Invisible People

I don’t really believe that people can vanish into thin air. But I am convinced that millions have passed through history without leaving a trace of their existence. This makes it tough for those of us who want to know something about them.

A member of Stockton’s Sikh community, whose origins in 1912 make its temple the first Indian religious building in the United States, recently visited the Museum’s library. (At left: Museum photo of unidentified Sikh male in the 1920s.) He had come across correspondence indicating that the agricultural workforce around the small Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta town of Holt early in the twentieth century included significant numbers of Sikhs. He wanted to know more about them.

After several false starts, we honed in on two major sources in our collections. One was a cluster of Stockton city directories (which actually cover all of San Joaquin County). This proved to be a dead end. We had more success with early twentieth-century tax assessments from San Joaquin County and the City of Stockton, where we found scattered Sikh names in indexes. Unfortunately, the actual descriptions of personal and real property to which these entries pointed had disappeared. So at the end of the day, my patron went away empty-handed.

I love archives. I revel in the smell of old books; the feel of aging paper; the promise that words, photographs, and maps will reveal things about people who lived long ago. But my understanding will always have limits because it depends on whether or not those people actually left any evidence of their existence. If they didn’t hold property, vote, get married, have children, pay taxes, serve in the army, get photographed, appear in court, have an obituary written, or live long enough in one place to be counted as a resident, they are most likely lost to history. The same can be said if they left their mark but the evidence has been destroyed or misplaced.

I wish my Sikh friend success as he continues searching. Maybe someone reading this blog has ideas that will help. The more pieces of San Joaquin County’s historical puzzle we assemble the more fully we will understand its many foundations.

My patron’s visit reminds me that those of us who study the past often work with the tiniest fragments and always face the possibility that the evidence was either never recorded or has simply disappeared.

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