Bringing Neglected New York History to Light


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Erie - Champlain Canal Junction (Courtesy American Canals)New York’s long, rich, and vibrant state and local history has long been a source of pride and inspiration. As items on this website repeatedly confirm, there are many programs that provide creative interpretation and presentation of key events and developments.

But over the years, the New York historical community, particularly in publishing books, has sometimes tended to concentrate on certain topics and neglect or minimize others.

There are many explanations, including availability of source material; limited outlet for publications; absence of a master listing of new books, articles, and other publications; need for a stronger role and support of publications by local historians; the tendency for U.S. history to upstage New York history; and the pattern of historians sometimes following each other in writing about popular topics but producing only incremental gains in new insights.

Just a few examples:

Abraham Lincoln vs. New York’s three Civil War governors. Lincoln is probably the most studied and written-about person in American history. Amazon.com lists over 43,000 Lincoln items. Excellent recent books, including those by Harold Holzer and Doris Kearns Goodwin, are very popular. The movie Lincoln, and the Oscar award to actor Daniel Day Lewis for his portrayal of the president, have added to public interest and fascination.

And yet, at the outset of the Civil War, the support and contribution of the states was critical. Much of the war effort was based on what the states provided. New York furnished more soldiers, finance and material than any other state. It out-produced the entire Confederacy in some key areas. It sustained more casualties than any other state. Absent New York, and it is difficult to see how the North could have won.
But most New Yorkers probably could not even name the state’s Civil War governors.

Gov. Edwin D. Morgan, (R., 1859-1863), U.S. senator, 1863-1869, and first chairman of the Republican National Committee, 1856-1864, quickly mobilized New York’s forces for the Union, was highly visible in endorsing the war effort, and exercised quiet statesmanship during the war. His leadership was critical. There is one biography of Morgan, published in 1968.

Gov. Horatio Seymour (D.,1863-1865) was the only person to serve as governor in non-sequential terms; he had also been governor in 1853-1855. He fully supported the war but was critical of Lincoln’s domestic policies, including the draft. He ran for president in 1868. In his day, he was one of the most important and influential political figures in the nation. But Seymour’s biography was written in 1938.

Gov. Reuben Fenton (R.,1865-1868) was known as “the soldiers’ friend” for his policies toward returning troops, particularly those who had been wounded. He guided New York’s government and economy in transitioning from a wartime to a peacetime basis. That is one of the most significant transitions in the state’s history. He also served as U.S. Senator, 1869-1875. But there apparently is no biography of Fenton.

The Wright Brothers vs. Glenn Curtiss. Most people in the country know the story of the Wright Brothers and the flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. The Wright brothers are credited with inventing unmanned flight But the flight at Kitty Hawk was actually an unannounced flight. The first publically announced flight, seen by a crowd and covered by the press, was the flight of Hammondsport New York aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss’ bi-plane June Bug on July 4, 1908. Curtiss was responsible for many aviation inventions and advancements, including the initial design of the aileron system of flight control that is still the basis for planes today. He was the first person to fly from Albany to New York City. His planes were the first to fly onto and take off from U.S. navy warships, presaging aircraft carriers. His company had large plants in Hammondsport, Buffalo, and on Long Island and employed thousands of people in the World War I era. Later, he was a land developer in Florida and pioneered in developing travel trailers.

But in many histories, the Wrights get major coverage, and Curtiss only a footnote.

Erie Canal vs. Barge Canal, New York Central Railroad, and New York State Thruway. The story of the Erie Canal – how it originated, how it was built, its impact on New York and the nation – has been told many times. Every history of the state devotes considerable time to it. But what about its later cross-state and down-the-Hudson counterparts? There is little historiography about its successor, the Barge Canal, a major public enterprise in the early 20th century. The most commonly cited source is Noble E. Whitford’s History of the Barge Canal of New York State, published in 1922. In fact, the name Barge Canal is obscured because in recent years the state named the network of canals the New York State Canal System and revived the name Erie Canal. The New York Central Railroad was once one of the nation’s most important transportation companies and one of the state’s pre-eminent businesses, but it, too, lacks a comprehensive modern history. The Thruway, now over 50 years old, also is in need of a published history.

