New York State History in the Post-NYSHA Era


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New York missed its 240th birthday on April 22, the date the first state constitution was promulgated and the state came into existence in 1777. There were no official commemorations so far as I know. This would have been a particularly opportune time for attention to the state’s founding document since New Yorkers will be voting in November on whether to authorize a constitutional convention to revise or replace the current one. This fall would be a good time to commemorate other events, including the election of the first governor and legislature and the launching of the state’s government in the first capital, Kingston, by the end of 1777.

These potential opportunities to promote state and local history point again to the need for a statewide history association, committee or group to supplement the excellent work being done by the State Historian, the State Museum, the State Archives and other public history programs.

Maybe what we need is something to replace NYSHA.

NYSHA — the New York State Historical Association — ceased to exist in March 2017 when the Association was renamed the Fenimore Art Museum by action of the Board of Regents, following a request by NYSHA’s governing board.

But other than John Warren’s very informative April 2 post on the end of NYSHA, the loss of the state’s only statewide history membership organization has not received much attention, even in the state’s history community.

Studying NYSHA’s own history may help historians to chart the future course for the historical enterprise in our state.

The founders’ vision – 1899

NYSHA was established in 1899 in Caldwell (now Lake George) by a group of men (mostly historians, but including some businessmen and civic boosters) who were mostly interested in colonial and early state history, particularly in the Lake George-Lake Champlain region. Its original articles of incorporation defined five purposes:

1. To promote and encourage original historical research.
2. To disseminate a greater knowledge of the early history of the State by means of lectures, and the publication and distribution of literature on historical subjects.
3, To gather books, manuscripts, pictures and relics relating to the early history of the State, and to establish a museum at Caldwell, Lake George, for their preservation.
4. To suitably mark places of historical interest.
5, To acquire by purchase, gift, device, or otherwise, the title to, or custody and control of, historic spots and places.

NYSHA was first headquartered in Ticonderoga. In the first few years, its main activity was an annual meeting where papers were read and later published in a journal it initiated, the Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association. Its first president, James A. Roberts, was a businessman. At its first public meeting, in 1901, Roberts explained the Association’s purpose was to promote New York history, particularly in light of the fact that it was too often overshadowed by that of other states, particularly Massachusetts.

“To no other State in our Union can the student turn with greater assurance of learning useful lessons, than to our own imperial Commonwealth [New York],” Roberts asserted. “…the history of New York cannot fail to be full of the most important lessons.”

Noting the existence of many vibrant historical societies across the state, Roberts expressed a vision for NYSHA’s mission to connect and strengthen them.

“Our purpose was the more ambitious, perhaps presumptuous, one to do for the State to some extent what these local societies have done so well for their communities ; to be the connecting link between them ; to collect and preserve everything of interest relating to our State history (and that necessarily involves all relations of our State with the general government). We do not purpose to interfere with, but rather encourage, the work of our local societies. Our aim, rather, will be to expand local work; to show its bearing on the State or the Nation; to collect and preserve all that we can which will illustrate not only the patriotic efforts of our Commonwealth, but also her advance in arts and sciences, her change in customs, thought and beliefs. While we cannot expect to cover thoroughly so wide a field, yet we feel sure that by concerted effort we can add something of interest and value to history and hand down some things worthy of remembrance.”

But Roberts went on to explain that NYSHA had another purpose, taking New York out from under the shadow of the history of other states, particularly Massachusetts. After relating a number of New York’s exploits in the Revolution, he explained why New York seemed adept at making history but Massachusetts so effective at writing it:

“I think it can be very well said that New York lacked the skillful chroniclers of her events which New England possessed. In the Colonial period and in the early days of the republic, the people of New York were very busily engaged ‘laying the dark foundations deep’ of that industrial and commercial supremacy, which she has since so fully attained, not only by developing and seeking the opportunity, but by cultivating the habit and spirit. In the mind absorbed by business, a capacity for literary work is seldom found. In New England, on the contrary, from the very beginning there was a distinct scholarly and literary class, who were not satisfied, after some stirring event to hasten return to counting-room, farm or factory, as the New Yorker did, but whose exultation or indignation found expression at once in a fitting written memorial.”

NYSHA evolves

Of course, NYSHA soon expanded.

