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.

This year, NYSHA, the State Museum, the Archives Partnership Trust, and the New York Council for the Humanities teamed with Niagara University for a conference that featured a great variety of presentations and also highlighted a number of regional historical sites. Cooperation is a theme that scales down from this statewide conference effort to the work in every community – the more we cooperate, pool resources, and reinforce each other’s work, the more we can get done for the cause of history.

Dramatic commemorations of historical events. The Friday luncheon presentation by the Historical Association of Lewiston (the town where Niagara University is located) described two large scale sculpture projects documenting the town’s history. The first the Freedom Crossing Monument, connected with Margaret Goff Clark’s book Freedom Crossing, set in Lewiston, one of the final stops on one route of the Underground Railroad. The monument depicts a family of freedom seekers, Lewiston’s Underground Railroad “station master;” and a fictional character from the book, standing on the bank of the Niagara River at Lewiston. One of them is pointing across the river to Canada which meant freedom for escaping slaves. A rowboat is depicted at their feet, their means of transportation for what in a few moments will be their final escape across the river. You can see a live webcam feed of the monument on the Association’s website.

The second is the Tuscarora Heroes’ monument. It depicts Tuscaroras protecting Lewiston residents from an attack by British forces and their allies in December 1813, during the War of 1812. “Despite being outnumbered 30-to-1, the ‘Tuscarora Heroes’ were able to buy the escaping residents enough time to get out of harm’s way, and saved the lives of dozens of citizens,” says the description of the monument on the Association’s website This monument also has a live webcam feed.

They are both striking, vivid representations of dramatic events in a community’s history. Lee Simonson, who made the presentation for the Association, described both as cooperative ventures.

New York’s place in history. Sam Roberts, Urban Affairs Correspondent at the New York Times, in the conference keynote address, emphasized the leadership of New York, particularly New York City, in American History. For instance, New York served as the nation’s capital under the Articles of Confederation, 1785-1789, and as the capital of the new nation, 1789-1790. It was the place where George Washington was inaugurated, the new government was set up, and the drafting of the Bill of Rights took place. Roberts emphasized that New York’s leading role in U.S. history is sometimes eclipsed by other states, such as Virginia and Massachusetts, in part because New York’s historical story is richer and more complex, making it a challenge to interpret and explain. He gave examples from his intriguing book, A History of New York in 101 Objects, that demonstrate New York’s leadership and uniqueness.

“We tend to be preoccupied with the present, with one eye cocked on the future,” Roberts says in the introduction to that book. “But history, after all, isn’t really about the past. Our history is about who we are right now and where, as a society, we’re headed (just as an obituary isn’t about death but about life.). The goal is ‘effective history’ – history that informs the present, that helps understand New York and how New Yorkers understand themselves.”

The historian and history. Dr. Judith Wellman, SUNY Oswego Professor Emerita and Principal Investigator at Historical New York Research Associates, gave the Wendell Tripp Lecture, named in honor of long-time New York History editor Wendell Tripp. She discussed her long experience and work on the Underground Railroad, African American History, and women’s history. Her presentation emphasized the need for historians to pick topics that matter (to them, and to society as a whole); to understand history from the standpoints of people who made it; to use historical evidence imaginatively; and to bring insights from their studies into dialogs with today’s audiences on issues and topics where historical insights can enlighten the discussion and improve our understanding.

The role of local government historians. There was a session on “Models of the County Historian’s Office,” chaired by Broome County Historian Gerald Smith and featuring presentations by Catherine Emerson (Niagara County Historian), Peter Evans (Wayne County Historian) and William P. Tatum III (Dutchess County Historian). Other sessions also featured local historians, and I had an opportunity to talk with others during breaks. The session and the conversations confirmed the vital role of county and other local government historians; how much variation there is in their services and priorities (for instance, in how they approach research, public presentations, and working with the schools); how they work with government leaders such as county executives and county administrators; and the continuing need for more support.

The conference demonstrated once again the complexity and vitality of New York history. “Here is a really interesting story,” observed Dixon Ryan Fox, president of the New York State Historical Association in 1933. “Where is there a history more dramatic, more richly varied, more instructive? In every stage, it illustrates the history of the whole United States.” The sessions also confirmed the opportunities to keep exploring state and local history from new angles, with new insights and connections. “New York resists tidy conceptualization,” said the editors of The Encyclopedia of New York State. “The way to view New York State as a unified whole is by embracing its full complexity.”


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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

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