Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Genealogy and John Ford's Stagecoach

I had a hankering to watch the classic John Ford movie Stagecoach again. I was wondering if it were as bad as I remembered it being. It was. But I saw the whole movie from a new perspective: genealogy. Oh, before I forget, here is the citation.

Ford, John, Walter Wanger, Dudley Nichols, Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, et al. 2014. Stagecoach.

Of course, I am extremely familiar with the geography of Arizona where the movie was set, so many of the scene changes from location to location are more obvious than they would be if I were not so well acquainted with the entire southwestern part of the United States. One striking feature of both the movie and what I commonly see in online family trees, such as the Family Tree, is the way geographic reality is ignored. I realize that the movie, notwithstanding John Wayne's acting, was not supposed to be a historic documentary, but the geographic dislocation of the movie is like a disturbing background noise that never seems to stop.

Stagecoach begins with long shots of Monument Valley on the border between Arizona and Utah. This is one of John Ford's favorite locations, but to "enhance" the Arizona part of the movie, he includes saguaro cactus, Apache Indians and a snow storm in the desert. According to the dialogue, the stagecoach is going from Tonto, Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. There is no real town called "Tonto" but there is certainly no such place near Monument Valley. First of all, it is almost 500 miles from Monument Valley to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Other locations mentioned in the movie include a stop at "Lee's Ferry" which is west of Monument Valley about 163 miles on the Colorado River and definitely not on the way to Lordsburg. Stagecoaches, with good roads, could travel about five miles per hour and so a trip from Monument Valley to Lordsburg, at best, would have taken more than 100 hours of travel time, not counting stops assuming there were any roads at that time.

The striking resemblance between this lack of geographic reality and the entries I find in family trees is striking. I commonly find that families include children born in different counties and even different countries at times when travel was on foot or horseback. John Ford could do this with film but genealogists are using their own imagination if they think that I am not going to question any instance of geographic inconsistency.

At one point in the movie, the stagecoach passes what is obviously a shot of the Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix, Arizona. There is repeated reference in the movie to as stagecoach stop called "Apache Wells." Apache Wells is a neighborhood now in Mesa, Arizona which is about 220 miles from Lordsburg, almost due west. If you went from Monument Valley to Apache Wells and then to Lordsburg, the trip would be over 560 miles assuming there was a road at the time. It may also surprise you to learn that saguaro cactus do not grow in Northern Arizona.

When was the movie supposed to have happened? This is same question genealogical researchers should be asking about their families. The event that triggers the action in the movie is when "Geronimo" leaves the reservation for raiding. Geronimo is a well-documented historical character. He was a Mescalero-Chircahua whose name was actually, Goyaałé [kòjàːɬɛ́]. He was born on 16 June 1829 and died on 17 February 1909. His breakouts or raids from the reservation occurred in August of 1878, September of 1881 and again in May of 1885. See Wikipedia: Geronimo. There is one small problem with using Geronimo in the movie, his base of operations was from Mexico. Oh, the Mexican border is over 500 miles south of Monument Valley.

So, we have some additional parallels between the movie and genealogical research. Just as the movie ignores history, geography and ultimately reality, many genealogists do the same. They seem to assume that they are like movie directors, they can move their ancestors across the stage of history at a whim and ignore where and when they lived.  They put their ancestors in the most scenic part of the country and disregard the time it might take them to move from one location to another. Their ancestors become involved with all sorts of historical events that did not occur at the time they lived or even in the same country where they lived.

Oh, did I mention that Lordsburg, New Mexico was founded in 1880 on the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad?

Maybe it is time that genealogist stop living in a movie-like fantasy world and get down to some sort of historical reality?

1 comment:

  1. Another movie with genealogical/geographical problems is The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I haven't checked it recently, but I recall Debbie Reynolds in a prairie schooner 'sailing' through Nebraska or Kansas enroute to Denver with saguaros in the background.