Beginning in 1911, it began holding its annual meetings at various sites around the state. The papers read at the conferences expanded to all time periods in New York history and statewide political, moral, intellectual and religious topics. Later, it sponsored or co-sponsored an annual state history conference. Its Quarterly Journal evolved into the journal New York History and began soliciting and publishing research papers on all aspects of state history.

In 1939, it accepted an offer from philanthropist and collector Steven C. Clark to move to Cooperstown. It established a research library, operated Seminars on American Culture in the summer, offered programs to train teachers in state history, sponsored a statewide network of Yorker Clubs to stimulate interest in state and local history in the schools, hosted National History Day, and published or co-published a number of scholarly works. The Cooperstown Graduate Program in museum studies was cofounded with SUNY Oneonta.

At its height, it was one of the most diverse and robust state history programs in the nation.

But beginning about twenty-five years ago, its interests shifted to art, southwest Indian culture, and other areas. Resources were forthcoming to support them. Resources for New York history were less available and less plentiful. NYSHA began to scale back on or discontinue New York history-oriented activities. In effect, it faded into the Fenimore Art Museum, and the name change last March completed the transition.

Looking to NYSHA for historical insights

This brief review of the founders’ vision and NYSHA’s evolution suggests several themes:

  • Founders’ visions are important. But they are not binding on the future. A history organization begun for one purpose, or to concentrate on a particular geographical area, can later expand, or shift. It may find it easier to change than public history programs. For instance, NYSHA became a major force in promoting state history in the schools, something not envisioned by its original charter.
  • Strong leadership counts. NYSHA’s dynamic evolution and robustness over the years are due in part to a number of strong directors.
  • A private membership-based organization such as NYSHA can cooperate with and supplement the work of government history programs. Over the years, NYSHA cooperated closely with a series of State Historians, including a 10-volume history of the state published in the 1930’s under NYSHA auspices and edited by State Historian Alexander C. Flick.
  • An organization like NYSHA can serve as a broad tent for all historians. It can, for instance, sponsor a scholarly journal (like New York History), a popular history magazine (which it did for many years), conferences that bring together historians from various backgrounds, and social studies and history teachers in the schools.
  • It could help coordinate statewide activities, e.g., New York State History Month.
  • An organization like this can serve as a model for other historical programs and similar programs and can help coordinate and strengthen their work, part of Roberts’ original vision, as noted above.
  • A private organization can, if it wishes and its legal authorization or chartering permits, lobby the legislature to support history programs and/or urge others to lobby and help coordinate their efforts.
  • Benefactors are highly desirable and important. Horace Moses, a wealthy owner of paper mills, provided NYSHA’s first headquarters in Ticonderoga. The Clark family, beginning with Steven Clark and continuing to his granddaughter Jane Forbes Clark, provided substantial resources for NYSHA. But this also means that the organization needs to be attuned to their interests and priorities.

Finally, just to return to the reference to John Warren’s post on the demise of NYSHA noted above, this is another example of where The New York History Blog gets the news out.

It is essential in playing this role, in providing a forum for programs to report on their efforts, in furnishing an opportunity to share history stories, and in encouraging and supporting discussions of how to strengthen the state’s historical enterprise. The New York History Blog performs an invaluable service.

It is another reminder of the need to support this site.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at dearstyne@verizon.net.

One thought on “New York State History in the Post-NYSHA Era

  1. Peter Evans

    What will or has happened to the excellent research library at NYSHA in Cooperstown?
    It is about a three hour drive for me or I would have used it a great deal more than I have.

    What will happen to the Farmer’s Museum?
    My wife and I loved it when we were middle school students and our children did as well.

    Many people and organizations donated a great deal to NYSHA based on their original mission, goals and actions, can they just decide to turn and head in a totally different direction?
    Why has the NYS Education Dept’s Chartering Commission sanctioned this change?

    I must assume that like my hometown historical society, much of their holdings actually are the property of the NYS Museum. Must they now make arrangements to send all these items and materials to the Museum in Albany?
    I believe there is a provision in the law that states that everything a chartered historical organization holds is ultimately the property of the NYS Museum.

    Is this being reviewed with them (NYSHA)? There is a certain level of public responsibility and accountability….isn’t there? This is the approach I take here in Wayne County when helping guide our historians, chartered historical agencies and museums.

    Reply

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