I was on the last leg of my research for the latest biography I am writing when the Covid shutdowns occurred. Closed were the numerous libraries and archives that held boxes of documents and papers related to my subject, a California Pioneer. The closures of these institutions pushed back the publication of my book by at least a year. I was seriously depressed.
Covid Halts Historical Research
Through hundreds of hours of research, from my subjects first steps in California to his death in Sacramento, I really thought I knew the man. I was in the biographer’s zone of connecting all the little dots of this man’s life and the ripple effects of his actions in the community. The pandemic dropped a wall on my progress.
In April of 2020, with all public spaces going dark, but my enthusiasm for detailing this man’s life still very much energized, I had to step out of my comfort zone to keep writing and researching. For those of us not connected with an academic institution, the challenges of having an unsolicited email to a library or archive requesting help is another handicap.
Requesting Historical Documents via Email
My plan was to reach out to all the places that had documents related to my subject to see if they could scan them into PDFs and send them to me. Of course, I offered to pay the costs of the reproduction. In addition, I decided to write short pieces for my website focused on events that would be of general interest to history readers.
Crazy but true, a social media contact gave me a lead about an archive back in New York that may have some papers related to my work. I contacted the small historical archive and they readily agreed to scan three hand written letters from Amos P. Catlin in California to his father in New York between 1851 and 1852. The letters are an incredible resource and the lead developed because I had been writing about A. P. Catlin, the subject of my latest biography, on my website.
Next, I contacted the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Sadly, they were only allowing researchers from faculty and staff in 2020. They hoped to open to the public in the Spring of 2021. I have seen some of the documents they have on Catlin, and while scraps of paper and water sales receipts are trash to some people, they are gold to me and my work. The Bancroft, while they could not scan all the little scraps of paper in the Catlin files, did have a previously scanned letter from Anna Judah to Catlin from 1889.
The San Francisco Library was also very gracious in scanning a letter to Catlin from A. T. Arrowsmith from 1853 that they had in their archive. Some of the material I was able to glean through email requests have become blog posts on my website. Other material either confirms certain aspects of Catlin’s life or supports my overall timeline.
Publishing Parts Of The Book In Blog Posts
For some authors, they are not interested in releasing any information about their work until it is published. But I am not just any old author, I am a nobody. One of my internal drives to research history and write biographies is to set the record straight. There are too many myths floating around, especially on the local level. There are also numerous historical events that people have no knowledge about right in their own backyards.
A. P. Catlin was instrumental in a number of historical events relating to both Sacramento and California history. A real biography needs to go beyond the Wikipedia entry and really examine the actions of the subject and other people involved the event. Unfortunately, the full description of the event may not make it into the book in all its bloody details.
For example, as an attorney, A. P. Catlin negotiated the redemption of twenty-year-old railroad bonds between the City of Auburn and the bond holder. Why is this significant? Because the City of Auburn was dissolved in the 1860s to avoid paying the principle and interest on the bonds as the railroad was defunct three years after it was started. It was A. P. Catlin who recognized that the residents of Auburn wanted to re-incorporate their town and his client wanted to get a few cents on the dollar for the bonds he held.
From my perspective, writing about this interesting bit of history, first detailing how the railroad came to be and the violent struggle to pull up the tracks, and Catlin’s part in the resolution will not detract from the final book. If anything, there may be readers of the blog post who are intrigued with the intellect and life of A. P. Catlin and want to learn more about him.
In addition, I put together some YouTube videos on A. P. Catlin. With Folsom Lake low, it exposed much of the Natoma Canal that was built by the Natoma Water and Mining Company that Catlin organized. While not technically research, walking along the river where Catlin walked helped establish another connection to the man’s life 170 years ago.
The gift to me has been the ability to write about Catlin while not being able to finish the biography because everything is closed down. I have to write about the railroad bond story anyhow to fully grasp its place in history and the context to Catlin’s life. I may as well release my research, hopefully in an entertaining form, to the public. In this manner, I get to spend a little bit more time with this historical figure I have become obsessed with, even if I can’t finish the book.