Chronicles of Oklahoma

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Chronicles Homepage
Search all Volumes
Copyright 2001
Purchase an Issue

Table of Contents Index Volume List Search All Volumes Home

Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 1, No. 3
June, 1923
THE PROGRESS AND POSSIBILITIES OF MISSISSIPPI VALLEY HISTORY1

Page 227

The dominant concept of the value of history at the present time is that of orientation. The representatives of the American Historical Association on the Joint Commission on the presentation of the Social Studies have recently expressed this concept as follows: "History places, and helps to explain successive stages in the development of mankind. It constantly extends backward the memory of living men and gives them a sense of perspective to aid them in forming their judgments on contemporary affairs. In the light of history our most valued social possessions are seen to be deeply rooted in the past but the world is viewed as undergoing a continuous process of adjustment and change." If this concept is true as applied to the subject matter of history it would seem to be equally applicable to historical work itself; that is, if we are to understand the present situation and tendencies and the possibilities for the future in the field of history, it is necessary to look backward and observe the developments in the past.

A comprehensive review of past activities in the field of Mississippi Valley history is not possible within the limits of this address but our purpose may be served to some extent by noting certain lines of development during comparatively recent years. Until about a generation ago professional students of history manifested little interest in state and local and even sectional history. They were wont to confine their attention to national and international affairs and to consign these other fields to the antiquarian. The historical societies of the Mississippi Valley. with one or two exceptions, were largely antiquarian institutions, performing, it is true, a valuable service for posterity in collecting and preserving some of the materials for the history of their communities, but having little conception of the scientific method in history. Largely as a result of the work of Professor Turner, with its emphasis on the importance of the



Page 228

frontier, of sectionalism, and of social and economic forces in the development of the American people, this situation has been materially altered. Realizing that the history of the people—social history—must be based upon a study of them in their local communities, the professional students in our colleges and universities have more and more recognized state and local history as suitable fields for scholarly research, while the societies have shown an inclination to recognize historical work as a profession requiring special training for its effective practice, instead of as an avocation suitable for the retired politician or journalist. As a result of this rapprochement of these two elements in the field of Mississippi Valley history, there has been a marked increase in their co-operation with each other; and this has improved the quality and increased the quantity of their work. The Mississippi Valley Historical Association itself is at the same time a result of this movement and a prominent factor in its development.

At the fourth annual meeting of this association twelve years ago, I had the privilege of reading a paper entitled, "Some Materials for the Social History of the Mississippi Valley in the Nineteenth Century."2 The point of view of this paper was that, if the scope of history is to be broadened to include all the activities of the people, "a corresponding broadening of the sources from which history is to be written is necessary"; and attention was called to certain classes of material of which little use had then been made. It is not likely that this paper had any appreciable effect upon the progress of historical activities, for most of the workers in the field probably were unaware of its existence. It may be permissible, however, to recall some of the suggestions included therein, as a means of indicating the progress which has been made in certain directions since that time.

The first class of material referred to was election statistics, and the statement was made that "in some states, and presumably in every state of the Mississippi Valley, an official manuscript record of all returns of elections is preserved in the office of the Secretary of State." The writer now knows that such official records have by no means been preserved in all the states, but the lack can be supplied to some extent from unofficial sources. The suggestion was made that these statistics should



Page 229

he made "available to scholars by the publication of accurate compilations together with maps illustrating all the more important elections." Since then such a compilation has been made for the state of Illinois, and it is understood that it will be published in the near future by the Illinois State Historical Library. For no other state, however, so far as is known, has anything of this sort been attempted.

