Making of Public Historical Culture in the American West, 1880-1910

Author: Laugesen, Amanda
This book is a study of the establishment and development of historical societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century American West. It concentrates on the people who created the historical societies of Kansas, Oregon, and Wisconsin, from the first charter generation through to the first generation of professional historical society workers. Through museums, libraries, involvement in historical celebrations and the making of monuments and markers, historical societies played a critical, and hitherto unexamined, role in shaping public historical consciousness in the American West. While the development of professional history in the United States at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century has been closely examined, few studies have adequately considered the role of those outside the academy in the process of history-making, and none have properly examined the role of the state of historical societies – this study fills in an important gap in our knowledge.


“ ... [this] work should provide a foundation for comparative studies of the practice of history. It is also to be hoped that this study will prompt historians to explore the relationship between state history and local historical societies.” – (From the Preface) Professor Ian Tyrrell, University of New South Wales

“ ... Americans have for too long taken their sense of nationalism for granted, seeing it as something that is fixed and innate. It took a scholar like Dr. Amanda Laugesen, working outside the U.S., to uncover the complex way in which American National Identity was often constructed from the ground up. Her stellar contribution is to examine in depth the activities of historical societies in several American states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” – Professor John Bodnar, Indiana University

“ Professional historians have often taken a rather condescending view of the activities of state historical societies in their formative years, … The strength of Dr. Laugesen’s book is that it recognizes the importance of these institutions in both defining an historical identity for their own communities and then linking that identity with the wider national epic.” – Dr. Greg Tobin, Flinders University
br "Laugesen’s discussion of the tension between founders, who were primarily antiquarians, collectors, or librarians, and formally trained historians, as historical societies matured, is especially useful. She presents a thoughtful analysis of the evolving professionalism that characterized historical societies as they were influenced by the methodology of science. . . . Laugesen’s main thesis, that western historical societies shaped public historical consciousness, provokes debate. Rather than acting as prime movers, a compelling counterpoint is that such institutions reflected the national ethos of the latter nineteenth and early twentieth century. Calls to settle the frontier and the Homestead Act; the lure of California gold and wealth; newspaper articles populated by gunslingers, lawmen, military campaigns against wild Indians on the one hand and great adventure on the other; dime store novels BOOK REVIEWS  127 of romance and adventure; Wild West shows and Fred Harvey Company tours advertising a western adventure, all spoke to the pioneering spirit, taming a land of great opportunity for the intrepid. The emergence of western historical societies viewed in the context of a new and exuberant America is, therefore, a natural outgrowth of shifting trends in American society that reinforce values deeply embedded in the pioneer experience. - Anne I. Woosley Arizona Historical Society

Table of Contents

Preface by Professor Ian Tyrell
1. Introduction
2. A Country to be Settled, A History to be Written
3. Temples of Knowledge and Scholars’ Workshops: the Evolution of the Historical Society, 1870-1910
4. Stories and Histories
5. Ambiguities of the Deep Past: Museums, Relics, and the Making of Knowledge
6. Inscribing Place: Historical Societies and Ephemeral Celebrations
7. Memorials, Monuments, and the Making of Public Historical Culture