New York - The State of History
by Joseph F. Meany Jr.
Originally compiled September, 1994. (Revised October, 2001)
This essay was originally presented as the New York State Historian's "State of History" Address to an annual meeting of the Association of Public Historians of New York State. It was intended to briefly review the history of historical activity in New York State government and the context from which the history function of the New York State Museum springs. This distinct tradition, with that of the State Science Service, are the two roots which inform the present scholarly endeavors of the State Museum.
The historiography of New York begins with the publication, in 1809, of Washington Irving's The History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty … by Diederick Knickerbocker (New York, 1809), universally called Knickerbocker's History of New York. This sharply satirical cut at New York's Dutch pretensions was followed, in 1829, by the publication of William Smith Jr.'s The History of the Province of New York: From Its Discovery to the Appointment of Governor Colden in 1762 (New York, NY: New-York Historical Society, 1829; Reprinted in 2 vols., edited by Michael Kammen; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972). This work, written by a New Englander in the eighteenth century, took the history of New York up to the end of the colonial wars. However, although the Dutch period comprised over half of the time in question, Smith did not base his work on Dutch sources, nor was his presentation of the Dutch a balanced one.
It was these two successive blows to their ethnic pride that motivated the Dutch-lineage first families of New York to press their representatives in the New York State Legislature to fund some attempt to record the Dutch portion of New York' s history.
The New-York Historical Society had published Smith's History. Now, its Board of Trustees, which included members of some of New York' s most prominent families of Dutch ancestry, determined to redress the balance. After all, the society's charter mandated the collection and preservation of "documents, papers, and evidences" of the entire history of New York. Thus, on February 5th 1839, the society drafted a petition to the state legislature requesting the appropriation of funds not only to better preserve historical records then in the state's custody, but also to seek out pertinent records in foreign archives. On this see Nicholas Falco, "The Empire State's Search in European Archives," American Archivist, Vol. 69, 109-123.
The historical enterprise of New York State may thus be said to date from May 2nd 1839. On that day the State Legislature passed "An Act To Appoint an Agent to Procure and Transcribe Documents in Europe Relative to the Colonial History of the State." New York, Laws of the State Passed at the Sixty-Second Session …[Jan.-May] … of 1839, Chapt. 315. The text is given in Falco, "Empire State," 110. The sum of four thousand dollars ($4,000.00) was appropriated to defray the expenses incurred by the said agent.
That agent was John Romeyn Brodhead, a New York attorney related on his mother's side to the powerful Bleeker family. When his uncle, Harmanus Bleeker, became United States Ambassador to the Netherlands, Brodhead accompanied him as an attache. On this, see Ronald W. Howard, "John R. Brodhead (2 January 1814- 6 May 1873)," Dictionary of Literary Biograghy. pp. 45-51. Also Falco, "Empire State," 109-123. In 1839, when the state legislature appropriated money to hire an agent to survey European archives with a view to collecting documents relevant to the history of New York, Brodhead was appointed the state's agent by Governor William Seward. He was to spend four years in the repositories of the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain, inventorying New York material and having it copied. The historian George Bancroft (1800-1891) wrote that the ship on which Brodhead returned with his finds to New York was "more richly freighted with new material for American history than any which ever crossed the Atlantic." Brancroft's quote was cited by Milton Hamilton, The Historical Publication Program of the State of New York (Albany , NY : University of the State of New York/State Education Department, 1965), p. 3.
Brodhead published the report on his historical activities to the state legislature in 1845 as John Romeyn Brodhead, Final Report of the Agent appointed "to procure and transcribe documents in Europe relative to the Colonial History of this state: Submitted to Governor Wright, 12 Feb. 1845." He later wrote a two volume History of New York, (New York, NY: Harpers & brothers, 1853, 1871). Nevertheless, he was not selected to edit and publish the documents that he had collected. This task fell to an emigre New Yorker, Edmund Bailey O'Ca1laghan.
Dr. Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan was born in Ireland in 1800 and educated at Dublin's Trinity College, where he took a degree in medicine. Following medical school, he immigrated to Canada where he established a practice in Quebec. Being Irish, O'Callaghan was drawn to politics, serving one term in the parliament of Upper Canada and editing a liberal political magazine called The Vindicator. Being Irish, perhaps it will come as no surprise that, in 1837, Dr. O'Callaghan joined the Papineau Uprising against British rule in Canada. When the revolt collapsed, O'Callaghan fled, seeking asylum in the United States. He settled in Albany, and soon became involved in the anti-rent agitation then current in the area. He edited an anti-rent journal, The Northern Light, and taught himself Dutch in order to better understand the Patroon's land claims. Following the anti-rent wars, O'callaghan, because of his linguistic skills, was hired by the New York Secretary of State to translate, edit, and publish the historical documents that John Romeyn Brodhead had collected.
