The State Historian serves in an appointed position within the Research and Collections Division of the New York State Museum. The position is appointed by the New York State Board of Regents.
The State Historian advises state officials on historical matters and provides statewide leadership to promote education about, public understanding of, access to, and practical use of New York State history. He/she creates and manages partnerships among 1,650 municipal and county historians; affiliates of universities, museums, historic sites, and other historical and cultural institutions; educators and students at every level; and anyone else interested in New York State history. The current State Historian also serves as Chief Curator of the New York State Museum and, as such, directs a professional and administrative staff to conduct professional historical research, share research findings with professional and public audiences, manage history collections, and plan and develop historical exhibitions.
New York State history has been a subject of interest for over two centuries, beginning with the founding of the New York Historical Society in 1804 and the publication, five years later, of Washington Irving’s satire, Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Irving’s work found a popular audience, but it offended some prominent Dutch families. Many of those same people were further disappointed by William Smith’s 1829 history of early New York, because they felt that the book did not adequately recognize the important contributions of their ancestors. So in 1839, they convinced state legislators to fund research through the New York Historical Society that led, in 1845, to the publication of History of New York by John Romeyn Brodhead and, over the course of the next forty years, to multi-volume documentary histories by Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan and Berthold Fernow.
The colonial records on which those publications were based were transferred to the State Library in 1881, but in 1895, when the Library failed to support additional documentary history projects, the governor appointed journalist/politician Hugh Hastings as New York’s first official State Historian. Hastings published The Papers of Daniel Tompkins and The Papers of George Clinton and served through 1907. Four years later, as part of a Progressive Era reorganization, the Office of the State Historian was incorporated into the New York State Education Department and made subject to appointment by the Commissioner of Education and Board of Regents. Another Progressive reform created a community of officially appointed local historians in 1917 to help the State Historian document the service of New Yorkers during the First World War. Over the coming years, State Historians also cooperated with locals by overseeing the installation of historical markers, while continuing to produce documentary histories, including the multi-volume Sir William Johnson Papers, and other important publications, most particularly the ten-volume History of the State of New York (1933-37).
State history programs took a back seat to the war effort during World War II, as publications activities came to a halt and the historical marker program was turned over to local authorities. After the war, State Historians renewed their publication of scholarly works (including the last of the William Johnson papers), while also taking on responsibilities for managing the state’s historic sites. With the passage of the federal Historic Preservation Act of 1966, however, the historic sites were eventually transferred to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, and both the State Historian and the Education Department’s remaining history responsibilities were integrated into the State Museum, along with the disciplines of geology, biology, and anthropology. The Museum added a curatorial staff of history-related professionals, and staff began to focus more attention on museum functions rather than on more traditional scholarly endeavors or field service activities. At the same time, the State Historian took on more formal leadership responsibilities for guiding and directing the activities of officially appointed county and municipal historians, and his/her position was elevated to the rank of Assistant Commissioner for State History.
In 1969, the State Historian’s office was designated as New York’s secretariat for managing the state’s efforts to commemorate the nation’s upcoming Bicentennial celebrations. Ironically, Education Department officials found that the demands of the Bicentennial had distracted the Office of State History from its departmental mission, and in 1977, they downgraded the position and made it a part of the State Museum’s Division of Historical Services (later the Division of Historical and Anthropological Services). After a period of continuing internal readjustment and budget cutting, the position was allowed to become vacant in 1995.
An Acting State Historian served through 2001, but the position of State Historian was not occupied again for seven years. In 2008, the job was re-described to reflect changes that had taken shape in the nation’s historical profession in response to the late-twentieth century public history movement. Today, the State Historian’s Office produces and encourages professional scholarship and works with the public to make New York history more accessible and meaningful to the state’s citizens and visitors alike.
1895-1907 Hugh Hastings
1907-1911 Victor Hugo Paltsits
1911-1916 James A. Holden
1916-1923 James Sullivan
1923-1939 Alexander C. Flick
1939-1940 Hugh Flick (Acting)
1940-1946 Arthur Pound
1946-1963 Albert Corey
1963-1965 Milton Hamilton (Acting)
1966-1976 Louis Leonard Tucker
1976-1980 John Still (Acting)
1980-1990 Paul Scudiere
1990-1994 Kenneth L. Ames
1994-2001 Joseph Meany (Acting)
2008- Robert Weible