Bruce Dearstyne: Remembering and Forgetting History

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NYS MapGovernments are often challenged in developing policies about what to emphasize in public history programs such as statues and commemorations, and what to leave out, neglect, or relegate to the shadows. A few examples that may be of interest:


In March of this year, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill to prevent local governments from taking down monuments to the Confederacy. The issue is a sensitive one, especially so this year. McAuliffe framed it as an issue of the state needing to let communities decide on a case-by- case basis.

“There is a legitimate discussion going on in localities across the Commonwealth regarding whether to retain, remove, or alter certain symbols of the Confederacy. These discussions are often difficult and complicated. They are unique to each community’s specific history and the specific monument or memorial being discussed. This bill effectively ends these important conversations.” The veto sidetracked the bill, but as press reports indicated the discussion is likely to continue in Virginia and other southern states.


In Alexandria, Virginia, there has been a discussion over the past year or so about whether to rename Jefferson Davis highway, a main street in the city, and whether to keep a monument in the city to Confederate soldiers. The city council appointed a task force to advise and make a recommendation to the city. The task force’s report, released a few days ago, is worth reading by anyone interested in historical memory issues. It has a good discussion of various sensitive issues, concluding by recommending that the name of the street should be changed, but the statue should stay but “with additional efforts made to add context to its story.” The statue should be treated as “part of a complex story as one of many historical assets we offer as a witness to the American experience.”

In a key passage, the report says: “…it is important that we follow a principle of preserving authentic historical fabric of the statue where it is, but to enhance it with a better effort to offer the inclusive “why” of the context of the war and take an “additive” instead of “subtractive” approach to interpreting our city’s history and experience. We do (and have done so as a city) a poor job making the Civil War explicable beyond pointing at a spark and obvious open wound. The war was and is an important thread in our ongoing local and national history, and we must understand it through treating it in the entirety of our national story. This, in turn, requires we preserve the few authentic assets we have, yet amplify the complete story better than we have.” The report is an advisory one, and the discussion is expected to continue in the City Council, and in the Alexandria community generally.


These are difficult, potentially divisive, issues, requiring a good deal of sensitivity. Fortunately, we don’t seem to have any comparable controversies in our state, at least not right now. But New York, too, is selective in which history it thrusts into high prominence, and which it neglects. For instance:

* We regularly, and rightly, celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day, But New York ignores its own birthdays — September 8 (the day in 1664 that the English took over from the Dutch and New Netherland became the English colony of New York) and April 22 (the day in 1777 when the first state constitution was proclaimed in Kingston, in effect, calling the State of New York State into existence).

*We are preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the Erie Canal next year, 2017. That is certainly appropriate, given the canal’s importance. But we usually emphasize the early history of the canal, up to the last part of the 19th century. What the state now calls the Erie Canal is not the original canal. It is actually the Barge Canal, completed in 1918, and named for its capacity to accommodate large freight barges. It follows some of the Erie’s original route, but is mostly separate, for instance, following the canalized Mohawk River, which the Erie bypassed, going through Oneida Lake (which the original canal also bypassed), and bypassing the cities of Syracuse and Rochester, which the Erie traversed. The original Erie Canal had 83 locks; the Barge Canal, only 36.

We could commemorate or at least mark three dates that usually pass unnoticed:

– November 3, 1903 — the day when voters approved a $101 million bond issue to construct the new canal, the largest issued by any state up to that time

– June 1, 1905 — groundbreaking for the Barge Canal at Waterford

– May 15,1918 — the date when the Barge Canal opened.

The Barge Canal has received preliminary approval from the National Park Service for designation as a National Historic Landmark, a process that should be formalized and finalized by the end of this year. The early Erie has lots of written histories; the Barge, very few. Among the most useful is the early official history which is available online, Noble E. Whitford’s 1921 History of the Barge Canal of New York State, and Michele A. McFee’s A Long Haul: The Story of the New York State Barge Canal (1998).