O'CaIlaghan's first effort was The Documentary History of N ew York (4 vols., Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1849-1851). Although really a potpourri of material, it is important as the first time New York State published a collection of documentary sources. As such, The Documentary History of New York is still used by students and scholars today and many of us are familiar with its four fat volumes sitting on our bookshelves.
From 1853 to 1861, O'Callaghan translated and edited the first eleven volumes of the monumental Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York. (15 vols.; Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1856-1861, 1877-1887), a compilation known to every serious scholar of colonial history since. Volumes I and II were his translations of the Dutch documents found in the Hague by John Romeyn Brodhead. Volumes III to VIII were British documents from the Colonial and War Office records in the Public Records Office in Chancery Lane in London. Volumes IX and X were French colonial documents from the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris, and Volume XI was a general index. O'Callaghan's editorial notes were invaluable to scholars. His transcriptions were, in the main, accurate, and his translations "lucid."
O'Callaghan's mantle fell, in 1871, to Berthold Fernow, "a scion of the Prussian aristocracy," who came to the United States in 1861 and served as an officer in the Union Army. Fernow began his career in the Secretary of State's Office but when, in 1881, the colonial records were transferred to the State Library, Fernow went with them. In a ten year period, 1877 to 1887, Fernow translated, edited and published Volumes XII to XV of the Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, (New Series).
In 1887, the State Board of Regents named Melville Dewey, State Librarian. Dewey graduated from Amherst College in 1864. Aged 37 when he was appointed New York State Librarian, he had already devised his celebrated "Dewey Decimal System" for the classification of books, which revolutionized library science. He had also established the American Library Association (ALA) and its American Library Journal, as well as the American Metric Bureau (to promote American adoption of the European metric system of measurement ), the Spelling Reform Association, and the Columbia University School of Library Science, the first in the country. 'Wherever he went he innovated, upset traditions, revolutionized practices, and inspired controversy. See Hamilton, Publications, pp. 4-5.
Among the programs Dewey eliminated at the State Library was that of documentary editing. He fired Berthold Fernow and George R. Howell of the State Library's Manuscripts Division and put the manuscripts librarian on half-pay. As Milton Hamilton wrote: "By using the salaries of [these] 'three old retainers,' Dewey was able to employ three pages at $150, $240, and $300 a year, a catalogue librarian [to implement the Dewey Decimal System] at $2,000 and five assistants at $800 each. This was progress, but … the manuscripts were pushed to near oblivion." Although he was well into Volume XVI of the Documents Relative … when Fernow applied to the Board of Regents for reinstatement, he was refused.
State Historians of New York
New York State's publication of historical documents thus lapsed until the appointment of Hugh Hastings as the First State Historian eight years later. The first State Historian of New York was appointed in 1895, following the enactment of legislation creating the office. Chapter 393 of the Laws of 1895: AN ACT to provide for the appointment of a State historian and for the compilation of the military and naval records of the State, became law on 23 April 1895. Although he lacked formal training in history - he was a journalist and politician -Hugh Hastings [1st State Historian, 1895-1907] was responsible for the publication of The Papers of Daniel Tompkins (3 vols.; Albany, NY: 1898-1902), as well as the Papers of George Clinton (10 vols.; Albany, NY: 1899-1904). These documentary editions of the papers of two of New York's most important early governors pointed the way to further scholarly activity by the Office of the State Historian.
Hastings was succeeded, in 1907, by Victor Hugo Paltsits [2nd State Historian, 1907-1911], one of the most famous and feisty State Historians. Paltsits outlined his ideas on the office in an address on The Function of the State Historian of New York (Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon Company, 1909) delivered to the annual meeting of the New York State Historical Association held in Albany on 13 October 1908.
During his tenure, Paltsits became embroiled in a major bureaucratic battle with the formidable Andrew S. Draper, the Commissioner of Education, the man who created the mighty State Education Department by combining, under the Board of Regents, the responsibilities of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for elementary and secondary schools with the Regents oversight of higher education. A good account of this is found in Bruce W. Dearstyne's article, "Archival Politics in New York State, 1892-1915," New York History, (Apri1 1985), 164-184.
