I had an elderly friend whose index finger was quite crooked with arthritis, and it amused us when he would shake that finger while saying, "Now, let's get this straight!" Sometimes the facts about an event in local history are as impossible to "get straight" as that fellow's finger.
A case in point follows.
Forest Ranger Fred Croxen was superintendent of the Payson Ranger District during the 1920s, and blessed all future generations by recording the reminiscences of many Rim country pioneers. However, he simply recorded the stories as he heard them, and had no thought of critically evaluating them against other facts.
For example, it was Croxen who first recorded that the town of Payson was named after a United States Senator named Payson, "from Chicago, Illinois, who was chairman of the Congressional committee on Post Offices and Post Roads." (From the Croxen Collection, Rim Country Museum).
In fact there was no such committee. Lewis Edwin Payson was a member of the House of Representatives (1881-1891) from Pontiac, Illinois, and was chairman of the Committee on Public Lands. ("Biographical Dictionary of the United States congress 1774-1989") However, educator and historian Ira Murphy picked up on Croxen's writing and in his books and articles about Payson called the congressman "Senator" Payson.
Fred Croxen also had extensive correspondence with Will Barnes who was a soldier stationed at Fort Apache, and was the calligrapher during some exciting years of the Indian War. He later became a rancher with a keen interest in history and wrote the famous book, "Arizona Place Names." In it he repeats the story about "Senator" Payson. Barnes also relied heavily on his friend Croxen for information about place names in the Rim country.
In recording the stories of old-timers, Ranger Croxen repeated their versions of the 1882 Apache renegade outbreak and its culmination July 17 with the Battle of Big Dry Wash north of General's Spring on the Rim. Among his sources was Glenn "Slim" Ellison, who had heard what he knew from his grandfather Jesse Ellison of Q Ranch fame.
However, even Jesse W. Ellison did not arrive here from Texas until 1885, so what he knew was also hearsay. Thus, without benefit of government archival records, Fred Croxen wrote the thrice-told story as it circulated among the old-timers. Later his version was printed (The Smoke Signal, Fall 1977, #34, Tucson Corral of the Westerners) and thus became "authoritative." Others now quote from it as though Croxen was there.
Another interesting facet of this conundrum is that Croxen leaned heavily on the book "The Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter: Written By Himself." In their correspondence, Will Barnes catches Fred Croxen on this.
In a letter, Nov. 12, 1929, (Barnes to Croxen, Rim Country Museum) Barnes was reviewing the paper Ranger Croxen had written on the subject. He states, "On page 5 you quote Tom Horn. His whole story of his presence at that fight, that he was Chief of Scouts, was an out and out lie. Tom Horn never was Chief of Scouts; he never was at that battle; and altogether his whole story is made up out of whole cloth. I have a complete Army record of the time he was in Arizona. He never appeared on the Army rolls until about 1884 or 1885. He is probably the most monumental liar who ever wrote a book ..."
Will Barnes was not the only person who questioned the veracity of Tom Horn. H.B. Wharfield (Cibicue Creek Fight In Arizona, page 28) comments that the book by Tom Horn "is an outright fabrication of his participation in the fight. He was not even close to the place."
Other Army people had equal condemnation for the stories of Indian Wars told by Tom Horn, in which the scalawag always seems to be the hero.
Tracing the facts of a moment in history is always a challenge because the tellers each see it from their own perspective, like mirrors reflecting the scene from different angles. Often the eyewitnesses are few if any, and the accounts come to us by oral traditions full of meaningful myths, but not always true to the facts.
We must also sift the credibility of the accounts that come to us in the written form of books or letters. The author may have a military career at stake that colors his emphasis and even altars the truth. He may be an egotist, like Tom Horn, who takes credit for what others have done. Yet again, the writer may be once removed from the action, but is so convinced his reporter is accurate, he engages a shameless elaboration in the retelling.
Furthermore, some accounts turn out to be circular. That is, we can trace the sources back to a few that are already identified. What the researcher is studying is not new material at all, but a rehash of what he has already seen. Original accounts are retold over and again until it seems like new material instead of a reworking of the old.
So be kind to your local historians, who try to ferret out the truth but are known to repeat things differently than you may have heard it. I, too, have a crooked index finger that I would like "to get straight."