Mark Eifler | University of Portland

Mark Eifler

Associate Professor of HistoryMark Eifler

“I am a historian, an investigator. History is not about memorizing facts. Historians are like detectives on television shows like CSI. We’ve got clues, ‘facts,’ but we still need to find the real story underneath. Usually the results are surprising.

Currently I’m writing a book on the geopolitics of the Lewis & Clark expedition, a period of international competition over the future of the Pacific Northwest. Few people realize the ‘story behind the facts’ that played out between the United States, Britain, Spain, and Russia.

I’ve also written a second book on The California Gold Rush: The Stampede that Changed the World. There are many parallels between the late 1840s and today. It was a period of great inequity as people suddenly faced the inability to rise economically or socially. They left farms and moved to cities, creating urban/rural divides. Immigration was a hot issue, as refugees fleeing famine and wars in Europe and Asia were seen as threatening American tradition and opportunity. I gave students letters and diaries of four very different people from that era and asked them to analyze their stories. People assume that the gold rush was about becoming rich and successful. But what is the meaning of ‘success?’ It turned out that their stories had little to do with money and that success was defined by family ties, redemption, and self-worth.

Think of our own personal histories. Do we remember everything that happened or only the details we tell ourselves over and over? We think in story; we edit, omit, embellish, and add; and in the end we remember exactly what we choose to remember and that shapes our world. Understanding history is not memorizing a series of facts, but understanding the reasons why we shape our lives, our memories, and our institutions the way we do.”

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