Attention was next called to the importance of population statistics and the desirability of constructing series of population maps "in which the townships or other small divisions should be taken as units." The inadequacy of the published census statistics for the early periods, especially those of state censuses, was pointed out, and the publication of original schedules, when they have been preserved, was suggested. The value of nativity statistics for the study of the composition of the population of any given region is obvious, but unfortunately such statistics were not collected by the federal census before 1850. The suggestion was made, however, that by starting with the names of leads of families as preserved in the original schedules, it might be possible "to secure information about a sufficiently large proportion of the inhabitants of a district to, make possible reliable generalizations as to the nativity, or former residence, of the people of that district." Something of this sort has been attempted for Illinois in 1818, the year of admission to the Union, on the basis of manuscript schedules of a census of that year, and the results are embodied in one of the volumes published by the Illinois Centennial Commission.3 So far as is known no publication of census schedules for any of the states of the valley has been undertaken as yet; but attention of many of the state historical agencies has been called recently to the schedules of early federal censuses in Washington and some of them are securing photostatic copies of such as pertain to their communities. Publication will doubtless follow in the course of time.

The historical value and the condition of county archives in the Mississippi Valley, was another subject dealt with in the paper; and greater attention to the problem of their preservation, the compilation of detailed inventories, and ultimate "publication of some of the older and more important of the local rec-



Page 230

ords" were advocated. Here again Illinois has led the way with the compilation and publication a few years ago of such an inventory of the county archives of that state.4 One state outside the valley—California—has followed the example,5 and for one state in the valley a similar inventory of the archives of about one-quarter of the counties has been compiled but not yet published. Little improvement is apparent in the care of material of this sort; but one state—Colorado—has published, through its university, a volume of "Historical Collections" composed mainly of selections from the early records of one of its counties.6

The importance of the records of the occupation of land as an index to the westward movement was also pointed out. "It is certain," the paper stated, "that there are records in existence by means of which the date of entry of every legal subdivision of public lands could be obtained and on the basis of this information it would be possible to construct county maps, which might afterwards be consolidated into state maps, showing just what lands passed into private hands during each year or each five years or decade as might prove feasible." The records of the general land office at Washington, land records in state and county archives, records of land grant railroads, and even those of abstract offices were suggested as possible sources of the necessary information. A map of "Lands Entered in Illinois" prior to January 1, 1819, published in the introductory volume of the Illinois Centennial Publication illustrates the possibilities of work along these lines;7 but it remained for the Wisconsin Historical Society in its "Domesday Book"8 project to undertake the stupendous task of working out the relations of the people to the land throughout the history of the state in such a way that the result will be practically a history of the settlement and development of a large portion of the townships." Few other states are likely to be in a position to undertake a task so large as this in the near future, but there would seem











Page 231

to be no reason why similar, or even more intensive, investigations, based on the land records, should not be made for typical areas in each state.

The letters and reports of the representatives of home missionary and Bible societies, which, it was stated, would "throw a flood of light upon the development and social conditions of the western states and territories," are still, for the most part, hidden under a bushel in the storerooms of the American Home Missionary Society and similar organizations in the East or in the files of little known periodicals and annuals. Some of our historical libraries are now assembling large collections of the "proceedings, reports, year-books, and other publications of the different religious denominations," and occasional students of special topics delve here and there into the mass of unpublished documents; but, on the whole, this class of material remains even more inaccessible to the investigator than were the "Jesuit Relations" before the publication of Thwaites’ monumental edition.

With reference to other classes of material discussed in the paper, such as newspaper files and private papers, little can be said that is not already familiar to most of the workers in the field. All our collecting agencies are endeavoring to strengthen their collection along these lines, although in some cases it seems that more active search might be substitute for the passive policy of accepting whatever is offered. Current files of the more important newspapers are being preserved in historical libraries throughout the valley, except perhaps in two or three states; but the problem of storage space is becoming serious for the state institutions and the most feasible solution of it would seem to be the development of local depositories through the public libraries or local historical societies. The importance of the preservation of papers of men and women in the everyday walks of life, from which the student of social history could "draw information of great value about the ordinary life and experiences of the people and about the opinions of ordinary people upon questions of state," is not yet fully appreciated; and the same is true with reference to the papers of industrial and commercial establishments and the business papers of individuals.

