The Beauty of Research

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by Jane Gordon

Four years ago, I was walking on Central Park West when I noticed a plaque driven into a stone post at one of the park’s entrances. The plaque paid tribute to a Margaret Corbin, “heroine of the battle of Fort Washington.”

I had never heard of the Battle of Fort Washington. I had never even heard of Fort Washington. And I definitely had never heard of Margaret Corbin.

I grew up in New York, so I was feeling pretty ignorant at that first encounter. But that’s the beauty of research. You’re a moron one week, an expert the next.

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I started reading what little was on the Internet about Margaret. I’d been a journalist for more than 30 years, but I admit: the Internet had made me a little bit lazy.

Soon after I landed at Sarah Lawrence in 2016, I signed up for Stephen O’Connor’s research class. And my fascination with Margaret, who had been stuck in the freezer of my memory, was thawed, and with the research class’s help, set aflame.

Stephen’s course pointed us down several pathways. Primary sources! That’s what I needed. I had filled binders with secondary sources, from the Internet, from library books, from historical texts. I had read “The Craft of Research.” But, Stephen had offered a key detail when he critiqued my final class workshop piece, one that I knew, but about which I needed to be reminded.

Go, he said. Go to the scene. Stand there. Feel the wind bite your cheeks. See the stony cliffs, the stormy November sky, the river rushing by from where she stood. Imagine what it felt like to have people shooting guns, and then cannons, at you.

So I went. I walked Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan, where the Battle of Fort Washington was fought. I drove to Pennsylvania, first to Shippensburg, where Margaret spent her childhood and where homeowners let me walk their old houses, and on to Chambersburg, where she was born. It was in Chambersburg, after the massive migration of Scots-Irish to the Pennsylvania countryside, that Native Americans killed Margaret’s father and kidnapped her mother. She was just short of 5 years old.

I sought the help of historical society heads, who to a person came in early and left late to help me. I leafed through letters, documents, tax rolls, birth records, and old newspapers, including the Pennsylvania Gazette, the New York Times of the 1700s. Every last bit of news fit to print went into that newspaper, including an account of the Native American raid that took Margaret’s parents. And in that account, I found that historians had been misidentifying her mother as Sarah.

Jane was her mother’s name. My name.

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I drove to West Point to visit her grave. I made friends with the at-first-crusty then cheery and cheerleading head of the historical society in Highland Falls, N.Y., where Margaret lived her last days. I spent hours on the phone with the New York State historian for the Daughters of the American Revolution. (DAR women often get a snooty rap. I loved every single one I met.)

Research is work. I walked, I drove, I read, I dug, I asked questions, I read some more, I asked some more questions.

I imagined, and I imagined again.

The trick to research has been, for me, to accept that it’s a path, not a maze. Sometimes, I felt myself getting lost. So I started making lists of every which way I could approach my story from a research perspective. But after months of obsessive digging, and because Stephen had cautioned me against digging myself into oblivion, at some point I had to start writing. I shook off my nerves, because I knew I would never be expert enough to avoid criticism. Besides, there are so many self-appointed critics out there these days that even the so-called experts are eviscerated. I embraced my deficiencies while I was writing. And I revised, and revised, and am still revising.

And there’s no getting around it – I’m still researching. Research is huge fun. And it reveals wonders of history, information and - most intriguing - secrets.

Make a map early on, and you won’t get lost. 

 

Land-use battles, love, probate court irregularities, marriage, governmental snafus, divorce, SARS, death: Jane Gordon has written about all of them at newspapers throughout the United States, including for 17 years as a freelancer for The New York Times. She also has worked as an editor, in senior positions in college communications, and as a media consultant. When her fourth child left for college she decided to leave for college herself, to finally figure out that book she's been promising for 35 years she'll complete.