Local histories

A lot of recent writing about the area of New York State that I live in describes it as a sleepy spooky backwater, material for horror stories or boredom with not much in between.

Some writers even let that current impression slide over into assumptions about the region’s past. Easy to do, but a disservice to the lively political, economic and social scene here that supported so many bookstores and theaters, elite tastes in fashionable dress, flashy carriages and fine interiors, and multiple newspapers in every county, as well as the churches, colleges and farms that remain.

Even the most successful of these towns were still backwaters relative to New York and Boston, and they peaked a long time ago, when the Erie Canal and the railroads made for easy money. Settlers from New England spent a few generations here before many of them headed West for the latest in cheap conquered land.

Amelia Bloomer was born in 1818, and spent her childhood in Cortland and Seneca counties. Unlike many of her more famous peers in the temperance and suffrage movements, she grew up in frontier villages, daughter of a small time mill owner and clothier. Families like hers had no connections to wealth or influence. No-one seems to have kept any of her letters until she was grown up.

To find the story of her childhood I have had to rely on her written memories, and on the little underfunded local historical societies that keep the history of their communities, history that is valued by small town history buffs and genealogists. They have microfilm of little early newspapers that exist nowhere else, and their staff hold central threads of a network of local knowledge that is often not available online or even in print. And they love to share, to pull out the files and boxes and explain how to navigate wonky little databases full of gems for someone like me.

I have to be careful though. The stories that local histories tell is a mix of fact, oral history, and random hearsay or imaginings. And like all history, they have often selectively served people’s need for validation, justification, and romance, alongside of, and sometimes in place of, fact. What do they want you to know and remember, and why? What do they dismiss, or leave out altogether?

This winter I learned about Dr. Jean M. O’Brien’s examination of how local histories have been a way for European Americans to assert their status and ownership in this country while promoting the myth of Native disappearance (book here, lively illustrated lecture here), and now whenever any local history refers to an event or place as “first” I get out the salt.

Dr. O’Brien’s reading included over six hundred New England local histories–my hat is off to her. I’ve only read a handful for my own project, including The History of Seneca Co., New York and etc, see below in all the fonts. Published 1876, when Bloomer was still in her prime, and the adjectives for the region were very different.