Page 232

From this survey of the progress of history in the Mississippi Valley along certain lines during the last twelve years, it would appear that we have cause neither for elation nor for depression. Advances have been made, here in one field, there in another, but generally without much systematic planning and with little consideration of the valley as a whole as distinguished from its component states. And now, what of the future, what should be the main lines of attack during the next decade or two, where should the emphasis be laid? It seems to the writer that the principal desiderata of the immediate future are: More extensive and more systematic publication of the important sources, for the history of the valley and its subdivisions; increased cooperation with each other on the part of the institutions and individuals working in the field; and vigorous efforts to carry the gospel of salvation through a knowledge of the past to all who are capable of receiving it,—and their number is probably much larger than we are inclined to think. These three lines of endeavor are closely interwoven, each has its bearing on the others, and they cannot be adequately considered apart from one another.

Under the head of co-operation we may include not only the joint support of enterprises relating to the whole family or considerable parts thereof but also a readiness to pass on our ideas and experiences and to take advantage of those of others. The opportunity which our federal system offers for experimentation in government has often been pointed out; the same opportunity exists in the historical field; and when an idea is successfully developed in one state we should be ready to adapt it to the situation in the other states. Both of these aspects of co-operation can be illustrated by a consideration of the first desideratum mentioned, the more comprehensive publication of source materials.

For large sections of Mississippi Valley history the subjects do not lend themselves to division by states. This applies especially of course to the earlier period, but it is also true of many phases of our history after the state lines were marked out. What would seem to be needed therefore is some arrangement for the publication of such general material on a broader scale than can be expected from any single state institution. An illustration may serve to make the problem clearer. As a result

Page 233

of co-operative support on the part of individuals and institutions a calendar has been compiled of material in the French archives on Mississippi Valley history; and this, it is understood, is to be published by the Carnegie Institution. But a calendar is not sufficient. We ought to have a series of volumes containing in full not only all the important documents listed in this calendar, but also all important unpublished material to be found elsewhere relating to the period of French exploration and occupation. Much of the published material even should probably be included also, although, where the work has been adequately done, summaries and references might be sufficient. Other examples, such as the great mass of material on the fur trade, might be cited, but this will be enough to illustrate the point.

Several ways present themselves in which this problem might conceivably be solved. The method heretofore has been for state agencies to publish selections relating specifically to their own areas together with such general documents as seem to be necessary for interpretation of the others. The disadvantages of this plan are obvious; it does not provide the student of the general subject with a comprehensive collection of his sources and it involves great duplication of work. Our own association would seem to be the logical agency for the publication of material relating to the valley as a whole, and plans for work of this sort were made a decade or more ago, but the difficulties of financing have been insurmountable. A solution which seems to have possibilities is the following: Let each state institution interested in a given project set aside a sum from its publication funds to finance it; let the actual publication be carried out by the Mississippi Valley Historical Association or by an agency specially created for the purpose or even by one of the state institutions concerned, but for all the subscribers to the fund; and finally let the edition be divided among the subscribers in proportion to their subscriptions and distributed by each of them just as if the work were its own publication. Many details would have to be worked out, of course, but the general scheme is feasible if the spirit of co-operation is strong enough, if the desire to advance the cause of history can take precedence over the quite legitimate desire to enhance the reputations of our individual institutions.

While it is true that our state boundaries were arbitrary

Page 234

in their origin, nevertheless it is also true that the states have become political and to some extent social and economic entities; and there are, therefore, many phases of history, the materials for which group themselves naturally by states. Here then the opportunity for co-operation presents itself chiefly in connection with supplying information about documents relating to one state which may be known to workers in another and in sharing ideas and experiences with each other. When Texas publishes a volume of political platforms,9 when Illinois compiles a volume of election statistics, when Colorado brings out a volume of county records, when Wisconsin starts a constitutional series,10 should not those in charge of historical activities in the other states study these works carefully, note their usefulness and their defects, and consider the possibility of applying the ideas back of them to the situation in their own provinces?

