Newer doesn’t mean better

Letter from Virginia M. Simmons

Roadside History – April 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine


Although Allen Best was partly correct in his assumption that the state’s new historical markers will provide more information (“Better History along the Road,” March 2001), the Colorado Historical Society, which produces the history, and the Colorado Department of Transportation, which now must approve locations for signs, do not always provide the optimal product. Having been involved one way and another with historical markers for about 35 years, I have appreciation and criticism for both the old and the new.

By looking at The Colorado Magazine (volume 47, number 3: summer 1970), one can find the locations and texts of markers erected through 1969 by the State Historical Society of Colorado. There were 144 of these, plus six missing markers, far more than will be erected as new ones. The old markers offered brief, specific information and locations of local places and events, which would easily be forgotten without the markers. Granted, the historical perspective was narrow in many cases. Jim Hartmann, who was a former Historian and later President of the Society, and I actually visited each of those older signs and cleaned the bronze ones. Now, having consulted on the texts of a few new signs, I am prepared to argue that the “new” approach, while frequently providing a broader perspective of history, often does so at the cost of regional and local information. We need both kinds of signs.

Moreover, the newer signs are not always as useful as one might hope, for they can be misleading in their emphasis, both by commission and omission. For example, the last time I saw the preliminary text of a sign intended for the Upper Arkansas (to be erected somewhere north of Granite I was told) it was sensationalizing the Gas Creek war (Gas Creek is far to the south), but it said nothing about the very important history of water diversion (Twin Lakes and Clear Creek Reservoir are nearby). Also, I was told that the present “Mountain Transportation” sign, located where one can view the old stage road across the river, is destined for removal.

Next, I wish to point out that, had he done basic research, Best might have been more cautious about debunking Albert Pfeiffer. Yes, Pfeiffer was a local hero whose contemporaries tended to overlook his shortcomings, but a careful researcher could easily have learned that “the bum” served in the Navajo campaign after 1862, that his wife was killed near Fort McRae in New Mexico during the campaign, and that his well-documented friendship with the Ute Indians together with his hatred of Navajo and Apaches might have resulted in the well-publicized duel at Pagosa Springs.

Sometimes when regional history is written by today’s revisionists in Denver or elsewhere with few concrete facts, the conclusions are unreliable, or just plain wrong. I choose to call this sort of writing the “gentrification” of history.

Virginia McConnell Simmons

Del Norte