Tag Archives: Local History

Local History Matters. Now, More Than Ever

Under state law, New York requires every municipality to have an official historian. When you do the math, that comes out to one historian for each of the five boroughs of New York City, 12 Community Historians in Manhattan, 62 city historians, 932 town historians, and 544 village historians.  Add to that the 62 county historians, the scores of small historical societies, and the dozens of small archives, collections, and history museums, and you have the foundation for a vibrant local history community.

            Some of these local historians are more active than others. Some have more resources at their disposal. A huge percentage of them serve as volunteers. Many of them are retirees, doing work they love with great enthusiasm in the name of preserving their community’s past.  To varying degrees, they coordinate their efforts, and meet together to discuss common interests and concerns, like the meeting of the Government Appointed Historians of Western New York (GAHWNY) I attended last fall. It is a hodge-podge, with a thousand moving parts, but the work they do is exciting and important.

            And largely separate from the work we do as academic historians.  That reality has become increasingly clear to me over the course of this past year, as I began to survey the public history landscape in New York State. It is a shame.  The academic history community has largely ignored local historians.  And as I began to meet local historians, and talk with them, it struck me that we in the academy could be doing so much more, and that we had overlooked an extraordinarily valuable community of historians doing extraordinarily valuable work.

Why not, then, form a partnership between local historians and my college that could benefit us all—students at our college interested in history or museum studies, the public history community, and those in the general public with an interest in history?  Why not form a center to encourage interest in state history at the local level?  That’s what we are trying to do at Geneseo—a Center for Local and Municipal History– and our first steps will take place on February 16th.

            Encouraging a partnership between our college and the local history community will certainly benefit our students.  Teaching is not an attractive career path for all of our students, and the withered state of the academic job market makes it difficult for us to encourage even the most talented to pursue graduate training in history.  Our students find work in a host of fields, and I believe firmly that history students emerge from our college with the skills to prosper in a variety of fields. 

Still, history itself, as a discipline, is changing.  Museum studies is a dynamic and creative field.  The broad expanse of the “digital humanities” is bringing innovation to historical research, publishing, archival work, and public education.  Thanks to the creative teaching of my colleague Yvonne Seale (@YvonneSeale) and other members of the Geneseo community, our students have the opportunity to learn these versatile digital skills.  Our students, I believe, can provide important assistance to resource-starved local and municipal historians.  Our students will benefit from the opportunity to deploy their skills in a real-world setting and local historians will benefit from the assistance our students can offer.

But there is more to it than that.

The New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework places no emphasis on local history. As a result, too many New Yorkers know too little about the history of the communities in which they live.  I suspect that this problem is not unique to New York State. The American Association of Colleges and Universities, which in part has funded our local history initiative, argues that “in this turbulent and dynamic century, our nation’s diverse democracy and interdependent global community require a more informed, engaged, and socially responsible citizenry.” This sort of civic engagement and civic learning, I would argue, can occur in a more meaningful manner when our friends and neighbors know who and what and where they are in terms of connection to a certain location in place and time.  How did we get here? Why is our community the way it is? What is the source of the challenges we face as members of communities?  How can we confront those challenges effectively, and what have we tried before.  These questions are fundamentally historical.

If you read the news, and follow developments across the political spectrum, you will note that many Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, or whether they live in the inner city, the suburbs or in rural New York, feel disconnected, like outcasts. Rootlessness. When we teach people about their own history, their own place, we teach them, at least in part, that their stories matter. It may not be enough for us any longer merely to remember the past.  We can and should do more. We can connect people who feel disconnected when we present them with the evidence that they have a role in their community’s story, that they are themselves forces in history.

