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Setting the Missing Records Straight

The continuing misadventures of award-winning author Michael Bellesiles.

12:00 AM, May 17, 2002 • By DAVID SKINNER
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FOR THE SECOND TIME NOW, Michael Bellesiles, a historian at Emory University, is being accused of having relied on missing or nonexistent records for evidence in his Bancroft prize-winning book "Arming America." And, for the second time, Bellesiles's protestations and explanations have failed to vindicate his book, which sought to refute the "myth" of widespread gun ownership in antebellum America. Elementary fact-checking has destroyed the credibility of Bellesiles's story of how he discovered various 18th century Vermont court records others say don't exist.

The documents in question are Vermont court records from the late 18th century. The key passage appears on page 353 of "Arming America": "During Vermont's frontier period, from 1760 to 1790, there were five reported murders (excluding those deaths in the American Revolution), and three of those were politically motivated." The endnote for this finding refers the reader to Superior Court records at the county courthouse in Rutland, Vermont. But as Ohio State University historian Randolph Roth has pointed out (and the court clerk in Rutland has confirmed), the volumes for 1782 to 1790 are not in the Rutland court's holdings. Furthermore, the Superior Court did not exist before 1778, so it has no records for the period 1760 to 1777.

Bellesiles did not respond to this particular charge when it was raised in a refereed exchange in the spring issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. More recently, however, he went on the counterattack during a written exchange hosted by the History News Network, a non-specialist website. These records, Bellesiles wrote, "were missing until I found them while working on my dissertation in 1984. . . . I found those records in the abandoned jailhouse in Newfane. Those records and many others were stacked in boxes in the jail cells and I spent the next four months taking notes from those sources in unheated rooms by the light of a Coleman lantern. I used those records at length in my book 'Revolutionary Outlaws,' as Professor Roth knew, since he reviewed that book. The records are now in the Newfane Historical Society and their existence can be verified by Vermont's State Archivist, Gregory Sanford."

Reached for comment via e-mail, Sanford says he has "neither physical nor legal custody over Vermont's court records" and that he lacks "in-depth knowledge of their content." He could confirm that Bellesiles visited Newfane in the "mid-1980s" and that Bellesiles brought to his attention "the deplorable condition of the Windham County Court records." And for this, Sanford says, "I owe Dr. Bellesiles a debt of gratitude." Although the records in Newfane were a mess, according to Sanford, the state eventually got around to making an inventory. Fortunately, Sanford has a copy.

The only Supreme Court records listed in the inventory--remember it is Supreme Court records Roth says Bellesiles could not have read--begin in the year 1794, so they could not have been used to support any claim regarding the years 1760 to 1790. In fact none of the records listed in the inventory cover this exact period of time. The earliest of the records go back to 1766 and are County Clerk records, which would not tell us about murders, let alone how many had taken place throughout Vermont.

The inventory also lists Marlboro county probate records, beginning in 1784. Again, 1784 is too late; and probate records don't tell us about murders; and Marlboro is only one of several counties that make up Vermont. Last, the inventory lists County Court records, starting in 1771, which again would only tell us about one county, and could not say anything about murder or anything else for the years prior to 1771.

The most obvious problem with Bellesiles's latest claim is that neither the town of Newfane nor the surrounding county, Windham, appears in the original endnote of "Arming America," suggesting that Bellesiles decided to manipulate this lavishly detailed account into a cover story when Roth went public with the accusation that Bellesiles was citing nonexistent records. Another question raised by Bellesiles's statements is: If not Supreme Court records (also called Superior Court records), then what did Bellesiles "use at length in [his] earlier book 'Revolutionary Outlaws'"?