Local History: The Views of Rev. Wilson Waters (1910)

Rev. Wilson Waters. c. 1891 (Photo by Odin Fitz, courtesy of The Artemas Ward House and Its Collections, Harvard College Library)

On October 12, 1910, the Rev. Wilson Waters, B.D., read an essay about writing history at a meeting of the Lowell Historical Society. Wilson is the author of A History of Chelmsford, Massachusetts (1917, Courier-Citizen Co.) a book that had been started by Henry S. Perham, who died in 1906. Waters served for a time as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Chelmsford.  The title of Wilson’s essay is “The Writing of Local History.” Following is an excerpt from the essay, which appeared in full in The Contributions of the Lowell Historical Society, Vol. II, published by the Society in 1926 (the book was produced by the Butterfield Printing Company of Lowell). The title page of the collection includes a quotation by Young: “‘Tis greatly wise to talk with our past hours.”—PM


“History is the record of human activity, a memorial of consecutive public events. But public events result from the single or united action of individuals. History, says Carlyle, is the essence of innumerable biographies. Biography, the record of individual life, is one of the fruitful sources of history, especially of local history, which is of wider scope than biography, and is concerned with the life of a community of individuals; the parish, the town, the county. And local history furnishes much of the material for national, or even general, history. Local history is the root of national history. Biography, to most people is more attractive than history, because it brings us nearer to the individual, with whose life our life has something in common. There is something more concretely and intensely human in it. And ht emore of the human element you can bring into history the more interesting it will be; so in our day we want to know not only the manners and actions of Kings or Presidents, but also the manners, customs and arts of the common people.

“Local history naturally deals more with this everyday home life of the people than does general history, and therefore, to some people at least, local history is more interesting, and the interest increases in proportion to the personal associations we have with the locality with which the history is concerned. For instance, the general subject of taxation, or a statement of the amount raised, or of the method of raising it in a certain town at a certain time, may not be of interest to the ordinary reader, but if one can tell how a prominent citizen or officer of that town was imprisoned in Boston for not complying with the strict requirements of the Province law relating to that subject, interest is at once aroused. Local history holds hands with biography on the one side, because it has to do largely with individual interests; and on the other side with state or national history, because the interests and activities of the town merge into those of the larger community.

“History, of whatever sort, has to be constructed of such material as it is possible to collect for that purpose. Sometimes the resources are distressingly meagre; sometimes there is an embarrassing abundance of material. Then comes in the exercise of judgement in deciding what to use and what not. The first requisite is to have a clear idea of what we are setting out to accomplish, to get a bird’s eye view of the field, and then fix our limits, draw the outline, and select with discrimination what will best serve our purpose. Woodrow Wilson says that the matter should determine the plan, and not vice versa.

“The local historian should magnify but not exaggerate striking incidents which illustrate the times and the life of the people.

“Pick out the picturesque, the unusual. The newspapers are right, they seek for the unusual. The usual, everyday, humdrum routine is uninteresting, and to be taken for granted., although it should be touched upon. . . . “

One Response to Local History: The Views of Rev. Wilson Waters (1910)

  1. Mehmed Ali says:

    Fabulous! In many ways, there are no new ideas under the sun as they say and the idea of local history has been around a long, long time. Focus on the people and you will find the stories.