurah, pregnant now, boarded a steamer to St. Louis, then a second one, the Highland Mary, bound for Council Bluffs, Iowa, a gathering place for Mormons. And then tragedy struck. There was an outbreak of cholera on the steamer, and dozens of immigrants died. One family lost three children in two days, another three in three days. A new mother died along with her nine-day-old son. And Katurah Vaughan's husband died and was buried on the east bank of the Missouri.
The cholera outbreak caused the captain of the Highland Mary to try to force the Mormons off the steamer when they reached St. Joseph, Missouri, but authorities there refused to receive them. When they reached Council Bluffs, even their fellow Mormons did not want to help them-until a church elder made clear that God required mercy of the faithful. Katurah and the others were taken in.
Some months later, Katurah's son was born, and some months after that, the little boy died. In June, 1852, Katurah, traveling in a train of some sixty wagons, left Council Bluffs and headed west on the Great Platte River Road. That fall, she came to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and there she met and married a farmer, Charles Vincent, who was also from Wales. Katurah and Charles had six children and thirty-five grandchildren, one of whom was my grandfather.
Now the story of Katurah Vaughan is compelling to me partly because she is one of my forebears, but also because her story is not unique. The experiences of immigrants to this country and of people who made the journey west are simply awe-inspiring. They are inspiration, and they can be joy. While researching Katurah Vaughan's life, I discovered that I had a second great-great-grandmother on the Mormon Trail in the summer of 1852, a little girl, seven years old, named Fannie Peck. She often walked beside her family's wagon as it rolled along, and she often walked without her shoes, because, she reported later in her life, she only had one pair and was trying to save them for Sunday. Whenever I think of Fannie Peck walking-and no doubt skipping some of the time-barefoot along the Great Platte River Road, it makes me smile. And it was happiness for me to give her story to my children.
Well, I tell you what has been occupying some of my time lately by way of making a point. We need to foster projects and institutions that will lead to greater knowledge and understanding of our history, and those focused on teachers, such as the Department of Education's Teaching American History Grant Program, promise to have a far-reaching impact on historical knowledge. I also want to note the president's "We the People" initiative, which has many facets, including providing opportunities for teachers to read and study history at historical sites and encouraging students to display their historical knowledge in a nationwide history bee. These activities will be centered at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and let me observe, with no hint of bias, that there is no organization better suited to carry out the president's initiative.
But at the same time that we bolster institutions that foster historical awareness, we should also try, each of us as individuals, to transmit our national story. David McCullough said this morning that we ought to take our children to museums and battlefields, and it made me think of when we first came to Washington and Dick was a young White House aide, and not long after that a Congressman. He used to take our children to go to a battlefield every single weekend. They went to every battlefield you can think of in this area. And despite their moaning and groaning, they learned to love history. They are both now great readers of history.
We have an obligation as parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to pass along our nation's history. We must to be sure to encourage our schools and colleges and universities to do better, but we cannot overlook our responsibility as individuals. And we will be able to best fulfill our responsibility to bring the story of the past to the next generation when our own knowledge and enthusiasm are evident.
We are blessed to live in an age when there are historians who have taken it upon themselves to write about great figures in our past in ways that are widely accessible. David McCullough, who is with us today, deserves our thanks for bringing our founding story to so many people. Robert Remini, who spoke so eloquently this morning, has brought the story of great Americans such as Andrew Jackson to tens of thousands.
With libraries, bookstores, the Internet, and television (and I think here of public television and the History Channel especially), many Americans have veritable warehouses of knowledge in their neighborhoods and homes. Today, with the story of Katurah Vaughan, I want to emphasize that family can be a very good organizing principle for all this information, a guide for taking advantage of it.
When I suggest approaching history in this way, I do not mean having kids draw their family tree and stop there. I've seen that happen and it has very little compelling power. I do not mean just names and dates and places, or whether you happen to be descended from William the Conqueror or Billy the Kid-though these can be very interesting things to find out. No, I mean the stories of those who made this journey before us. What did they experience? What did they love? What sustained them?
