Methods of Securing Information for Local History

By Dwight Goss
Read by Mrs. Goss at the midwinter meeting of January, 1907. Mr. Goss died in 1909. See sketch, Mich. Pion. Hist. Colls., Vol. XXXVII, p. 693.

The chief mine of information for writing local history is the files of old newspapers. These are not only original sources of information, but of inspiration. They echo town talk. It is not only the news they give, but the news they omit, which is important to the careful student. For example, the local newspapers of Michigan from 1840 to 1860 are filled with national political news, letters from Washington, abstracts of speeches made in Congress, stories of public men and items of national politics. State politics and local matters are conspicuous for their absence, all of which goes to show that in those days Michigan people thought and talked about national affairs much more than they do now. They debated State rights and the slave power, and at all times and on all occasions discussed national political parties and policies. They carried national politics into social and business affairs. They were reluctant to associate and affiliate with their political opponents. We know this not only from our elders and tradition, but we see it in old newspapers which give such importance to men in public life and to national politics. The Civil War may have come to this State as a sudden outbreak and a surprise, but its volcanic fires had been burning for a generation in every hamlet and at almost every hearthstone of Michigan.

The observing student can see much in the advertisements of old newspapers. He will see what were the articles of trade, what people ate, drank and wore, what were their medicines and toilet articles. From old time-tables and travelers’ guides he will see the lines of communication and the routes of travel ; he can learn of streams then navig-able, now unused; he can see how people amused themselves; from business cards and advertisements he will learn much about schools and churches, and lawyers and doctors, and preachers and teachers, and the business and progress of the community. Take a newspaper of to-day and compare it with those of 1896, 1886, 1876, 1866, 1856, 1846, and each will, in its news, its advertisements, its editorials, its market reports, its headlines and its general makeup, give a vivid picture of its date of issue.

Other sources of original information for local history are public records and court records. The city records and proceedings of the Common Councils are full of interest to the antiquarian.

The county records and Circuit Court records of every county are full of interest to the careful student. The court-houses always have much history within their walls. The probate court records furnish much from which history can be gleaned. Pioneers and citizens die and their affairs pass through either the courts or probate court and become matters of record. Dates and details of deaths and marriages and many other events can often be obtained or verified at the court-house.

Published reports’ are of great value to a local historian. Annual reports from the boards of schools, police, fire commissioners, health, public works, controllers and superintendents of the poor, in fact all public reports can be read with profit.

City directories, usually found on the shelves of the local public libraries, give much good and accurate information, and are complete annual directories. A directory gives not only names but residences and business places. A prominent old citizen may say that he commenced business or quit business on a certain corner in a certain year, while the city directory for that year or the following year may not agree with his statement. Generally the directory is right and the memory of the old citizen wrong.

Biographical sketches found in local histories, publications, news-papers and trade papers are valuable sources of information for writ-ing local history. History can be written from biography. Local history, as well as general history, is made up from the lives of men.

An interesting source of information for local history is the letters and keepsakes which nearly every old family has of its members. There are account books, invitations, journals, pictures, programmes, news-paper clippings, and even pieces of furniture in many households which tell much of local history. Often they are too sacred for profane eyes, but if the historian and antiquarian has enthusiasm and tact he can generally unlock the secret drawers of family history and find much of public interest. Personally, I have had many pleasant hours and obtained much historic information in looking over family records and keepsakes in Grand Rapids.

One great source of information and inspiration for local history is living men and women who lived in the community long ago, but as every lawyer and careful historian knows the human memory is not always trustworthy. It may give good general impressions, but is often false in details. Again, human narration is generally more or less colored by prejudice, self-interest and conceit. Nevertheless, reminiscences can be used to good advantage by the student of local affairs. However, statements of that character should always be verified,, if possible. There is more than one old settler in every town whose narration of past events is a source of inspiration in giving color to local history, but whose memory of dates and details is not to be depended on.

Family traditions are seldom reliable except to give color. The grand-father who tells what his grandfather said to him when he was a child generally has more imagination than truth in the story; yet the story may give a picture of great historic value, if discrimination is exercised in its use.

A diary is an excellent source of original information for local history. The citizen who keeps a diary or journal should be known to every student of local history. Of course diaries are personal in their character, but their very personality makes history, and gives views of life that cannot be obtained from books, and are not preserved in tradition.

I have related what I have found of chief value in writing local history. Allow me to make some suggestions for the benefit of the persons who will write local history in the future : let every copy of every news-paper, trade paper, magazine and publication in the nature of a news-paper,[1]In Kansas the editors each send a copy of their papers to the Historical Society and this action makes them members. These files are preserved. A few years ago when a room belonging to this society … Continue reading trade paper or magazine hereafter published be carefully kept; let every such publication of the past be collected and preserved. They make history.

Let every public report from any public body, public board, public officer be preserved; nay, more, let every report from any church, society, fraternity or organization of the community be preserved. It is.”history. Public and official reports and proceedings of official bodies may not be as interesting reading as newspaper reports, but they are more accurate. If the future historian has both before him he can write good history.

Let programmes and menus of banquets, balls, suppers, dinners, entertainments and other social functions be filed. They will tell our grand-children how we entertain and are entertained, what we eat and drink, how we behave in public and among our friends. Local historical societies or libraries could cooperate with printing establishments and secure copies of such announcements and have them filed and indexed.

This is an age when illustration is demanded and is easily obtained. Photographers, amateur, trade and professional, are found everywhere. Every event of public interest almost every event of private interest has its picture taken. All such pictures should be preserved for their historic value. Every public library should have a picture department of local people and events. In a few years it would have great importance. I would suggest that such, a department be started in historical socie-ties and public libraries and all local photographers be invited to donate copies of their pictures of local events, landscapes and groups of people.

There are many collectors in every community whose names and collections should be indexed for reference. Every historical society should know the autograph fiends of its neighborhood, the collectors of old furniture, the numismatists, the bibliomaniacs ; in short, all the faddists, cranks and collectors of the community. They are all akin to the students of history and their collections have historic value.

It is the commonplace things of today which make history and romance for the future. The appearance of our streets, the views of our towns, the pictures of our residences, ourselves, our friends, our everyday life are to us so common that they have no value, but in the years to come they will have worth beyond price. What would we not give for a true picture of a Greek theater, a Roman triumph, a Jewish home, an ancient banquet, a Puritan wedding, Grand Rapids or Detroit at the advent of the first white man, the main street of the town Fourth of July with its first procession? What would we not give for a detailed account of a week from the life of Socrates, Caesar, Cromwell, Washington or an early settler of Michigan? In the centuries that have passed, history was a record of public men and political events; history is now a record of all people and all forces that work for civilization, progress and righteousness.

The records of the Michigan Pioneer Society are full of local history. There are articles by local writers from nearly every county of the State. In the collections can be found plenty of material for teaching history and inspiring students. It is not necessary to go to great libraries to write history; it is not necessary to go abroad for inspiration. It is not necessary to become a student in an advanced class of a great university if only to learn how to use original sources and obtain a literary style; it is not absolutely necessary to sit at the feet of the great masters; all these are aids, but if you wish to study and write about local affairs, paraphrase the good old motto of Michigan, “If you would write good local history, look about you.”

Source: Collections and Researches made by the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, vol. XXXVIII. Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., State Printers, Lansing, Michigan, 1912.


1In Kansas the editors each send a copy of their papers to the Historical Society and this action makes them members. These files are preserved. A few years ago when a room belonging to this society was taken by another department a complete file of the Niles Mirror was sold by the state for paper rags. In 1905 a complete set of this paper was offered the society for the reduced price of $500.

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