Introduction

In the parable of the blind men of Indistan and the elephant, several blind men are asked to describe what an elephant is like.  One man, who feels the trunk, explains that an elephant is a long cylinder similar to a very thick piece of rope or vine.  Another, who feels the elephant’s ears, explains that an elephant is broad, thin and pliable like a large piece of flatbread.  A third man, exploring the belly of the large pachyderm, believes that the elephant is like a broad, thick wall.  Others report their experience of an elephant.

Which one of these men is correct? … Of course, they all are, to an extent.  However, it is only when they begin to share their individual perspectives that their observations coalesce into a fuller, more accurate approximation of what an elephant is like.

In many ways the historian is an inheritor of these blind men.  Confronted with the task of explaining what happened in the near, or distant past, he or she must dust off “primary sources,” the constituent parts of the elephant of history, and try to construct an accurate picture of the events of the past, allowing the different voices of those primary sources, to rise up and to speak to him or her, reanimating a world that has receded into the past. Like the blind men of the parable, the historian often must piece together different perspectives on the same object, event, or experience until they coalesce into a fuller, more accurate approximation of what happened.

In this lesson, you will do the work of a master historian, exploring a single event, the labor strike, or “turn-out”, of the mill girls of Lowell in 1836, from a multiplicity of perspectives.  Why, in October of 1836, did, “some 1,500 or 2,000,” female mill workers join forces and voices in protest, all the while comparing themselves to the Black slaves of the Deep South who picked the cotton they spun into cloth on the factory floors of Lowell?  What did they hope to achieve, and what were they willing to risk in achieving it?  Were their actions justified?  Were they successful?  You be the judge.