One of the biggest challenges in writing historical fiction is managing the facts. Sometimes those facts are inconveniently arranged. One person died before another was born when you wanted them to share the stage. Some device or tool was invented or a discovery was made several decades before or after you needed it to happen. Trying to make everything line up and fit into an interesting and dramatic narrative is where I’ve spent a great deal of time in writing The Standing-Ground.
A common but equally difficult challenge is a paucity of information. I feature a number of real people in the story but their names will be unfamiliar to most readers except, perhaps, longtime residents of Mendocino County. Historic detail about Albion or Cuffey’s Cove has been difficult to locate and what I have found varies wildly. Spellings differ, dates don’t align, accounts contradict each other. While often frustrating, these are perfect opportunities for the historical novelist to exercise a little freedom in shaping the story. To illustrate this point, we’ll look at two real people who appear in my story, how I used reliable facts, and how I invented history to fill the gaps or stitched seemingly unrelated facts together.
Invented History: The Case of Nathaniel Smith
I’ve already revealed some backstory for Nathaniel Smith, so I’ll start with him and touch on some material not previously covered.
Unlike his life after 1850, information about Smith’s earliest life is scarce. I found several dubious accounts where he was described as a runaway slave from Baltimore. Others describe him as a sailor, sometimes in the company of a man named Charles Fletcher. The annotations to the 1850 Sausalito census place Smith in the household of a Maryland family working as a servant. But I’ve collected irrefutable proof that he ran a ferry in Sausalito around the same time.
My first task was to search for evidence he really was in Baltimore sometime between 1831, the earliest date of birth on record, and 1849, the most common date of his arrival in San Francisco. I found a black family near Fells Point with a son named Nathaniel that corresponded to the 1831 birth year. He and his family were listed as free blacks, which was possible in Baltimore at the time. Young Nat, who would have been 18 then, could have been hired by a local Baltimore family just before they relocated to Sausalito. But then how did he learn the skills to rig a ship’s boat—a large rowboat—with a sail and then routinely sail that ferry across the dicey Golden Gate? And why would Charles Fletcher include him on the crew of the whaling ship that reportedly sailed to the Mendocino coast around 1852? Due to the conflicting accounts and the lack of other information, I constructed a plausible, if not necessarily factual, personal history.
I decreed Smith grew up in Fells Point, which was incorporated into Baltimore Town in 1773. I had him working in the shipyards as a caulker between the ages of 13 and 15. The Baltimore waterfront was riddled with shanghaiers then, so I have him kidnapped and impressed on a British merchant ship engaged in South Seas trade. I have him completing his stint and settling in the San Francisco area in 1849.
The 1850 Marin census places Smith in Sausalito not far from Charles Fletcher, so I conveniently assume he and Fletcher were shipmates because Fletcher was born at sea and worked as a ship’s carpenter on a British ship. Some existing accounts support this assumption. Though the census lists Smith as a servant in the Holden Hill household in Sausalito, I know he ran a ferry. So I have him working both jobs at first, the ferry in whatever spare time he had. In reality, Holden Hill died from head injuries he sustained in a fall after a drinking spree one evening. So I have Smith leave the family’s employ shortly thereafter and run the ferry full time. He also moves into the same boarding house as Charles Fletcher.
Most of this constructed backstory is seen only by me. Some of it, however, makes it to the page. I have Smith take a ferry customer from San Francisco to San Antonio Creek (modern day Oakland). The customer, a Georgia slaveowner, threatens to enslave Smith, claiming he’ll get away with it under the shield of the Fugitive Slave Act. Soon after, I stage Smith and Charles Fletcher in the Sausalito boarding house planning their move to Mendocino County, a trip many reliable accounts support.
The combination of fact and fabricated history provides viable motivation for an African American to head for the frontier where he’ll be the only black man around, and do so with another man that will settle less than three miles away from him.
Invented History: The Case of James Kenny
James Kenny settled near Nathaniel Smith in the area that became the town of Cuffey’s Cove in the mid-1850s. He had a large ranch and is credited with developing the barren bluffs into a thriving lumber town and shipping port. He then famously refused to sell his holdings to lumber baron Lorenzo White in 1887, holding out for more money. White walked away from the deal and instead, built another town a mile away. The good people of Cuffey’s Cove migrated to the new town under the promise of more opportunities. That exodus, combined with several catastrophic fires, turned the boom town into a ghost town.
In my story, I wanted my protagonist to form an alliance with Kenny during the formative years of Cuffey’s Cove. I would keep events true to the historical record but insinuate my character into those events. In order to do that, I had to fill in the holes in James Kenny’s story and make him a multidimensional character who could believably influence both the protagonist and the course of history.
Unlike Nat Smith, the information about James Kenny’s early life is fairly complete. The 1880 History of Mendocino County, California by Lyman Palmer states Kenny’s family immigrated to New York City from Ireland in 1840 when Kenny was 11. It further states that Kenny “went to sea” in 1847 and that he landed in San Francisco late in 1848. That seems like a short stint at sea, doesn’t it? I’ll come back to that in a moment.
There’s no mention of where in New York the Kennys settled or where in Ireland they originated. Since they immigrated prior to the Potato Famine, they could have been from Ulster in Northern Ireland but that would make them Protestant and Kenny donated land for a Catholic church in 1879. So I searched for the distribution of the name Kenny in Ireland and selected County Galway, which showed a high concentration of Kennys. Rather than placing them in the notorious Five Points neighborhood, which was less probable before the Potato Famine, I put the Kennys in Seneca Village, a predominantly African American settlement that was razed supplanted by Central Park. Seneca Village was several miles from New York City proper but close enough for the Kenny men to work on the canal system improvements that were underway at that time. Of the non-black settlers in the village, the majority were Irish.
As for Kenny’s life at sea, I discovered legal proceedings of a woman attempting to claim her rightful share of her husband’s estate. The husband had served with Kenny on the USS Ohio, a storied Navy schooner the two men deserted while it was stationed in San Francisco. Kenny testified that he served with the man in question but claimed it was a different Kenny who deserted. Charles Fletcher, mentioned above, also testified, claiming that not only was it the James Kenny from Cuffey’s Cove who had deserted, but that Kenny had asked Fletcher’s help in doing so. Fletcher’s testimony is supported by evidence of Kenny running a ferry on San Francisco Bay in 1850. Also, the 1880 History claims Kenny worked at a mill in Sausalito in 1850 and at another mill elsewhere in Marin County later on. The 1850 Marin census lists a James Kinney living near Charles Fletcher with an occupation of mill wright. However, the place of birth given is New Hampshire.
If James Kenny was a Navy deserter but remained in the area as several sources attest, he could very well have lied to the census taker to throw the hounds off the scent. In yet another twist, consecutive Mendocino census records list James Kenny in one instance as “Kenny” and another as “Kenney.” Kenny may have told the truth and the Marin census taker just got it wrong. Such transcription errors were common.
Whatever the reality, I decided that James Kinney and James Kenny were one and the same. I have Nat and Charles Fletcher recognize Kenny when he shows up in Mendocino County. I also use his Navy desertion to cast doubt on his character and to add an uncertainty to his behavior.
Detective and Conjurer
I hope with these two examples you’re able to see the dual role a historical novelist assumes. She must play detective to uncover numerous clues and evidence, but then switch hats and use that evidence to manufacture a history that may not necessarily have occurred…but could have. By providing a plausible “could,” the reader is able to suspend disbelief and completely enter the story.