Stephen Ambrose: Off the Rails





Mr. Strobridge is a retired public utility manager and one of the founders of the Order of Minor Historians, a group of history buffs. He is working on a biography of James H. Strobridge, superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad, 1863-1869.

It is more than plagiarism, it's about truth and honesty.

When Simon & Schuster announced to the world that it was publishing a new book about the building of our nation's first transcontinental railroad written by Stephen Ambrose, railroad historians, at least the non-professional ones that I know the country over, were excited. At last, after so many poorly researched and poorly written books on the subject over the past hundred years we would have one that would be historically accurate. That did not to happen. Ambrose's book is no doubt one of the most innacurate and untrue records of that event yet.

By October 2000 several railroad historians across the country got together to share the errors and outright fabrications found in Nothing Like It in the World. I posted the results of our research on the Internet on the website, The Sins of Stephen Ambrose. We did not think to use the word"plagiarism" as our beef with Ambrose was that he had misconstrued some evidence and ignored other evidence completely. But make no mistake we also found many examples of plagiarized material throughout his book.

We used his references but soon found that he did not accurately record his sources nor the quotes he used. It became necessary to review at great length many of the sources that he did use, mostly other authors' work. We found that Ambrose had embellished many of the texts he copied with made-up stories, many of them outright lies. In one case Ambrose claimed to have used quotations from the memoirs of Charles Crocker, one of the Central Pacific Railroad bulders. But we discovered Ambrose had added his own made-up words. (The mistake occurs on page 347. You can see the documentation by clicking on The Sins of Stephen Ambrose, under the entry for that page.)

In another section Ambrose creates events, describing the building of tracks over snow tunnels, an impossibility which did not happen and credits a Ph. D. candidate, Alexander Saxton, as a source. But Saxton didn't say what Ambrose claimed he said. Ambrose (p. 204) wrote that"a temporary railbed was placed on top of the snow and material was lowered from the surface by steam hoist, sometimes as much as forty feet." Here's what Saxton wrote:"They tunneled in from the camps to reach the portals of the tunnel itself, and the work continued, although most of the materials now had to be lowered forty feet of more by steam hoist from the surface of the snow." Anyway, Ambrose shouldn't have been using Saxton as a source. Saxton's published paper included numerous bogus references. Saxton credits his version of the snow story to"Pacific Railway Commission V, 2577-2579." I have a copy of that original report and there is no mention of what he writes.

Ambrose goes on to describe the construction of the Central Pacific tracks around Cape Horn. He says Chinese laborers did their drilling and blasting from hanging baskets positioned over a rocky prominence. He even describes the actual conversations they had. The conversation he relates is between"a Chinese Foreman" and James H. Strobridge (my ancestor) who was the Superintendent of Construction. Not only is Ambrose's story totally made up, the event he describes never took place, as I explain in my biography of Strobridge.

The conversation is a part of the Cape Horn Legend that originated in a children's book thirty years ago, added to and embellished by other authors that he copied and embellished. Ambrose never discovered the truth as he never questioned those whose work he copied from.

Ambrose seems to have done little original research himself. He cites Wesley S. Griswold's A Work of Giants 71 times and John Hoyt Williams's A Great and Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad 49 times and other authors more times than that.

"The Sins of Stephen Ambrose," released in December 2000, documents over fifty errors, copied texts, and made up stories and rebuts them all with the original documented sources. (The paper, offered to the media, was published in it's entirety by editor Gregory Franzwa of the Patrice Press in his quarterly newsletter"Folio" during 2001.) The Sacramento Bee published a front page story by Matthew Barrows outlining the objections to Ambrose's history. Ambrose was offered the opportunity to review and comment on the story before it was published. His son Hugh responded,"He's thought it over, and he's decided to say,'No Comment.'"

What really points out the hypocrisy of this man is comparing what he writes with his own high standards for historians. In the fall of 2000 in Forbes he wrote about the importance of truth in writing history in an article titled,"Old Soldiers Never Lie." In his first paragraph he wrote,"Nothing is relative, what happened, happened. What didn't happen, didn't, and to assert it [did] is to lie." Ambrose added:"Historians are obsessed with what is true. They have to prove what really happened; in quoting someone, they must demonstrate that person really did speak or write those exact words."

Ambrose includes this warning to the media:"And if journalists don't encourage the truth, historians eventually will." A hypocritical statement to say the least.

The media have focused over the past few weeks on the passages Ambrose borrowed from others. But by focusing on this the media have missed the point. Ambrose has been reckless and inaccurate in his writing. Ambrose's defenders continue to defend what he has done by claiming everyone does it, a little bit of plagiarism is OK (so long as one does not get caught by the media), the enemies of Ambrose are out to get him, etc.

Actually, only he and his publishers and booksellers benefit from his kind of history. His readers, students, teachers and those who believe in him as an honest historian are the losers.

The sorry thing in this entire debate is that if only Ambrose had claimed his books were historical novels, and reported the sources copied, his publishers and book sellers and purchasers would have been just as happy. Mr. Ambrose is an interesting story teller and no one can take that away from him. But he is not a very good historian.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Howard Goldstein - 6/2/2003

Couldn't agree with you more about Ambrose's "History" of the Central Pacific. Well written historical novel about the railroad.

I am writing a childrens book about the building of the railroad. I would be interested in reading your Biography of JH Strobridge when it is published. From my research he along with Crocker, and the Chineese are the real heros off this magnificant project. Question-- do you know the name of Strobridge's Chineese foreman. The only name I can find mention is in error--it is a female name. Tkank you


Howard Goldstein - 6/2/2003

Couldn't agree with you more about Ambrose's "History" of the Central Pacific. Well written historical novel about the railroad.

I am writing a childrens book about the building of the railroad. I would be interested in reading your Biography of JH Strobridge when it is published. From my research he along with Crocker, and the Chineese are the real heros off this magnificant project. Question-- do you know the name of Strobridge's Chineese foreman. The only name I can find mention is in error--it is a female name. Tkank you

Subscribe to our mailing list