There is also broad opportunity to study the Thruway’s impact on the various communities that it began serving in the 1950’s

Political history vs. other history. Many books on New York history devote a good deal of space to politics and political parties. They are, of course, very important. But other aspects of our history are, relatively speaking, under-studied. One example might be the history of roads and highways – immensely important to the state and its communities, but not the topic of many historical works. A notable exception, and a good model, is Michael R. Fein, Paving the Way: New York Road Building and the American State, 1880-1956. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008). Another example is the history of New York’s natural resources and its environment, for instance, water policy. There are few in-depth studies. A couple of good models: David Stradling, The Nature of New York: An Environmental History of the Empire State (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010) and Robert E. Henshaw (ed.), Environmental History of the Hudson River (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011). They suggest the vast range of possibilities for other studies. Both of these are also examples of where more intensive study of local history would be immensely revealing.

Of course, there are many other examples of topics that have not been covered in depth.

Three things would help with the work of identifying gaps and bringing more neglected history to light:

One, an annotated subject-oriented bibliography of New York State and local history that is continually updated. Publications such as the Encyclopedia of New York State History and The Encyclopedia of New York City are helpful in this regard but they are not comprehensive and there is no provision for updating.

Two, a central listing of new publications on state and local history to make it possible to track new publications as they come out.

Three, more outlets for publications.

Photo: Erie – Champlain Canal Junction (Courtesy Americancanals.org).

 

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne lives in Guilderland. Dearstyne is a former professor at the College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, where he is now an Adjunct Professor. Before joining the Maryland faculty, he held positions at the New York State Archives and the Office of State History. He is the author of The Spirit of New York: Sixteen Events That Changed History, forthcoming from SUNY Press early in 2015. He is also the author of Railroads and Railroad Regulation in New York State, 1900-1913 and joint author of New York: Yesterday and Today. He served as guest editor of a special issue of the journal Public Historian on “Strengthening the Management of State History: Issues, Perspectives, and Insights from New York” (August 2011). He also writes occasional essays on New York State history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union.

4 thoughts on “Bringing Neglected New York History to Light

  1. Addie Harris

    Your three suggestions are right on!

    I learned about Glenn Curtiss not in school but through stamp collecting. Mail carried on his planes is highly collectible.

    Reply
  2. J F Sefcik

    Bruce, an excellent scholar of NY history, hits the mark once again. However, with few exceptions, many other states ignore their history as well. When I worked in Louisiana, I was astounded by the lack of awareness of its place in American history, viz. the Battle of New Orleans, the LA Purchase, Plessy v Ferguson, US Army maneuvers at Fort Polk on the eve of WWII led by some obscure colonel by the name of Eisenhower, POW camps in the state,
    Huey Long and his impact on FDR, etc. Fortunately we were able to make inroads on that blissful ignorance thru the state museum system there.

    Reply
  3. Peter Evans

    Glen Curtis – There is an excellent PBS video program on Curtis produces by Binghamton Public Television
    Contact Gerry Smith, Broome County Historian, City of Binghamton Historian and President of the Association of Public Historians of NYS. Gerry was, I believe, instrumental in producing this history piece.

    Reply
  4. Robert H. Boyle

    Dear Dr. Dearstyne,

    Stimulating ideas. I am finishing the revision of my book The Hudson River, A Natural and Unnatural History for WW Norton which first published it in 1969 and followed with an expanded edition in 1979. I read with great interest your Perspective in the Times Union yesterday, and would very much like to talk to you about the history of water pollution in the state, along with another matter concerning the New York Central Railroad under Erastus Corning. I look forward to your reply, and I thank you in advance for your consideration.

    Sincerely,
    Robert H. Boyle
    Cooperstown

    Reply

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