Wes Cowan - Interview

Little-known facts about the history detective who loves "stuff."

What do you like most about being a History Detective?
I love "stuff" and I love people! Combining the two—researching stories about some old object, and meeting the folks who can help me solve the mystery—make being a "History Detective" a great job.

What do you like least about being a History Detective?
There always seems to be more that we can find out! Naturally, it would be great if every investigation could be tied up neat and tidy with a bright-colored bow, but in reality that's not the way real history works. There is always more to know, and even when we've nailed one—as I think we did on the Jigsaw Puzzle mystery—I have always left with the feeling that there were other great questions to answer.

What advice would you give someone interested in the field of historical research?
You know, there aren't any colleges that offer a degree in being a "History Detective!" Probably wise, however, since the demand in the real world isn't huge! But, a good liberal arts education always helps. This isn't to suggest that one needs to have a college degree. Probably the key element is simply an innate desire to want to KNOW. Over the course of my career, I've met plenty of folks who are great detectives, and they all share a couple of common characteristics: they're naturally inquisitive and don't give up when they run into roadblocks.

What is the thing you do most in this job?
This question is really a bit unfair. There is no "most." History Detectives work with each of these sources, and no one source is more relied upon than another!

How do you approach a mystery? What's the first thing you do?
Each investigation is different. Sometimes the information provided by the family or owner is really quite specific. In those cases, I often have enough to find an answer pretty quickly. In most cases, however, the information is anecdotal, and provides only a clue or two. Whatever the case, the answer is found bit by bit.

What areas would you describe as your speciality?
I'm one of those guys who can wear many hats. Early photography is an area I'm particularly knowledgeable about, but give me a sword or firearm, show me a great piece of American furniture, or dig out an old flag from a trunk, and I can probably help out! And if I don't know, I can get on the phone or email a friend who does!

Is there a puzzle or mystery you dream of solving?
In the 1890s, Andrew Clemens, a deaf-mute from Iowa made the most incredible folk art "sand art" bottles from colored sands collected along the Mississippi River near his home. Many were personal gifts, incorporating pictures of sailing ships, locomotives, American eagles holding American flags and banners in their beaks, along with the name of the owner, often written in script. They are remarkable for their detail and level of sophistication. A number are curated at the Iowa State Museum. If I could invent a time machine, I'd love to see how Clemens made one!

If you could leave a time capsule now to be opened in 2104, what would you put in it?
I'd probably leave a CD or two with news events, music etc. of the day, but I'd probably leave some oddball, ephemeral things, like ticket stubs to the Superbowl, cereal boxes, and similar everyday things that are apt to not be around in a century!

Where's the most interesting place you've traveled to as a History Detective?
The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, to visit the grave of the Oglala Lakota chief, Red Cloud.

What do you never leave home without?
A good book to read on the airplane—we spend a lot of time traveling!