What is History?

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

In 1876 John J. Anderson, author of A Manual of General History, defined history as:

“the narration of the events which have happened among mankind, including an account of the rise and fall of nations, as well as of other great changes which have affected the political and social condition of the human race.”

While this definition is over 135 years old, it still stands true today.

Simply put the study of history can be divided into two parts: prehistory and history.  Prehistory refers to a time before the written word. In order to study prehistory, we rely on the information gathered through a systematic archaeological excavation.  These excavations can shed light on many different aspects of culture from what they ate, how they constructed their buildings and how long they lived in a particular area.  Artifacts that are found can help us to better understand the daily lives of these cultures.

The MacLeod Site, Rossland & Thornton Roads, 1968-1970 From the Oshawa Community Archives

The MacLeod Site, Rossland & Thornton Roads, 1968-1970
From the Oshawa Community Archives

It was through two different archaeological excavations that we have been able to learn more about at least one of the First Nations groups that called Oshawa home before it was Oshawa.  Items unearthed during excavations at the MacLeod Site and the Grandview Site indicates that the Lake Ontario Iroquois called this area home from between 1400 to 1500 AD.  Analysis of the artifacts found suggests that the group relied on farming and hunting of small game to survive.  They constructed villages with communal long houses and various outbuildings. The group also made beautiful pottery that was covered in a sort of glaze to make it even more durable.

Without these excavations, we would not know about this culture.

Henry House

Henry House

The study of history certainly makes use of the information gathered through archaeological excavations but is also works from the documents left behind.  When it comes to studying history in Canada, we rely on written documents such as land deeds, diaries, personal and official correspondence to better understand events of the past.  When researching the history of Henry House for the book published in 2012, we made use of land deeds and records from the land registry to document the history of the lot itself.  We then shifted to personal correspondence, census records and genealogical sources such as death notices to learn more about the family and the home.  We also made use of second hand accounts that were published closer to the time the Henry family resided in the home. A great example of this is the memoir written about Elder Thomas Henry by his daughter-in-law Polly Ann Henry.  The book was published in 1880, just one year after the death of Thomas. It seems reasonable to assume that Polly Ann worked with Thomas and the rest of the family to compile the information and to write the book.

The study of history is ongoing.  As new documents become available our understanding of certain people, places or events can change to fit this new information.  This is what we at the Oshawa Community Museum every day.

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