Local historians are already doing much of this important work.  They will do it with or without the support of the academic history community. Just before Christmas, I met with Larry Naukam, formerly with the Rochester Public Library, and a gentleman with a mastery of the work being done by local historians and archivists in upstate New York.  We met at the Starbucks in Brighton, at Twelve Corners, not far from my house.  There, Larry showed me all sorts of fantastic work.  He showed me, for instance, the digitized church and cemetery records on the Rochester Genealogical Society webpage. Then the Rochester Churches Indexing Project (RCIP), started some time ago by individual researchers affiliated with the RGS. The Cayuga Heights History Project contains a wealth of information on Ithaca, New York, as does the History Forge.  Amie Alden, the County Historian in Livingston County, where SUNY-Geneseo is located, has valuable information on her department’s website, including records relating to Civil War deserters and wills and other archival sources. Historians in Wayne have assembled a useful collection of materials on historic sites in that county. Small museums, like that belonging to the Walworth Historical Society, posts records and resources. Somehow, I had missed the Digital Public Library of America, which houses many millions of images from across the country, many with a local focus. The New York Heritage Digital Collections page is also worth your time. The Fulton NY Post Cards website is a crazy scene and clunky to use, but it includes millions of pages of digitized New York newspapers. 

All this from one conversation, in one hour, in one coffee shop.  There is so much material available to reconstruct local histories.  These records allow those of us who study the past to tell the stories of the ordinary people who spent their lives in the communities we now call home.  Geneseo students, I hope, will join in our efforts to recover, preserve, and present the documents containing these stories to the public, and to convince our friends and neighbors that this effort is worthwhile. In these collections we find people who appear nowhere else in the historical record.  They appear fleetingly and incompletely in these documents.  But tracking them down, as Arlette Farge put it, is part of the “allure of the archives,” those “encounters with the silhouettes of the past,” which possess “an obscure beauty in so many existences, barely illuminated by words.” So many people appear in these archives, and the stories of so many places.  “What,” Farge asks, “can be done with these countless individuals, their tenuous plans, their many disjointed movemnts?”  Farge likened what she found to the shifting images one sees when gazing into a kaleidoscope, dynamic always, appearing and disappearing, passing quickly out of your field of view sometimes before you get a clear sense of what you are looking at.

We at Geneseo want to talk about these stories, and enlist our students in the effort. Our first step is going to be a gathering on campus on February 16th, to discuss what can be done to forge a strong and viable partnership between different stakeholders and students.  I expect nearly 60 people to attend our meeting, including New York State Historian Devin Lander and Professor Taylor Stoermer, who teaches in the Museum Studies program at Johns Hopkins.  Prior to joining the Museum Studies faculty, Dr. Stoermer was Instructor of Public History at Harvard University, Director of Historic Huguenot Street (a National Historic Landmark District in New York), Chief Historian of Colonial Williamsburg, Invited Research Scholar at Brown University. He has held Fellowships at Yale University, the Huntington Library, the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and the Virginia Historical Society. He is an alumnus of Johns Hopkins, the Tulane University School of Law, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, where he earned his Ph.D. in History, specializing in colonial Virginia and the American Revolution. Dr. Stoermer is also the author of Colonial Williamsburg: The Official Guide (2014) and Public History: A Field Guide (Forthcoming, 2019).

 I am looking forward to a lively discussion from which I hope to learn a great deal. Then, during the first summer session in May, I will teach a course at Geneseo called “Local History Workshop.”  Students who enroll in the course will work in tandem with a local historian or historical society on projects that engage the public.  If the course is popular, I will add it to my regular rotation.  If these steps succeed, we will begin to raise money for the establishment of a center on campus.  1500 Local Historians, and none of the SUNY campuses devotes much attention to them.  We at Geneseo hope to lead the way. The local historians with whom I have spoken are enthusiastic.  They need the help.  I expect we will find students willing and ready to join in the effort.  If you are interested in joining us, please feel free to drop me a line.  Local history matters, now more than ever.

Teaching on Native Ground

Last Friday, the 9th of March, 2018, was Teachers’ Day at Geneseo, an event my colleagues in the History Department have held for the past several years.  We invite teachers from public schools to come to campus.  They attend a workshop in American history and another in World History.  In the past, we have had a keynote address held at lunchtime, but this year, my colleagues decided to do something different: a roundtable discussion on ways to involve high school students in local history projects that will broaden their understanding of the themes and topics they are expected to learn in school. I spoke briefly about Native American history.  This is a polished-up version of my remarks.