In 1911, when Draper succeeded in also annexing the Office of the State Historian (and making it subordinate to the Commissioner of Education), Dr. Paltsits resigned in protest. Paltsits went on the be one of the most distinguished directors of the New York Public Library.
Paltsits was succeeded by James A Holden [3rd State Historian, 1911-1916], a Glens Falls journalist. Holden interested himself in North Country history and entered the then current controversy over the burial place of Lord Howe, a British general killed at Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. See James A. Holden, "The Campaign of 1758: New Historical Light on the Real Burial Place of George Augustus, Lord Viscount Howe, Transactions of the New York State Historical Association, X (1911).
The bulk of Holden's energies, however, were devoted to the task of salvaging historical records and museum objects from the disastrous capitol fire of March 1911. Today, his personal collection of research materials is preserved in the Glens Falls Public Library, Glens Falls, New York.
The year 1916 marked the first time someone other than the governor named the State Historian of New York. In that year James Sullivan [4 th State Historian, 1916-1923], a school administrator, was appointed by the authority of the Commissioner of Education and the Board of Regents. Sullivan, however, was a classically trained historian with a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Following the tradition established by Hugh Hastings, the first State Historian, Sullivan returned to the practice of documentary editing, completing the first three volumes of The Sir William Johnson Papers (Albany , NY : University of the State of New York, 1921).
Dr. Sullivan's administration included the years of United States' involvement in World War I, and it was due to his. foresight that the New York State Legislature, in 1917, enacted the Local Government Historians Law, mandating the appointment of an historian, a public officer, in every city, town, and village in the state. These first local government historians were to assist the State Historian in documenting the service of New Yorkers in the "Great War." It was the first such network of officially-appointed local historians in the country.
In 1923, Dr. Sullivan was succeeded by the distinguished historian Alexander C. Flick [5th State Historian, 1923-1939], then Professor of History at Syracuse University. It was during Alexander Flick's sixteen year tenure that the Office of the State Historian saw its most scholarly and prolific period. Flick continued the publication of The Sir William Johnson Papers. For the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution (1925-1932) Flick produced The American Revolution in New York: Its Political. Social and Economic Significance (Albany, NY: University of the State of New York, 1926 reprinted Port Washington, NY: Ira J. Friedman, 1967). His crowning achievement, however, was his service as editor of The History of the State of New York ( 10 vols.; New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1933-1937 reprinted Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1962).
This publication, completed with the collaboration of Dixon Ryan Fox, President of the New York State Historical Association and of Union College, was one of the landmark achievements of the State Historian's Office.
The Great Depression, however, dealt the publications program of the State Historian's office a severe blow. There was a shortage of paper and budgets were cut drastically. During the 1930s the attention of the office perforce shifted from publications to the "make-work" projects of FDR's "New Deal." These included the New York State Committee on Geographic Place-Names, which recorded traditional place names and still recommends name changes to the Federal Committee on Geographic Place-Names; the State Historical Records Survey, which compiled and published a comprehensive guide to historic records repositories in New York; and the State Historic Marker Program, which authorized the erection of thousands of roadside historic markers marking sites of historic significance, usually nominated by local government historians. These blue and yellow tablets became one of the most characteristic and familiar sights along New York State highways, and one of the most successful public history initiatives ever undertaken. Generations of children and adults have heightened their historical consciousness by reading the signs. The program was duplicated by virtually every state in the union.
It was also in the 1930s that the network of local government historians was extended by authorizing the appointment of Borough and County historians. It is interesting to note however that FDR, himself the local historian of the Town of Hyde Park, New York, vetoed the provision for salaries for the borough and county historians. It appears that for FDR the "New Deal" stopped with historians.
With the retirement of Alexander Flick in 1939, his son Hugh Flick became Acting State Historian [1939-1940]. After Hugh Flick's entry into military service in 1940, he was succeeded by Dr. Arthur Pound [6th State Historian, 1940-1946], a well-known literary figure. The publications and marker programs, however, became casualties of the Second World War, and Dr. Pound's energies were taken up in organizing arrangements for the protection of the state's historical records in the event that the state capitol came under axis air attack.
Following World War II, Arthur Pound was succeeded by Dr. Albert Corey [7th State Historian, 1946-1963], perhaps the best known and respected of all the State Historians of New York. Born in British India and a veteran of the Canadian air service in the First World War, Corey was Professor of History at St. Lawrence University at the time of his appointment as State Historian. During Albert Corey's seventeen-year tenure the focus of the State Historian's Office shifted.
