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

By David J. Russo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6 Town Historians

As before the Civil War, only in Massachusetts was the production of local histories so pervasive and uniform that by the 1930s such publications had appeared town-by-town, approaching a contiguous basis across the state, with some communities the subject of a second or even a third book-length history during the century from the 1820s to the 1920s.

But, even in Massachusetts, the impact of the national centennial on local historical writing was very evident. Except for a two-year period right after the Civil War (as if certain antiquarians took time to finish tasks interrupted by the war), the publication of such histories was virtually nonexistent until 1877, directly after the national centennial, with three in 1877, six in 1878, four in 1879, seven in 1880, and so on, never thereafter losing momentum until the late 1920s.

Those who wrote local history in Massachusetts during these decades were a varied group, not reducible to a sharply defined social profile and were without much awareness of each other, conscious only that they, as antiquarians, attempted to do for their community what other like-minded individuals were doing for theirs. Variation came in many forms: they were by principle occupation ministers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, politicians, journalists, professors, and teachers; they presented themselves as individuals so unused to writing for publication that they occasionally apologized in prefatory remarks for their verbal inaccuracies and inelegances, but also sometimes introduced themselves as individuals whose income actually derived from their writing. Some graduated from Harvard or another college, whereas others were apprentices to printers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, merchants or bankers. Some meekly claimed the title of compiler, but others proclaimed the importance of local historical writing and perceived themselves as historians like Hubert H. Bancroft and James Schouler, only with a smaller purview.

Rarely did those of genuine prominence, that is, those whose fame stretched beyond their own community, owe that fame to antiquarian activity. Samuel Francis Smith ( 1808-1895) was a Baptist clergyman whose

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