Living History Conference – Hilarity ensues!


Today I attended the Living History Conference at the University of Guelph about the War of 1812 Bicentennial.  I had absolutely no idea what to expect and even then I was still surprised (can you be surprised if you weren’t expecting anything in the first place? philosophical ponderings)

Anyways back to reality, the conference started off with a keynote address by one of the most eminent 1812 and general Canadian military history scholars, Donald Graves (note: he isn’t an re-enactor).  If you know anything about the Niagara Frontier during the War of 1812, then you’ve encountered Graves.  He’s written books such as Where Right and Glory Lead! The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814 and Field of Glory: The Battle of Crysler’s Farm, 1813.

Donald Graves, found on

Field of Glory

Where Right and Glory Lead!

Now I promise this blog post isn’t a paid endorsement for his publications.  Instead it is about the lasting impression he has created for my colleagues and I.  He is quite possibly one of the FUNNIEST speakers I have ever had the pleasure of listening to (this includes myself, who I think is pretty damn funny as well).  Mr. Graves is a no holds-bar, take me as I am historian and doesn’t apologize for taking any specific stance (and trust me there were a lot of stances).  Remember this man is a CANADIAN and a HISTORIAN – apology and treading the middle line is synonymous with these words.

His talk outlined publications about the War of 1812 since the conclusion of that war up until recent years (of course, as a student currently conducting research and developing content for an 1812 iPhone App, I gobbled up as much information about possible sources as I could).

It could’ve dangerously turned into an extremely tedious and drawn out 40 minute talk about who wrote this and who wrote that and who is right and who is sort of right.  This is exactly what Graves did but through his own dry sense of humour it ended up being the fastest 40 minutes I’ve ever spent in a classroom (and I’ve had exams where time has unfortunately zipped by faster than I could handle).

Here are some of the most notable pointers and quotes Mr. Graves regaled us with:

1. Many of the early publications after the war were instrumental in the “creation of national myths of a small group of heroes holding off Persian republicans”.

2. E.A. Cruikshank – his collections such as the “The Documentary History of the Campaign upon the Niagara Frontier” continue to be the most referenced selection of primary documents for researchers (including the Public History Group).

Graves paints a picture of Cruikshank as:

“an obsessive-compulsive scissors and paste historian who wasn’t above altering texts if he considered them incorrect”

Now this is very worrying to me as I’ve scoured through many of Cruikshank’s books and used much of his material in discussing events such as the Battle of the Longwoods and the Battle of the Thames.  But all in a day’s work for a historian.

3. Joseph Wilcox – “one of the biggest traitors in Canadian history, whose descendant I believe is Dalton McGuinty”. Cue laughter

4. And my personal favourite: “The Battle of Lundy’s Lane was a massive clusterfuddle.”

Lesson for All

Yes these quotes have been taken out of context but that doesn’t mean that they’re not funny and could teach all of us a lesson. To all the Public Historians out there, you’re going to have public engagements (its a fact of life, tough!).  What should we learn from Graves?:

  • be comfortable
  • be funny, connect with your audience and the current context
  • Don’t be apologetic for taking a stance..
  • Make you’re presentations as colourful as yourself.

One response »

  1. Pingback: WorldsWays News Reviews | Living History

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