During the Corey administration, the State Historian's Office was given responsibility for managing the state's historic site system. These thirty-two sites and structures were transferred from the Conservation Department and reflected the increasing emphasis on historic preservation and restoration which followed the success of the Colonial Williamsburg Restoration effort funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in Virginia.
Although under Dr. Corey's administration four more volumes of The Sir William Johnson Papers were completed, the new responsibilities for the site system occupied the State Historian to a considerable degree, inevitably leaving less time and fewer resources for research and publication. In fact, this may well be identified as the moment that the State Historian's Office turned from scholarship to field service. Albert Corey inaugurated a policy of attempting to provide one-on-one assistance to historical societies and history museums chartered by the Board of Regents. This policy stretched the resources of the office in attempting to meet the needs of what became over 1,600 historical and cultural agencies in every corner of the state. Ultimately, the organization of the system of regional service organizations - the Regional Conference of Historical Agencies, the Federation of Historical Services, the Lower Hudson and Western New York Conferences, and the Metropolitan Historic Structures Association - were created, with the support of the New York State Council on the Arts, to meet the needs of historical agencies in their areas.
Albert Corey left one more legacy. On the national level, he led the movement to found the AASLH - the American Association for State and Local History, a national professional organization for those specializing in local and regional history. Albert Corey's devotion to the cause of local history - a cause for which he worked tirelessly, made him a beloved public servent. He spent a great deal of his time in the field helping and encouraging people and suffered a fatal heart attack while on the Thruway returning from a visit to a local historical society in Central New York. The AASLH has honored Dr. Carey by giving his name to their highest achievement award in the field of state and local history.
Following the untimely death of Albert Corey in November 1963, Dr. Milton Hamilton, the last editor of The Sir William Johnson Papers was named Acting State Historian [1963-1965] and managed the affairs of the State Historian's Office until his retirement in 1965. During this period he also completed the monumental task of indexing The Sir William Johnson Papers.
It was in this period that Governor Nelson Rockefeller named a "blue ribbon commission," chaired by Commissioner of Education James Allen, to study the Office of the State Historian and to make recommendations. In 1967, the Task Force recommended that the State Historian be made Assistant Commissioner for State History in the Education Department and that the responsibilities of his office be divided into five bureaux.
First, a.Bureau of Historical Research would continue the long tradition of editing and publishing documents related to New York State History. This function is carried on today under the auspices of Dr. Charles Gehring's New Netherland Project of the State Library which translates, edits, and publishes New York's Dutch colonial documents.
Second, a Bureau of State Archives; this is the origin of the present much expanded New York State Archives.
Third, a State History Museum. While the idea of a separate history museum was quickly scrapped, this marks the inauguration of history as the fourth scholarly discipline -alongside Geology, Biology, and Anthropology -to be interpreted by the State Museum; and it also marks the creation of a history curatorial unit to manage the State History Collection.
Fourth, a Bureau of Field Services, which would take responsibility for providing assistance to both historical societies and history museums chartered by the Board of Regents and to the officially-appointed county and municipal historians who, since their creation in 1917 and 1932 respectively, were mandated to look to the State Historian for guidance and direction and to report to him or her annually on their activities. This is the origin of the present Bureau of External Services, which provides assistance to historical agencies seeking Regents charters as Not-For-Profit Educational Corporations.
The Fifth Bureau was to manage the State Historic Site System. In 1966, following the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of that year, the historic site system was transferred, first the an entity called the New York State Historic Trust, and later to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation where it is managed today along with the State's Heritage Area and National Register programs. Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Commissioner of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation served as New York's SHPO, State Historic Preservation Officer. Thus, although the Rockefeller Commission's recommendations were not adopted in total and did not result in a permanent aggrandized State Historian's Office, many of the recommendations did come to fruition in one form or another.
When Dr. Louis Leonard Tucker (8th State Historian, 1966-1976] became State Historian and Assistant Commissioner for State History in May 1966 the future seemed bright. Clouds began to appear almost immediately however. First, the transfer of the historic site system seriously undercut the rationale for an Assistant Commissioner for State History.