But even more important than the consideration as possible models of single volumes and series produced by other states is the study of their general plans for the publication of the sources of their history, if they have any such plans. Here it seems to the writer that Illinois has pointed the way with a plan at once comprehensive, logical, and flexible. Other states have issued volumes which may be designed to fit out such schemes which have been held in abeyance, but there is still altogether too much haphazard in the publication of source materials by our historical agencies. The essential features of the Illinois plan are the grouping of the material into broad classes, chronological for the early period and topical for the later, with each series left open for later additions; the organization of each volume or group of volumes within the series as a well-rounded unit; and, most important of all, the search for and inclusion of all pertinent material, wherever it may be found. Those in charge of historical activities in the other states of the valley, and especially in those states where the publication of source material is still practically a virgin field, should familiarize themselves with this plan, if they have not already done so, and consider its adoption, with such modifications as might be dictated





Page 235

by local considerations and such improvements as they might be able to devise.

The opportunities for profitable co-operation are not, however, confined to the field of the publication of documents. The possibilities of co-operation in the search for and calendaring of source material are being illustrated by the work of the Conference of Historical Agencies in the Upper Mississippi Valley—an informal combination of historical institutions in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. For almost a decade these institutions have been co-operating in the search in the federal archives at Washington for material relating to their history, and as a result each has secured valuable calendars of documents relating to the history of its state and the surrounding region at a much lower cost than would have been involved if each institution had undertaken to do the work independently. Is it too optimistic to look forward to the formation in the near future of a number of such groups, varying in composition according to the content of the collections to be exploited? In some cases, as for example that of the missionary material already alluded to, all or nearly all the states of the valley are involved; and, when that is the situation, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association might possibly serve as the agency of co-operation.

The possibilities of co-operation through the exchange and adaptation of ideas are unlimited. When Iowa leads the way in the preparation and publication of mongraphic studies in the history of the state, let the other states profit by her example, although the situation in most of them probably makes it advisable that this field be cultivated in the main by the state university rather than by the historical society. When Illinois and Indiana establish historical surveys in their universities for the promotion of research work in the history of the state, let other states consider the feasibility of doing likewise. When Illinois, through her centennial commission, with the co-operation of the other agencies, produces the first comprensixe state history written by a group of professional historians,11 and Minnesota, through her historical society, brings out an extensive history of the state written by one man who combines the



Page 236

scholarship of the trained historian with many years of observation of the events with which he deals and of experience in some of them,12 let the other states consider these two plans and their results and work out if feasible such adaptation of one or the other of them as may suit the local situation. When Wisconsin undertakes an intensive study of the fundamentals in settlement and development, let the other states follow the experiment closely and consider what lessons it may supply to them. When Missouri succeeds in greatly increasing the number of her citizens who are interested in her past and organizes branches of the state society in local communities,13 let the other states inquire into the methods by which these results are secured. Above all, when a state legislature is persuaded to make a notable increase in its appropriation for historical work or a wealthy citizen is induced to make a liberal contribution, let us gather in solemn conclave to celebrate the event and find out how it was accomplished. All of us believe that we are original, of course, and some of us may have an aversion to following in the footsteps of others, but there is ample opportunity for originality in the adaptation of ideas to the local situations, and we should remember that the greatest work of original thinkers has usually been builded upon the foundation of the ideas and achievements of others. When every state in the valley has accomplished as much in every field of historical endeavor as has already been accomplished in that field by any other state, then indeed will there be great cause for rejoicing.

Whatever theories we may accept as to the functions of history, it is difficult to see how we can avoid the conclusion that the effective performance of its functions depends, to a large extent, in a democracy at least, upon the number of people brought within the circle of its influence. If, as we are wont to believe, a knowledge of the past is necessary for an understanding of present conditions and tendencies, then, since it is obvious that an enlightened general public is desirable, that knowledge should be diffused as widely as possible. If the development of historical mindedness or the critical spirit is one of the ends in view, it is clear that the advantage to the community will cor-





Page 237

respond somewhat to the proportion of its citizens who are affected. If cultural aims are considered,—the contribution of history to the fulness of individual life,—surely we should endeavor to make a knowledge of history available to all who are ready to accept it.

