Keepers of Our past: Local Historical Writing in the United States, 1820s-1930s

By David J. Russo | Go to book overview
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Introduction

People have always had an interest in studying the past, seeking, in the words of J. H. Plumb, "the meaning of time when related to themselves, with its harsh facts of birth, growth, and death."(1) An awareness of history is innate, inescapable, something essential to human identity. Certainly there is a close connection between the urge to know "who am I?" and genealogical investigation.

Plumb, in a more restrictive vein, stresses "the personal ownership of the past [as] . . . a vital strand in the ideology of all ruling classes. The authoritarian purposes of genealogy for society," Plumb argues, can be seen in the "acquisition of the past by the ruling and possessing classes and the exclusion of the mass of the peasantry and labouring classes," something he claims "is a widespread phenomenon through recorded time," adding: "Nor is it merely Kings and Pharaohs or high priests who have acquired the authority of an ancestral table. All aristocracies have, very sensibly, made a cult of genealogy in order to underpin their special status."(2)

But this perennial search for the historical sources of legitimacy, authority, and status has also been taken up by people whose inclusion under the rubrics "ruling class" and "aristocracy" would stretch the meaning of such terms beyond recognition. I am referring here to people whose prominence, if at all evident, was modest, local. The typical amateur genealogist and local historian has not been a scribe-in-hire to some Sanhedrin of yore, but a lone individual who believed, as one of them so aptly put it, that "[there] is something so natural in enquiring into the history of those who have lived before us, and particularly of those with whom we have any connexion, either by ties of relation or place, that it is surprising anyone should be found by whom this subject is regarded with indifference."(3)

In that portion of the British Empire that became, in 1776, the United States of America, genealogical and historical writing from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries was produced by amateurs, who, before the rise of the historical profession in this century, were "Keepers of Our Past,"

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