Second, in 1969, Tucker's Office of State History was designated the official staff and secretariat for the newly created New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. From that moment forward, the office was consumed with the planning and execution of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, eventually becoming less a unit of the State Education Department, and more an adjunct of the Bicentennial Commission. Thus, when the post-Rockefeller fiscal crises became apparent in the winter of 1976, and all state agencies were required to cut millions of dollars and hundreds of positions from their payrolls, it was not surprising to see this impact disastrously upon the Office of State History.
The position of Assistant Commissioner for State History was abolished along with most of the staff of the Historical Research and Local History Services units. The staff of the office as a whole was cut by more than half from thirty-four positions in 1976 to fifteen in 1977. Tucker went on to become Director of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the oldest and most prestigious state historical society in the nation.
Following Len Tucker's dismissal, Dr. John Still, chief of the History Curatorial Unit, was named Acting State Historian (1977-1980), a position he filled in addition to his curatorial responsibilities, until 1980. The office was renamed the Division of Historical Services and was integrated into the structure of the New York State Museum for the first time.
In January 1979, a strengthened Division of Historical and Anthropological Services was created within the State Museum bringing together for the first time all the elements of cultural education which concerned themselves with the history and pre-history of human activity in New York State. Dr. Paul Scudiere, a former research historian, was named director of the new division and, in 1980, he assumed the title of 9th State Historian of New York [1980-1990].
During the decade of Paul Scudiere's administration, while the curatorial unit managed the State History Collection for the museum, the State Historian's Office turned outward. An annual bibliography, Research and Publications in New York State History was compiled and published, each year growing larger and more sophisticated. An annual meeting, The Conference on New York State History, succeeded the earlier "College Conference," for academics only, and expanded to bring together local government historians, historical agency people, and scholars with a research or teaching focus on New York State History. A traveling symposium, The Seminar on New York State History, intended as a forum for new research in New York State History, met in historical agencies and on college campuses throughout the state, and two publications, The Working Papers of the Seminar on New York State History, were published. Theme Booklets on topics in New York State History were inaugurated. A computer-based, community history project, the Colonial Albany Social History Project, was launched with the intention of providing a model demographic study that could be replicated in communities all over the state. Finally, a three-day residential workshop, The Institute for Local Historians, was begun at the Institute for Man and Science in Rensselaersville, New York, to train newly-appointed local government historians, to"expose local historians to first-rate scholars and hands-on training, and to create a cadre of motivated public historians who would carry the message to jurisdictions across the state.
Unfortunately, with little new resources beyond the commitment of our staff and their willingness to work long hours, it proved impossible to institutionalize most of these initiatives. In May of 1990, Dr. Kenneth L. Ames (lOth State Historian, 1990-1995] succeeded Paul Scudiere as State Historian. An American Studies specialist from the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, Ames devoted himself to exhibit development and scholarly pursuits.
In October 1994, Dr. Ames went on sabbatical leave to pursue his research and writing. Senior Historian, Dr. Joseph Meany, was asked to serve as Acting State Historian, a position he filled until his retirement in April 2001. Meany saw himself as a custodian of the office. He continued Albert Corey's policy of accepting every invitation to speak publicly on New York History, totaling over four hundred programs and events, averaging more than twenty-five trips monthly, and logging more than 75,000 miles to visit every county and corner of the state. Meany followed historians Still and Scudiere in representing the Commissioner of Education on the State Board for Historic Preservation. During his decade on the board he voted to recommend 1,112 historic districts, sites, and structures for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Meany also served on the Heritage Areas Advisory Council, the State Commission for the 50th Anniversary of World War II, and the State Board of Geographic Place Names.
Meany continued to work closely with the 1,640 local government historians, focusing on the revitalization of the borough historians of New York City. During his tenure the local government historian's professional organizations merged into the Association of Public Historians of New York State. For their annual meetings, Meany inaugurated the annual State Historian's "State of History" Address, as well as an annual awards program including the "Franklin D. Roosevelt Local Government Historians Professional Achievement Award," the Edmund J. Winslow Award for Excellence in Public History," and the "Hugh Hastings Award for Service to Public History." An initiative to pass a "Community Historian's Bill" authorizing the appointment of community historians in the community planning districts of New York City, however, has yet to come to fruition.
Meany also continued to share responsibility for recommending historical agencies seeking Regents charters that create or extend the incorporated life of museums, historical associations, and related historical agencies statewide. Finally, Meany followed State Historian Scudiere in teaching a graduate seminar, "Introduction to Historical Agency Management and Practice" in the Public History Program at the State University at Albany.