In any discussion of the value of history it is usually the development of mankind—world history—or at least national history that receives consideration. When we begin to think of carrying history to the people, however, we are confronted with the question of the relative value to them of different kinds of history, and a little thought will convince us that for the ordinary private citizen the history of his own state and that of his own local community are of at least equal importance with the broader phases of the subject. Surely an understanding of present conditions and tendencies in their own state or locality is for most people fully as important as an understanding of national and international affairs; and, if these affairs can be understood only through a knowledge of their origins and development, it is equally true that a state or a smaller community can be adequately interpreted only in the light of its history. That state and local history as well as national and world history has cultural value is also apparent when we consider how large a proportion of our contacts—the places we visit, the people we meet, the topics we discuss, the events we read about—are local in character and consequently call for a knowledge of local history for their fullest appreciation and enjoyment.

The principal medium for the dissemination of knowledge of state and local history has been and probably still is the publications of our state historical agencies. The documentary publications, which have been discussed in another connection, are as a rule of direct value only to special students; and with them accurate scholarship is the fundemantal criterion; but the general histories, the monographic works, and especially the periodicals should be in such form that they will appeal to the general reader. This proposition has been widely accepted during the last few years—some of the publications of historical societies now compare favorably in appearance and in style with those of standard publishing firms, and most of the historical magazines make their appeal primarily to the man on the street

Page 238

—but much state historical work still is badly written, carelessly edited, and crudely printed.

If these publications are to serve their purpose of carrying history to the people, obviously they must have a large circulation; distribution to a few hundred antiquarians and library exchanges is not sufficient. On the other hand, it is a waste of money to send them to large numbers of people who may have no interest in them and to libraries where they will be stowed away with "public documents." The solution is at hand, however, in the rapid increase in membership of the historical societies. There is scarcely an institution in the valley that has not doubled its membership in the last five years, and the indications are that the time is not far distant when membership in an historical society will no longer be evidence of queerness but rather the regular thing for everyone with intellectual interests. Still more people can be reached through distribution to schools and public libraries if the matter is properly handled. Experience has demonstrated that those in charge of such institutions value the publications more, take better care of them, and make more use of them if they have to pay a little something for them than if they receive them without cost. Some form of school and library membership or subscription appears, therefore, to be desirable.

Another method of reaching the people in large numbers, of interesting them in history, and of giving them some smatterings of useful or entertaining information is the publication of historical material in the newspapers. This, as a rule, has to be specially prepared for the purpose; and, if the preparation is left to the newspaper people, the results are sometimes startling; but there is unquestionably a great and growing demand for newspaper history on the part of both the editors and the readers. Several historical societies are now sending monthly press bulletins to most of the papers of the state; and the bits of history or news of historical activities, if they are skilfully written, are eagerly appropriated by a large proportion of the edi-

Page 239

tors. Any historical society has in its possession, moreover, material for an unlimited number of feature stories for the Sunday papers or serial sketches for the dailies. It may seem to some of us beneath our dignity to have anything to do with the sort of history that appears in the Sunday papers, but we may console ourselves with the thought that the historical feature article has made a place for itself and would probably be much worse without our co-operation than with it.

Still another avenue of approach to the public is the right kind of historical meeting. The type of meeting at which a few old settlers gather to discuss their recollections of pioneer days and to pay tribute to the departed must give way to broader affairs, with varied programs, including scholarly papers, popular addresses, discussions of historical work, and entertainment features, if the public is to be attracted. If such meetings are held in different parts of a state from year to year and are given adequate publicity, it will not be long before hundreds of people will come from all parts of the state to attend them. The American people have the convention habit and they like to ride around in their automobiles. As soon as they get accustomed to the idea, they will jump at the opportunity to join an historical tour of a state historical convention in a part of the state which, perhaps, they have never seen before.

Other methods of reaching the people and incidentally of giving publicity to the work of an institution are manifold. Lectures, individually or in series, talks to clubs and groups of various sorts, and even radio broadcasting are all worth while. The last of these has not been used for historical purposes as yet, so far as the writer knows, but one society has been asked by one of the principal broadcasting stations to supply twenty-minute talks on state history once a month and expects to start the service in a few weeks.

