What began as a series of simple questions about the death of a man 140 years ago, led to a cross-country journey and a book project in the making. In 2016, History Department senior instructor Barbara Headle and lecturer Amy Haines conserved the gravesite of William T. Magee in Fountain Fairview Cemetery, his obituary started them on the path to a historically relevant and massive research project requiring significant resources.
Local and digital archival material allowed Headle and Haines insight into Magee’s life, and to the realization that Magee had local and national significance relating to the 1860 Secession Crisis, the Civil War, and post-war westward migration. As an ordinary citizen of Cynthiana, Kentucky, a relatively small town situated on a main rail route to Ohio, Magee’s Confederate sympathies help interpret the danger that President Lincoln anticipated from anti-Union activities in the Border States. Examination of Magee’s life, and those of his powerful friends and neighbors, permit analysis of the tensions present and the actions those tensions precipitated, as citizens negotiated for their survival in the Border States.
When the digital archival material was exhausted, Headle and Haines knew they needed to travel eastward to Magee’s home state. Crucial funding was provided by the UCCS History Department and the LAS Dean’s office in 2018 allowing them to travel to Kentucky. The value of this trip cannot be overstated. Archival research at the Kentucky State Historical Society, the Harrison and Bourbon County Clerk’s Offices, visits to cemeteries in Lexington, Georgetown, and Cynthiana, and walking tours of the towns opened up copious amounts of material that would have otherwise gone undiscovered, leading to breakthroughs critical to the project. While the research trip answered some questions, others remained elusive; for example, why and when did Magee move his family to Fountain, Colorado?
This query was finally satisfied when Headle and Haines were awarded a 2019 LAS Summer Student Stipend allowing them to hire incoming history graduate student Bryan Wheeler as a research assistant. His contribution to the project has been significant. In addition to his myriad other duties that freed Headle and Haines to focus on analysis and writing, Wheeler conducted research in the El Paso County Clerk’s office, where he perused hundreds of land deeds spanning several decades. From this research, Headle and Haines established that Magee’s move from Kentucky to Colorado in 1873 was not coincidental. Magee was one of thousands of former Confederate sympathizers who migrated west to reconstruct their lives; more importantly, he knew a former Cynthiana neighbor who had already settled in Fountain. Within months of his arrival, Magee purchased land from this same fellow and, once again, found himself an associate of wealthy and well-connected neighbors.
Another research trip planned for Spring 2020 is eagerly anticipated. Like detectives on the case, Headle and Haines have picked up tantalizing leads requiring a return to Kentucky. Additional funding provided by the History Department and the LAS Dean’s Office will allow much needed access to the University of Kentucky archives, and other area sources not available by digital means. The Magee project has been dependent on geographical proximity from the outset. The funding provided by the college has been indispensable in furthering this endeavor and has provided tangible assistance to a project with broad historical significance.
Submitted by Barb Headle and Amy Haines, September 2019
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