I do not have a specific project to speak about. I would rather suggest a general change in focus, and in our way of thinking, about the teaching of Native American history in New York schools.

In some ways, I believe, the manner in which Native American history is taught in public schools in New York continues a colonial project that began in 1492.  That may sound dramatic, but that is what I believe.  I base that on reading the Common Core guidelines for New York State, and as I have watched five children wend their way through New York public schools.

You—well, all of us really—we teach at public schools that stand on what had been native ground, on lands acquired in behalf of the people of the great state of New York by elite land barons and state government officials who viewed Indians as obstacles and barriers to progress and brakes on their considerable economic ambitions.  Those Indians one way or another would have been completely eradicated and erased if New York’s Founding Fathers had their way. They would be gone.  They would have been either removed, or assimilated, or driven to extinction, and certainly dispossessed.

The students you send to me do not know this history at all.  They know nothing of these stories.  They may know something about Cherokee Removal but absolutely nothing about the removal of, say, the Senecas from the valley as a result of military invasion, epidemic disease, or an 1826 real estate transaction that did not conform at all to the requirements of United States law.

They might know that the Iroquois once lived here, that they lived in longhouses, and that they relied upon the “Three Sisters” for their sustenance, but not that they are still here, fiercely protective of their status as autonomous native peoples, as members of native nations.  They might have been told something about how the Iroquois shaped the Constitution or American democratic thought but not that the Iroquois influence thesis has been thoroughly discredited and never really persuaded any historians in the first place, while they know nothing about how Haudenosaunee peoples actually played a role of incredible significance in shaping the history of this state and region.

They might know that Andrew Jackson is a SOB, but they will not have reflected upon how nearly ALL Americans were complicit in and benefited from the historical processes with which he is associated but which began long before he was born and continued after he died.  Indeed, they will not have thought about how they continue to benefit from “Indian Removal,” a terrible euphemism that should be retired.  Because New York, it is important to point out, became the “Empire State” in large part because of a systematic and determined program of Indian dispossession.

Look, we are historians.  We tell stories about the past.  At the end of the day, these stories are fundamental to what we call history.  It seems to me that we could be choosing better stories.  We all can do better.

So here’s something to think about. This semester for the first time I had my students keep journals.  I urged them to read beyond what I had assigned, to share with me their thoughts about the current events they were expected to keep up on in the United States and Canada, and even to say those things that they were too reluctant or did not get an opportunity to say in class. Of the nearly 40 students in my Indian Law and Public Policy course, a large majority of them expressed their amazement that they had not been taught any sort of meaningful Native American history at earlier points in their careers as learners, especially about the Native American history of the region in which they live.  The sense I got from reading these journals was that they felt cheated.

And this is unfortunate, because this region has an extraordinarily rich Native American history that is easily accessible, and that can be critically engaged with relative ease. It is inscribed on the land in terms of the place names, the streams and lakes and rivers that flow through this region where people lived, the easily-recovered lines of European invasion that cut through Wayne, Monroe, and Livingston Counties.  Chenussio, Geneseo; Canawaugus, Avon.  These were important towns, centers of Seneca power whose history is largely invisible to our students. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Image result for new york state historical markers indians         Wherever your school is located, you likely are near a badly biased state historical marker, full of loaded language, displaying common, stereotyped views of native peoples.  Your students can research these sites, or the events that took place there, and revise them.

When my students ask, “Why weren’t we taught this in school,” I see a powerful teachable moment.  Why indeed? Why do students in New York State learn about Cherokee Removal and not about Haudenosaunee dispossession and the diaspora that made the “settlement” of this unsettled, post-revolutionary state possible?  Do those people who assemble the standards against which your performance is measured actually not know these stories themselves, and so bequeath to students a limited view of this region’s history?

There is an opportunity here to talk about the power to make history, to determine what is and what is not considered part of the American past, and I think local stories are one way to engage students in that past.  If you ask your students to reflect upon why they are not taught these stories, what will happen?  Maybe, just maybe, we have some discomfort in talking about our past, and the considerable benefits non-native New Yorkers have received from this state’s very long and continuing history of colonialism.