The subject of the teaching of state and local history in the schools is too big for adequate consideration in this address. It

Page 240

may be noted, however, that the principal reasons why these topics are generally neglected throughout the valley are the lack of material in a form suitable for use by the pupils or the teachers and the lack of adequate plans for handling the subject. The workers in the field of state history can help to remedy this condition by compiling textbooks, readers, and especially syllibi with topical references to accessible material. If these syllibi embody plans for the co-ordination of state and local with national history, they will be more likely to be used than if they propose the introduction of a new course in the crowded curriculum. There would seem to be no valid reason, however why our courses in American history should contain so much of the local history of New England and Virginia and so little of the history of our own states.

There is every indication that the present is a propitious time to strike for a great advance in historical interest and activities in the Mississippi valley. The increase in membership of our societies, and the increased use of our historical libraries—in one instance that use was five times as great in 1922 as it had been in 1919—are due not so much to the energy and enthusiasm of those in charge of state historical work as to the natural awakening and development in the people of an interest in and an appreciation of the value of history and especially of the history of their own states. Most of the states of the Mississippi valley have now reached the stage of comparative stability of their citizenry; and people with two or more generations of ancestors who shared in the development of their state naturally have a greater personal interest in its history than those whose family trail leads promptly back to an eastern state or to some foreign country. It may fairly be expected, therefore, that before many more years have elapsed interest in state history will be as keen and as widespread in the west as it has been for several generations in such older states, for example, as Massachusetts and Virginia. In part, also, this increased interest in history appears to be a result of the world war. That tremendous upheaval started multitudes of people on a search for the causes of present day events and conditions, and the re-

Page 241

sulting appreciation of history in general is readily extended to include the history of their own communities.

In our list of the principal desiderate in the field of the Mississippi valley history, one which is fundamental to all the others was not mentioned. That is, of course, more adequate financial support for historical work. If source material is to be published more extensively, if the publications are to be given a wider distribution, if so many more people are to be served in our historical libraries, if all the other activities which have been suggested are to be undertaken or developed, obviously more funds must be available for the work. The writer is an optimist in this matter, however. The situation resolves itself into a circle, and not a vicious one either—perhaps a spiral would be a better figure. Increased activities result in increased interest, increased interest results in increased support, and increased support makes possible still greater activities. In the last analysis, the financing of historical work depends entirely upon the interest of the people, as manifested directly and individually in their contributions, and indirectly and collectively in the appropriations of the state legislatures. When the people are fully convinced of the value of history, the incomes from both these sources will materially increase, just as they have increased for the more formal educational work of the schools; and there is reason to believe that they can be supplemented with appropriations from counties and cities for local historical work. Perhaps the time will come when our universities will train men and women for positions as county historical agents, just as they now train county agricultural agents.

And while we are considering ways and means of financing historical work, let us not forget our own Mississippi Valley Historical Association. This association is now a going concern, with sixteen years of valuable service to its credit; its magazine is unquestionably the most important periodical devoted entirely to American history; and its various activities have served to stimulate the workers and to improve the quality, not only of research and publications, but also of the teaching of history, throughout the valley. Its possibilities of service are limited only by its funds, or rather, lack of funds. That it has been able

Page 242

to accomplish so much has been due, in the main, to the sustained energy and enthusiasm of a few individuals. If all those who have the interest of history in the valley at heart will do all in their power to promote the association, its effectiveness will be increased manyfold in a very short time. Let us then, in the language of George F. Babbitt, "boost" the Mississippi Valley Historical Association; let us "tell the world" what it has done, is doing, and could do; let us "put over" a membership campaign that will "get somewhere"; let us build up an endowment fund that will enable the association to expand its activities. If we will do this, those of us who are working primarily in state history will find the path made easier in that field also, and all of us will find that we have increased our opportunities for effective work.

SOLON J. BUCK.

Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Return to top


Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site