Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 3. The Growth of Historical Societies

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XV. Later Historians

§ 3. The Growth of Historical Societies

The beginning of the first goes back to 1791, when the Massachusetts Historical Society was founded through the efforts of Jeremy Belknap. Other societies followed, among them the New York Historical Society in 1804, the American Antiquarian Society in 1812, the Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Maine Historical Societies in 1822, the New Hampshire Historical Society in 1823, the Georgia Historical Society in 1839, the Maryland Historical Society in 1844, the New Jersey Historical Society in 1845, the Virginia Historical Society in 1851, and the Delaware Historical Society in 1864. Through Belknap’s efforts the Massachusetts society had a vigorous life from the beginning, collecting and publishing valuable material steadily. None of the other societies mentioned did so well. Most of them were the offsprings of local pride and lived thin and shallow lives until we come to the period treated in this chapter. For example, the New York society, in the richest city in the Union, kept up a battle for existence for forty years and was saved from bankruptcy only by aid from the State treasury. In sixty-four years it published eight small volumes of Collections, besides a number of “discourses” in pamphlet form. In the late forties it took on new life, obtained money for a building of its own, and in 1857 began to raise the publication fund which resulted in a series of annual Collections from 1868 to the present.

It is difficult to determine the origin of this renewed activity which appeared in other societies than the New York Historical Society. It was largely affected by Sparks’s, Bancroft’s, and Force’s activities in the fourth decade of the century, efforts so widely discussed that they must have stimulated new efforts everywhere. The return of John Romeyn Brodhead from Europe in 1844 with his excellent collection of transcripts on New York history and their publication by the State were another strong impulse to progress, and others can probably be discovered in the general development of the intellectual conditions of the day. It is clear that with the end of the Civil War the historical societies of the Atlantic States had passed out of their dubious phase of existence and had begun to exercise the important influence they have lately had in support of history.

Beyond the Alleghanies we find trace of the same awakening. State historical societies were established in Ohio in 1831, in Wisconsin and Minnesota in 1849, in Iowa in 1857, in Kansas in 1875, in Nebraska in 1878, and in Illinois and Missouri in 1899. Besides these state societies were several important privately projected societies: as the Chicago Historical Society, founded in 1855, and the Missouri Historical Society established in 1886. Within the latter part of the period under discussion the creation of societies has proceeded rapidly throughout the country.

Among the men who made this growth possible no one stands higher than Lyman Copeland Draper (1815–91), whose persistent efforts made the Wisconsin society pre-eminent among State historical societies. Fired by the example of Force and Sparks in Revolutionary history, he made his field the Revolutionary struggle on the Western border, extending it later to the entire Western region. He travelled widely in the West, visiting the explorers who still lived, ransacking old garrets, winning the confidence of important men, and collecting finally a vast treasure of material out of which he hoped to write a detailed history of the frontier. In 1853 he became corresponding secretary and chief executive officer of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. His efforts were constantly and wisely directed towards increasing its collections, enlarging the scope of its publications, and inducing the State to appropriate the funds necessary for development. He is rightly called the father of the Society. To it he bequeathed his large collection of historical material, itself a worthy nucleus of any society’s possessions. His work was continued after his death by Reuben Gold Thwaites (1853–1913), who was an active writer of history as well as an eminent librarian. His service to Western history has not been surpassed.