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 3
Their Histories

Though assisted by each other and by others, the antiquarians who actually wrote the early local histories were extremely rare individuals who had to have some abiding objective or purpose to sustain them through a characteristically long and arduous task. At first, histories were presented with a certain hesitancy, with some doubt in the author's mind as to their worth or appeal.

Erastus Worthington was quite candid when he offered for public sale lis history of Dedham in 1827. Worthington admitted that "[s]ome facts related to the following sketch will appear trivial." Nor was he "certain that a sufficient reason can be given for extending the history of a town of no considerable extent to so many pages." But, "a town like Dedham, having its first settlement at an early date, having copious materials for a history, and nearly resembling a much longer extent of country around it, in its character and past transactions," could have its history "[s]o arranged, that it may afford some views of society not exhibited in more general histories." In particular: "It may bring us nearer the homes, and enable us to see more distinctly the doings of the inhabitants."(1)

Nevertheless, John Daggett introduced his history of Attleboro in 1834 with the statement that "[this] little work is designed principally for the citizens of this town. The subject is not presumed to be of sufficient terest to attract the particular attention of strangers. I have, therefore, entered into details and local descriptions which will not be interesting to readers in general, but only to those who are connected with the same by association or locality."(2) As local historical writing became a well stablished form of writing, this apologetic tone all but disappeared from prefatory commentary. Some of the early antiquarians felt confident enough about the value of what they were doing to reflect on the question of why it was natural for people to have an interest in local history.

Alonzo Lewis was the first to probe the significance of the antiquarian impulse. He wrote in the preface of his history of Lynn ( 1829):

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