Over the course of New York history, railroads have probably had a greater impact — moved more freight and people and reached more communities — than New York’s canal network. There are histories of individual rail lines but no history of New York railroads overall. We might select August 8, 1831 as a date to commemorate, the initiation of the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad. It was America’s first passenger trip on a railroad pulled by a locomotive. It ran between Albany and Schenectady, intended as a convenience for canal passengers, who saved time by not having to take the much slower route via the canal, which included a number of locks. Ironically, the engine was named the DeWitt Clinton, and soon the railroad network would make his Erie Canal obsolete.

Beyond that, it could be argued that New York’s roads and highways have done more to transform the state than either the canals, even including those beyond the Erie or Barge, or the railroads. But the history of highway transportation is even more scarce than that of the modern canal or railroads. Among the most notable works are Michael R. Fein’s Paving the Way: New York Road Building and the American State, 1880-1956 (2008). If we were looking for actions and dates to commemorate, we might pick March 24, 1898. On that day, Governor Frank Black signed two bills, known by their sponsors’ names as the Higbie-Armstrong Act and the Fuller-Plank Act, which provided for state highway construction upon petition from a county board of supervisors on a cost-sharing basis among the state, county, and localities. It was state government’s debut in building the state’s highway network.

* We New Yorkers are rightfully proud of our policies to protect the children of the state. We could celebrate on April 15. That is the day in 1903 when governor Benjamin B. Odell signed what came to be known as the Finch-Hill Factory Act, banning children under 14 from working in factories. It was one of a suite of strong bills passed by the legislature that spring that also restricted child labor in department stores, telegraph office, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses and that gave New York its first effective school compulsory attendance law. Odell, who served from 1901 to 1905, one of New York’s least remembered governors (often overshadowed by his colorful predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, and his successor’s successor, progressive reformer Charles Evans Hughes), provided critical but quiet support to get the bills passed. (Odell also doesn’t get much historical credit for signing the bill establishing the first state labor department, in 1901.)

* Issues pertaining to race relations and individual rights are much in the news these days. We could commemorate, or at least note, March 12. On that day, in 1945, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey signed the nation’s first state civil rights law. It was a momentous event, with the governor using 22 pens to sign the bill before 200 onlookers in the Red Room in the Capitol. The new law would give “living reality to the great principles of our culture,” he said.


Another exciting initiative to watch is the development of the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. The Hall will open next year, the 150th anniversary of confederation and establishment of the Dominion of Canada. It has been under development since 2012, including specialized advisory committees, consultation with community groups and stakeholders, and even some “crowdsourcing” where people could suggest themes and topics by logging onto a special website. Its managers are building expectations and excitement and even have a countdown clock on their website with days/hours/minutes/seconds to opening next July.

The blog on their website is particularly interesting for New Yorkers and others for its insights into how the planners are going about the challenges of deciding what to include and how to present the nation’s history. There are discussions of behind-the- scenes planning and development. In a blog entry last year, Museum planner Patricia Corrigan framed the challenge this way: “The Canadian Museum of History has embarked on an ambitious and exciting new project: to develop an exhibition that tells the stories of our country, what it is and how it got to be that way. Through sharing the stories of our past, the new Canadian History Hall will show that Canada’s past is still relevant today, and that our history is all around us. It is our mission to collect the stories of the diverse and varied experiences of the real people who lived on this land and to share them with Canadians across the country.”

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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

4 thoughts on “Bruce Dearstyne: Remembering and Forgetting History

  1. Tori

    Let’s not forget the original Champlain Canal….constructed 1818 – opened 1819 – (officially opened 1823?)

  2. Roy Clement Jr

    Talk about forgotten history what about history deliberately forgotten such as the Confederate Prisoner Of War Camps in the Town of Clay and Cicero where death rained supreme especialy in the Town of Clay I guess I’m going to have to kick The Town of Clay in the A@@ like my father told me to do.


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