EDITED BY John C. Parish
Associate Editor of the State Historical Society of Iowa
Copyright 1920 by the State Historical Society of Iowa
(Transcribed by Gayle Harper)
Palimpsests of a thousand and two thousand years ago were
parchments or other manuscript material from which one writing
had been erased to give room for another. The existence of
these double texts was due chiefly to the scarcity of
materials. Waxen tablets, papyrus rolls, parchment sheets, and
vellum books each served the need of the scribe. But they were
not so easily procured as to invite extravagance in their use
or even to meet the demand of the early writers and medieval
copyists for a place to set down their epics, their
philosophies, and their hero tales.
And so parchments
that were covered with the writings of Homer or Caesar or
Saint Matthew were dragged forth by eager scribes, and the
account of Troy or Gaul or Calvary erased to make a clean
sheet for the recording of newer matters. Sometimes this
second record would in turn be removed and a third deposit
made upon the parchment.
The papyrus rolls and the
parchments of the early period of palimpsests were merely
sponged off – the ink of that time being easily removable,
though the erasure was not always permanent. The latter
parchments were usually scraped with a knife or rubbed with
pumice after the surface had been softened by some such
compound as milk and meal. This method was apt to result in a
more complete obliteration of the text.
But there came
men whose curiosity led them to try to restore the original
writing. Atmospheric action in the course of time often caused
the sponged record to reappear; chemicals were used to
intensify the faint lines of the old text; and by one means or
another many palimpsest manuscripts were deciphered and their
half-hidden stories rescued and revived.
On a greater
scale time itself is year by year making palimpsests. The
earth is the medium. A civilization writes its record upon the
broad surface of the land: dwellings, cultivated fields, and
roads are the characters. Then time sponges out or scrapes off
the writing and allows another story to be told. Huge glaciers
change the surface of the earth; a river is turned aside; or a
flood descends and washes out the marks of a valley people.
More often the ephemeral work of man is merely brushed away or
overlain and forgotten. Foundations of old dwellings are
covered with drifting sand or fast growing weeds. Auto roads
hide the Indian trail and the old buffalo trace. The caveman's
rock is quarried away to make a state capitol.
process is not always complete, nor does it defy restoration.
The frozen sub-soil of the plains of northern Siberia has
preserved for us not only the skeletons of mammoths, but
practically complete remains, with hair, skin, and flesh in
place – mummies, as it were, of the animals of prehistoric
In the layers of sediment deposited by the
devastating water lie imbedded the relics of ancient
civilizations. The grass-grown earth of the Mississippi Valley
covers width but a thin layer the work of the mound builders
and the bones of the workmen themselves.
increasing civilization of humanity, the earth-dwellers have
consciously and with growing intelligence tried to leave a
record that will defy erasure. Their buildings are more
enduring, their roads do not so easily become grass-grown, the
evidences of their life are more abundant, and their writings
are too numerous to be entirely obliterated.
are only partially successful. The tooth of time is not the
only destroyer. Mankind itself is careless. Letters, diaries,
and even official documents go into the furnace, the dump
heap, or the pulp mill. The memory of man is almost as
evanescent as his breath; the work of his hand disintegrates
when the hand is withdrawn. Only fragments remain – a line or
two here and there plainly visible on the palimpsest of the
centuries – the rest is dim if it is not entirely gone.
Nevertheless with diligent effort much can be restored, and
there glows upon the page the fresh, vivid chronicles of long
forgotten days. Out of the ashes of Mount Vesuvius emerges the
city of Pompeii. The clearing away of a jungle from the top of
a mountain in Peru reveals the wonderful stonework of the city
of Machu Picchu, the cradle of the Inca civilization. The
piecing together of letters, journals and reports, newspaper
items, and old paintings enables us to see once more the
figures of the pioneers moving in their accustomed ways
through the scenes of long ago.
The palimpsests of
Iowa are full of fascination. Into the land between the rivers
there came, when time was young, a race of red men. Their
record was slight and long has been overlain by that of the
whites. Yet out of the dusk of that far off time come wild,
strange, moving tales, for even their slender writings were
not all sponged from the face of the land. Under the mounds of
nearly two score counties and in the wikiups of a few
surviving descendants, are the uneffaced letters of the
And the white scribes who wrote the
later record of settlement and growth, read the earlier tale
as it was disappearing and told it again in part in the new
account. These new comers in turn became the old, their homes
and forts fell into decay, their records faded, and their
-ways were crowded aside and forgotten.
But they were
not all erased. Here and there have survived an ancient
building, a faded map, a time-eaten diary, the occasional
clear memory of a pioneer not yet gathered to his fathers. And
into the glass show cases of museums drift the countless
fragments of the story of other days. Yet with all these
survivals, how little effort is made to piece together the
scattered fragments into a connected whole.
Here is an
old log cabin, unheeded because it did not house a Lincoln.
But call its former occupant John Doe and try to restore the
life of two or three generations ago. It requires no diligent
search to find a plow like the one he used in the field and a
spinning wheel which his wife might have mistaken for her own.
Over the fireplace of a descendant hang the sword and epaulets
he wore when he went into the Black Hawk War, or the old
muzzle-loading gun that stood ready to hand beside the cabin
And perhaps in an attic trunk will be found a
daguerreotype of John Doe himself, dignified and grave in the
unwonted confinement of high collar and cravat, or a miniature
of Mrs. Doe with pink cheeks, demure eyes, and fascinating
Out of the family Bible drops a
ticket of admission to an old time entertainment. Yonder is
the violin that squeaked out the measure at many a pioneer
ball. Here is the square foot warmer that lay in the bottom of
his cutter on the way home and there the candlestick that held
the home-made tallow dip by the light of which he betook
himself to bed.
In the files of some library is the
yellowed newspaper with which – if he were a Whig – he sat
down to revel in the eulogies of ''Old Tippecanoe" in the log
cabin and hard cider campaign of 1840, or applaud the
editorial which, with pioneer vigor and unrefined vocabulary,
castigated the ''low scoundrel" who edited the "rag" of the
But most illuminating of all are the
letters that he wrote and received, and the journal that tells
the little intimate chronicles of his day to day life. Hidden
away in the folds of the letters, with the grains of black
sand that once blotted the fresh ink, are the hopes and joys
and fears and hates of a real man. And out of the journal
pages rise the incidents which constituted his life the
sickness and death of a daughter, the stealing of his horses,
his struggles with poverty and poor crops, his election to the
legislature, a wonderful trip to Chicago, the building of a
new barn, and the barn warming that followed.
Occasionally he drops in a stirring tale of the neighborhood:
a border war, an Indian alarm, a street fight, or a hanging,
and recounts his little part in it. John Doe and his family
and neighbors are resurrected. And so other scenes loom up
from the dimness of past years, tales that stir the blood or
the imagination, that bring laughter and tears in quick
succession, that, like a carpet of Bagdad, transport one into
the midst of other places and forgotten days.
an inexorable reaper but he leaves gleanings, and mankind is
learning to prize these gifts. Careful research among fast
disappearing documents has rescued from the edge of oblivion
many a precious bit of the narrative of the past.
is the plan of this publication to restore some of those
scenes and events that lie half-hidden upon the palimpsests of
Iowa, to show the meaning of those faint tantalizing lines
underlying the more recent markings lines that the
pumice of time has not quite rubbed away and which may be made
to reveal with color and life and fidelity the enthralling
realities of departed generations.
JOHN C. PARISH