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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CHAPTER 1
The Early Setting

There is an abundant promotional literature on particular British North American colonies written by various explorers, organizers, and apologists, containing richly varied knowledge of a new and strange land.(1) These writings were later used by the antiquarians who attempted to recreate their locality's past. Such promoters unwittingly produced source material for the wide-ranging "social" history that characterized local historical writing in North America from its inception in the early nineteenth century.(2)

The specifically historical writings that British colonists presented were histories of particular colonies, usually partisan accounts focused on controversies with Britain. By contrast, the Puritan historians of colonial New England typically cast their accounts in a religious mold. Theirs was a Christian view of history. Believing that they were among God's elect and builders of model religious communities, the Puritans wrote history whose theme was that "God carried on His work through . . . His chosen people" who planted his churches in the new world and whose faith and endurance were constantly tested by God's enemies and theirs.(3)

The New Englanders' histories were written from a colony-wide perspective, even though the Puritans organized themselves in planned towns given wide autonomy.(4) And yet the Puritans made no effort during the colonial period to provide overall histories of particular towns. The only form of writing by the colonists that can be regarded as even related to truly local history was the "captivity story," accounts of the Indian massacres of frontier villages, and the subsequent captivity of the survivors who were held for ransom but who sometimes remained with their captors, adopting their culture. However, such accounts were about a specific event, and in no sense dealt with the development of a community over time. The massacres were traumas, seared into the memory of the survivors, whose written recollections were limited to descriptions of an unforgettable calamity.(5)

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