Local History Makes Good-sometimes

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The systematic collection of the sources of local, as well as of national, history began in the United States with the organization in 1791 of the Massachusetts Historical Society. This small body, composed of clergymen, lawyers, physicians, and what used to be called merchants (now known as businessmen), undertook the preservation of books, manuscripts, and records that would conduce “to mark the genius, delineate the manners, and trace the progress of society in the United States.” They were fully aware that such sources must be collected before they could be preserved. This they undertook energetically, guided by this statement made by the Reverend Jeremy Belknap, the founder, in a letter of February 19, 1791, to Ebenezer Hazard: We intend to be an active , not a passive , literary body; not to be waiting, like a bed of oysters, for the tide (of communication) to flow in upon us, but to seek and find , to preserve and communicate , literary intelligence, especially in the historical way.

The pattern established in Boston was so widely emulated that by the outbreak of the Civil War more than sixty similar societies had been started. The New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804; the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1812. Along the Atlantic seaboard, privately supported historical societies that have survived to the present were organized in Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania in the 1820’s; in Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, and Georgia in the iSßo’s; in Maryland and New Jersey in the 1840’s; in South Carolina in the 1850’s. By 1860 every state east of Texas, with the single exception of Delaware, had such a society; in 1859 United States Army officers even organized one in the territory of New Mexico.

On the frontier, historical societies were founded early, sometimes before there was any substantial body of history to record. In 1849, less than eight months after the establishment of Minnesota Territory, when most of the area was still occupied by Indians, the fifth act of the territorial legislature was the incorporation of a Minnesota Historical Society. This cheerful anachronism, comparable to the notion of establishing historical societies at Jamestown in 1607 or at Plymouth in 1620, occurred at a time when the five thousand white inhabitants of Minnesota were confined to a small wedge between the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. In such frontier regions support had to come from the state through legislative appropriation. In the older cities, where prosperity permitted some leisure for literary and historical pursuits, historical societies continued to depend upon voluntary support.

Not all the organizations that were so hopefully founded accomplished anything or even long survived. Those that did owed their success to devoted individuals like the Boston clergyman Jeremy Belknap, the New York merchant John Pintard, or the scholar-printer Isaiah Thomas, who were the founders, respectively, of the Massachusetts and the New-York historical societies and the American Antiquarian Society. When the New Jersey Historical Society was being founded in 1845, the Reverend Samuel Miller offered the new organization a piece of advice, based on experience with the New-York Historical Society, which he had helped John Pintard to found forty-one years earlier. “I have observed,” he wrote, “in regard to all the literary and scientific societies with which I have ever been connected, that, however numerous the members, some dozen or two of them performed all the work.” It should be noted that these workers were chiefly professional men or merchants, not usually associated with academic institutions, for, until the foundation of the American Historical Association in 1884, universities and colleges concerned themselves relatively little with American history. Where there were devoted amateurs or local antiquaries who were willing to work, historical societies flourished; where they were in short supply, or lazy, such organizations foundered. The inglorious career of the Historical Society of Mississippi will serve as an example. Not long after its foundation in 1858 it was discovered that only three members had paid the very reasonable dues of one dollar; the society therefore gave up the ghost in discouragement.

 

But the older historical societies that have lasted, for periods ranging from one hundred to 181 years, have, as their chief excuse for existence, collected, preserved, made available to scholars, and published source materials of American history. They have done so, without fanfare, from private funds that are astonishingly small for the results achieved. Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, these old eastern state historical societies carried on virtuallyunaided the work of preserving sources and making them available. In the twentieth century other organizations became concerned with American history—private and university libraries, federal and state archival agencies, historical museums and restorations. Yet these newer allies have not supplanted the older historical societies, as one will readily see by examining current historical literature. Few books of American history arc published today without some expression of the author’s gratitude to one of the older societies for assistance or for permission to publish manuscripts in their possession.