Sagan studies 19th century race relations, family history through General George Pickett

Feb. 13, 2013, 11:15 p.m.
Courtesy of Scott Sagan.
Courtesy of Scott Sagan.

It’s rare that a Stanford professor fully immersed in the bubble of academia is able to simultaneously pursue a scholarly research project and explore his family tree.

Scott Sagan, professor of political science and a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), is one of the lucky few.

This past summer, Sagan, who built his career on the study of nuclear weapons policy, temporarily pivoted his focus towards a different piece of history. Along with his 16-year-old son, Samuel, Sagan researched and produced a manuscript on the hidden history of James Tilton “Jimmie” Pickett, the half-Indian son of Civil War union general George Edward Pickett — a distant relative of Sagan’s.

“I thought it was an interesting story,” Sagan said. “Very often, good academic work stems not from the confidence that you know what the answer is but from having a puzzle that you don’t understand, and like a detective, you want to figure out what happened and why.”

According to Sagan, in addition to shedding light on his family history, Pickett’s story serves as a lens that one can use to develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between U.S. Army officers, Indian women and their mixed blood children in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Jimmie Pickett was one such child, the product of a relationship between George Edward Pickett and an Indian woman that developed while the general was stationed in Washington Territory in the late 1850s. At the time, many soldiers had similar relations with Indian women, but the specific details of those relationships were largely unknown.

Following Jimmie’s mother’s death shortly after childbirth, George Pickett left the young boy in the care of a white couple that later became Jimmie’s foster parents. When Pickett returned to Virginia in 1861, he left some money and a Bible for his son, but they would never speak again.

“The Jimmie Pickett story is a story of a young boy who was abandoned by his father, so in this sense, it’s a sad story,” Sagan said. “Yet he’s also someone who becomes moderately successful as an artist and is integrated into white society in part because of the relationship with his foster parents and his godfather, James Tilton. So, in that sense, it’s an uplifting story.”

According to Sagan, although George Pickett’s biographers had previously acknowledged Jimmie’s existence, Jimmie’s relationships with his parents, stepparents and contemporary society were not previously well known. The Sagans used primary sources collected in archives across the country in order to add color to the story of a young man who succumbed to typhoid fever at the age of 31.

“We went up to the Washington State Historical Society and we looked through Jimmie Pickett’s trunk — that was super interesting,” Sam Sagan said. “We found his old textbook, a notebook of art and a cutout of his hair that was placed in what we think was General Pickett’s bible.”

Sagan also asked one of his research assistants, Lauryn Williams ’14, to look through an 1858 diary of General August Kautz –who served alongside General Pickett — kept at the Library of Congress to further flesh out the details of Jimmie Pickett’s heritage.

Sagan focused on the relationship between Jimmie Pickett and his stepmother, LaSalle Corbell Pickett, which developed after General Pickett’s death. The two originally exchanged friendly letters, but ended up in a bitter dispute over Jimmie Pickett’s right to inherit his father’s land in Washington.

Corbell Pickett never mentioned Jimmie in the many books and articles she wrote about her late husband.

Williams said that the project showed the complexity inherent to many professors.

“Professor Sagan has his main focus, but the skills he has there equate to historical research in all types of things,” Williams said. “He found something that he is interested in and went with it.”

Although this was a unique project, it is not the first time Sagan has integrated his connection to Pickett into his work. He has taught a popular Sophomore College class called “The Face of Battle,” which focuses on the actual experience of combatants in war.

“In terms of pedagogy, it’s great because it encourages students to do research and then defend their positions,” Sagan said. “And in terms of historical understanding to see the fog of battle — the confusion and the geography and being lost in the woods — it makes you appreciate things in a very different way.”

For part of “The Face of Battle”, the class travels to Pennsylvania to the battlefield of Gettysburg, where General Pickett led the infamous “Pickett’s Charge.” Students are assigned to play different roles, including that of the general and his third wife.

“Last year, I added LaSalle Corbell Pickett so that people could understand the role,” Sagan said. “I’d like to add Jimmie Pickett because it adds a different dimension to this history.”

Although Sagan noted that his initial interest in this research project revolved mostly around his personal connection, he said that it has also allowed him to explore a history he — or perhaps anyone else — would likely not have encountered otherwise.

“This Jimmie Pickett project started out largely as a roots trip, but once I recognized that this was an unexplained and underappreciated part of American history, I decided to dig more deeply into it,” Sagan said. “This was a mystery and there are always still mysteries in history, but I think we’ve solved some of them.”

Jana Persky is the president and editor in chief of Volume 246 of The Stanford Daily. She previously worked as a sports desk editor, news desk editor and managing editor of staff development at The Daily, and is majoring in Public Policy. Jana is a junior from New Canaan, Connecticut, who doesn't want to tell her mom and dad she likes the West Coast better. To contact her, please email [email protected].

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