No matter from what part of the world a person's family comes, there are books to help answer these questions. Think of the outstanding scholars who've contributed to our understanding of African American history, from W.E.B DuBois and Carter G. Woodson, upon whose work and insights so many have built; to John Hope Franklin, who helped establish African American history as a discipline; to Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who recently brought to fruition a project W.E.B. DuBois proposed long ago. For years DuBois dreamed of a vast compendium of knowledge about people of African descent, and with their 1999 publication of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Appiah and Gates brought that dream to realization.
Let me also mention a multi-volume publication called "Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation." In this project, long funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, scholars have brought together letters, journals, depositions, thousands of items of direct testimony by African Americans that help us know more about their lives during the Civil War years and directly after.
American scholarship is an amazing enterprise, and though some of us may never come across letters or diaries written by our ancestors, it is almost sure that somewhere some scholar will have unearthed and made available letters or diaries written by others who lived through the same experiences. Katurah Vaughan left no journals or letters behind. I think she did not know how to write. But other people who sailed aboard the Buena Vista to America, traveled upriver to Council Bluffs, and then crossed to Utah did keep notes, and Ronald Dennis, a scholar at Brigham Young University, has translated them from Welsh and written about them. It is because of Dennis's work that I know that the Captain of the Highland Mary wanted his sick passengers off the steamer and that no one wanted to receive them.
The first of my husband's forebears in this country, William Cheney, who came in 1635 as part of the great Puritan migration, seems also to have not known how to write. For twenty-four years he was not even a member of the church, which in the early days of the church, which in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony meant that he was not a citizen. Now to a twenty-first century mind-infected with what Peter Gibbon earlier called "a tabloid mentality"-this hints of scandal. What had he done, this man who had come so far for religious reasons, that he was not officially part of the church?
There is some truly magisterial scholarship on the Puritans, and I think in particular of the work of Perry Miller. He is a challenging writer. He does not believe in paragraphs shorter than a page, and I will confess that as a graduate student I did a lot of skimming in what is probably his most important book, The New England Mind in the Seventeenth Century. But William Cheney renewed my interest, and there, several hundred pages into The New England Mind, was knowledge crucial to understanding him. He was hardly alone in not being a member of the church. As Perry explained it, most of those who comprised the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as many as four out of five, were not members. They had to attend church, support the minister, and abide by the laws made by citizens, who were church members.
But they themselves either could not convince those who were already in the church that they, too, should be members--or they chose not to try, not to go through what could be an intimidating experience that might well end in failure.
This was not a system that long endured. The church eventually became more open and citizenship more widely distributed. But understanding it as it existed when William Cheney came to this country puts his life in a whole new light, and it is the light of his times rather than ours.
Family stories can be a powerful motive for studying some of the truly awe- inspiring scholarship that has come from this country's universities. And they can be an impetus for grappling with the past in all its complexity.
Let me recommend family stories for a last reason, and that is the sense of contingency that they foster. It's easy to see that if an ancestor hadn't moved when he did or survived against the odds when she did, life would be pretty different today. And it's a short step from there to the realization that George Washington, risk taker if ever there was one, might have been killed early in his military career, or that Joshua Chamberlain, who held the left of the Union line at Gettysburg, might never have become a soldier. The country that we know today, with all its many blessings, was not inevitable. There were countless times when things could have gone another way. We are amazingly fortunate to live in the land that we do; and, particularly in times when we are challenged, this is important for us to remember--and to tell our children.
I want to thank everyone here today for what you are doing on behalf of history. I especially want to thank the organizers of this conference for giving me a forum to explain how family stories can be an excellent entry into our national story.
There are many ways of demonstrating to people young and old the fascination of American history, and we should proceed on all fronts at once. I hope that all the projects we hear about here today will flourish.
And I hope that each of us, as individuals, will take up the work of bringing the story of the past to future generations.