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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 20, No. 4
December, 1942
HISTORY FOR THE PEOPLE1

By C. C. Crittenden

Page 411

Nowhere is the current popular interest in history more real than in the local field. That the study and knowledge of the history of the world or of a continent or of a nation may be broadening and significant, everyone will admit. But for arousing and maintaining the interest of the masses of the people there is nothing like the history of one's immediate locality. The Indian tribes of the neighborhood, the first white settlers, the early schools, the first railroads—these and scores of similar topics are of very real interest because they relate immediately and vitally to the lives of the people of a community. In planning a broad program of history for the people, we must realize that our greatest opportunity lies in the field of local history.

In developing such a program there are many things which we can do. First and probably most significant of all, we need to preserve the physical remains of our history. An old house, an early water mill, a battlefield, the remains of a fort—such things are real because we can see and touch them, because they are intimately associated with our own lives. We Americans have been all too neglectful of the care of such historic shrines, and it is high time we woke up and preserved those which yet remain. A good deal has been accomplished toward evolving the most suitable techniques for the preservation and care of historic sites and buildings. On the one hand there are wrong methods which are frequently worse than useless and which may actually defeat the purpose which they seek to accomplish. On the other hand there are suitable methods



Page 412

which can re-create the physical past to an astonishing degree. The organization which has probably progressed further than any other in this field is the National Park Service. By means of patient research, by a thorough study of available manuscripts and printed materials, by archaeological excavation, by the use of maps, by the preparation of dioramas, and by other methods this organization has pioneered in this line of endeavor.

Of course every community does not possess a great battlefield or other point of national historical importance, but there is not a community anywhere which does not have an old house (interesting architecturally if for no other reason), an old mill, or some other object worthy of preservation. Such a historic shrine can be made to serve as the focal point around which historical interests and activities in the community can group themselves, so that the efforts expended in its care and preservation can yield a rich harvest.

Next, the historical points in each locality need to be adequately marked. When such a program has been undertaken, the public is astonished to learn what a large number of important historic spots there are, and how much history has occurred in every locality.

We should plan and conduct suitable programs of archaeological work in our communities. These can re-create to an astonishing degree the life of bygone days—not merely the life of the Indians, but that of the white settlers as well. It is amazing to the layman how the archaeologist can make use of a few bits of pottery, some old beads, and other artifacts to make vivid for us the life of another generation. So successful have these accomplishments become, indeed, that by means of archaeological excavation we are able to learn more about certain phases of the historic past than we can ascertain by means of research in the written sources. We used to employ the term "prehistoric America" to depict the era before the coming of the white man, but now, thanks to the archaeologist and his work, we have at hand so much information that it is not unreasonable to expect to see the publication within the near future of a fairly complete history of America before 1492.

The work of the archaeologist is of peculiar local interest. The site of an Indian village, an Indian mound, or some other similar area is something which people can actually see and which thereby immediately attracts attention.

Closely connected with this phase of our work is the need for establishing and maintaining historical and archaeological museums, where the physical remains of our history can be cared for and displayed. The old type of museum was hardly more than a junk heap, with old guns, Indian arrowheads, spinning wheels, oil portraits, and innumerable other objects—anything, in fact, which was old—all thrown together in the utmost confusion. The result was that, as frequently as not, visitors were repelled rather than attracted.

Page 413

Today, largely through the influence of the American Association of Museums, new techniques and new methods have been adopted, dioramas and other effective devices for display have been introduced, objects have been grouped topically, and many other improvements have been made. As a result, today's up-to-date museum is no longer a funeral depository of everything old, but instead is a living, vital institution which plays a real part in the life and thought of the community.

In our local historical program, we should take care to preserve the written and printed sources of our past. In every community are old letters, official records of cities, counties, and other government subdivisions, newspapers, pamphlets, and other records which should be preserved, for they form the basis for the writing of history. If left in private hands such materials sooner or later are almost certain to be destroyed, and therefore they should be placed in fireproof depositories where they can be arranged, catalogued, and made available to the public. In every community there ought to be at least one agency which undertakes to perform the function of assembling and preserving the historical materials relating to that particular area.

Based upon the physical remains and upon the written records, a history of each locality should be written, covering in a thorough way the march of events from the earliest known times to the present. It should be accurate and in accord with the sources, but at the same time it should possess real human interest. Of course not all local histories can come up to the highest possible standards, but I believe that a large portion of them can do so. Not only this, but I maintain that such histories can be written by amateurs, for in most of our communities are persons entirely capable of writing first-class history. What they need, however, is direction, and fortunately there is a good prospect that within the near future one or more manuals on the writing of local history will be made available.

Meetings and conferences offer opportunities for those interested in history to exchange information and to give mutual advice and suggestions. Such sessions may occasionally be devoted to general or to national history, but most of them should be concerned primarily with local history. The genealogist and the information he has at his disposal may sometimes be fitted into such sessions, and there is the possibility of tying them in with the adult education programs which are currently in vogue.

Plays, pageants, and the celebration of anniversaries should figure largely in a local historical program. We all are attracted and held by the dramatic episodes of our past, and there are fine possibilities of developing popular interest in this way. To be most effective, such performances should be based upon thorough research and should emphasize figures and events of local signifi-

Page 414

cance rather than following the somewhat stereotyped scenes which are sometimes presented, showing the Indians, the early pioneers, covered wagons, and the like. Of course such topics will need to be included, but local events should be emphasized, those things which go to make the history of one locality different from that of its neighbors.

At Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island, in eastern North Carolina, is produced every summer, five nights a week, Paul Green's his- torical drama, "The Lost Colony." The product of careful research, it tells in a simple but very effective way the story of the colony sent over by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580's, which disappeared into the wilderness and was never heard of again. Played under the stars, on the very site where the colony settled, it is historical drama at its very best. During the four years of its presentation it has been viewed by more than a quarter of a million people. Some of you may have seen it. I hope that sooner or later all of you can do so.

The radio offers a field for developing a local historical program, though I must confess that sometimes I am disappointed at the results.

We all know, however, that radio programs can arouse a great deal of interest, and that they have been conducted successfully in the field of local history. We would do well to investigate the possibilities, if we have not already done so.

I have touched upon some, though by no means all, of the possible phases of a local historical program. The question, "Who is to conduct such a program?" need hardly be asked, for the answer is obvious—the local historical society or group in each community. If history is to be given a broader basis of support, if a program of history for the people is to be developed, then such a program must rest in large measure upon the support of these community historical groups. Just as local self-government must be the foundation of the democratic state, so local historical interest and activity must be the chief means of support of a general, popular historical program.

The possibilities in this field are infinite. Our history should be something of broad, general interest—not merely for the professional historians, not merely for the genealogists, not just for any other limited group, but instead for the people at large. There are opportunities in this realm of which we have only begun to take advantage.

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