Author Archives: Bruce Dearstyne

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.

The State Historian and the Future of New York History


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Seal of New York StateThe position of New York State Historian was created in 1895. The Historian was appointed by the Governor until 1911, when the position was moved to the State Education Department. Since that time, it has been located in a number of offices including the Office of State History (1966-1976), and since then, in the State Museum.

State Historians’ job descriptions and priorities have varied over the years as well. The first State Historian, Hugh Hastings (1895-1907), had been a New York Times reporter and concentrated on documentary publications. The next one, Victor Hugo Paltsits (1907-1911), a librarian and expert in colonial history, was known for meticulous editing of published editions and laid the basis for expanding the position into the area of archives. Alexander C. Flick (1923-1939) edited and led the publication of a multi-volume history of the state. Louis L. Tucker (1966-1976) held the titles of State Historian and Assistant Commissioner for State History in the Office of State History and, in the early 1970’s, was also Executive Director of the New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. Continue reading

Bruce Dearstyne on the State History Conference


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unnamed27-300x136The annual New York State History Conference, held at the end of June at Niagara University, demonstrated once again the robust diversity of the state’s historical community and its research, projects, and initiatives. There were many interesting sessions but I wanted to share impressions of five particularly interesting and important themes.

Cooperation. Paul D’Ambrosio, President of the New York State Historical Association, in welcoming conference attendees, emphasized the essential role of cooperation in sponsoring, organizing, and managing the conference. Continue reading

Entering the Post Civil War Sesquicentennial Era


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lithograph of the Battle of Gettysburg from the Library of CongressA recent article “Made in New York: The Empire State at War,” in the Albany Times Union by Civil War historian Bill Howard reminded readers of New York’s central importance in the Civil War.

Howard noted, among other things, that New York governor Edwin Morgan began mobilizing troops for the war even before the surrender of Fort Sumter, enlisted about 450,000 soldiers during the war (more than half of the state’s population under 30), was a major supplier of arms and other war materials. Howard analyzes several other New York contributions and concludes that “the war could not have been won without New York’s contributions.” Continue reading

Crises, Problems and Historical Insights


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Dorthrea Lange california migrants escaping the dust bowlHow useful are historical insights in addressing a state’s problems?

California is experiencing a historic drought so severe that Governor Jerry Brown has ordered a 25% reduction in the use of water with some exceptions, e.g., certain types of agriculture. As California endures this crisis, how helpful is historical insight in both understanding it and charting a way forward? So far, the results are mixed. Continue reading

The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Bicentennial


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Elizabeth Cady Stanton circa 1880It’s not too early to start planning for New York State History Month in November. One of the themes that the state’s history community might consider this year is reform in New York State. There are few better examples of a New York reform leader than Elizabeth Cady Stanton and November 15 is the bicentennial of her birth.

She was born Elizabeth Cady in Johnstown on November 15, 1815. She observed how the law treated women as subordinate to men through observing the work of her father, an attorney and judge. She derived a hatred of slavery and confidence in political change from her cousin, Gerrit Smith, who lived in nearby Peterboro. She married a leading abolitionist, Henry Stanton, in 1840, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton was always independent, opinionated, determined, sometimes headstrong, never resting. Continue reading

Corruption in the Legislature: A Sense of Déjà Vu?


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nycapitolThe indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges is the latest manifestation of corruption in the New York State legislature. Since 2000, about 25 state lawmakers have left office because of criminal or ethical issues. U. S. Attorney Preet Bhahara, who brought the charges against Silver, says the legislature is a “cauldron of corruption.” Governor Andrew Cuomo established a controversial, short-lived Moreland Commission to deal with corruption and has inserted an ethics package in his proposed budget to force the legislative reform.

Bhahara’s sweeping characterization of the legislature is exaggerated. Over the years, the New York’s legislature has been one of the most important in the nation, usually keeping our state at the forefront of minority rights, social reform, and progressive policies. Throughout history, though, there have always been a few corrupt legislators who violate the laws and public trust.  But legislative wrongdoing is probably no worse today than it was many times in our history. Continue reading

Last of the Mohicans: Fiction Trumps History


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First edition Last of the mohicansIn early February 1826, Carey & Lea, one of the nation’s most prominent and successful publishers, announced the publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. Cooper was already a best-selling author, widely hailed for presenting non-stop, exciting adventures set in the wilderness, wartime, or other bracing settings. Carey & Lea, hoping that his new book would do as well as his previous ones, had paid the author a $5,000 advance.

They were not to be disappointed. The Last of the Mohicans was an instant best-seller, reprinted many times, made into movies a number of times, and became one of the most important books in American literary history. Continue reading

Local History And The Power of Place


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teaching geographyThere is lots of discussion these days about the “power of place” – the importance of geography and the influence of locales and surroundings. The concept dovetails naturally with local history, which explores the historical development of communities.

New York is in an excellent position to explore the connection between the power of place and local history. Our state has hundreds of local historical societies and other public history programs and is the only state in the nation with officially designated local historians. Continue reading

The Fracking Report In Historical Perspective


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George Bellows - Up the Hudson (1908)Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision in December to ban the use of hydrofracking in New York State was politically astute. The governor asserted he is merely following the recommendations in a new report from the State Health Department, A Public Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development.

That report, based on four years of research, is also politically judicious. It avoids condemning hydrofracking or sensationalizing its potential health risks. Instead, it concludes that “the overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information” studied for the report demonstrates that there are “significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF [High Volume Hydraulic Fracking], the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impact which could adversely affect public health.” The 184-page report is buttressed by 74 references, mostly well-documented studies and reports from the past few years. Continue reading

Bruce Dearstyne: Mixed Message for NYS History


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Half Moon Dutch Ship SketchFour recent news items have pointed to the resource limitations that history programs face but also to the potential for new sources of support.

The first was the radio interview with Dr. Charles Gehring, the long-time translator of the Dutch colonial records held by the State Library and State Archives.  Gehring confirmed the immense historical research importance of these records. His discussion of the records’ value reinforced the importance of New York’s Dutch origins. Continue reading