The Great Falls Tribune annually publishes a guide to Great Falls. Included in the 2009 guide was a brief history of the city, since that year marked the 125th anniversary of its founding. The most famous natural feature in the area, according to the article was the Great Falls of the Missouri. The article went on to say there are five dams on the six falls.
After reading that I decided it was appropriate to contact the Tribune and note their error concerning the falls. I explained to them that there were five falls, of which three have dams. Two of the dams are not on waterfalls. Managing Editor Gary Moseman replied to my email, “almost everyone on the staff is familiar with the terrain from Craig to Carter…and to a person we all believed that each dam was built on a waterfall. I’m pretty sure the error has been perpetuated…the better part of 25 years.” Of course he independently verified what I had to say.
While this in itself is not a major thing, it does show how easily a myth or inaccuracy can be perpetuated if not corrected as soon as it is detected. The Tribune generally does a good job with its historical facts, but they are like everyone else, sometimes they get it wrong.
Because of situations like the dams occur frequently we, as historians, must be very careful of what we put out to the public as true, carefully distinguishing between fact and theory. Anything as big and as well documented as the Lewis and Clark story has thousands of details that very few people can keep completely straight. Consequently if someone is unsure of a particular detail it is better to plead ignorance than to put out suspect “facts.” The detail in question can be researched later and a correct answer, or best guess, provided.