Historians from the Past: C.W. Butterfield (1824-1899)

Butterfield from his book on George Rogers Clark

Early histories of the American Revolution in the west relied on oral tradition, local lore, legend, and even a bit of inventive myth-making as a young United States spread beyond the Appalachians and sought to develop its own, new identity.  Considerable effort, but not always the most rigorous methodology, often went into combining these sources into a narrative and telling an integrated story of how events in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston or London eventually affected communities “over the mountains.”   The first historians overlapped with the Revolutionary generation.   Often, the writers were children in the early 1800s and heard stories from veterans and settlers themselves (or their relations, descendants, and neighbors) in their old age.   

            A second generation came along in the mid-19th century.   The most notable was Lyman Draper.   He set out to write the definitive history of the war on the frontier, but ended up amassing the definitive archive.  While working on his never-published history, Draper crossed paths with Consul Wilshire Butterfield, who had moved to Madison, Wisconsin in part because of Draper’s success building libraries in the city and state.   Like many of his contemporaries, including Draper, Butterfield did not start as a professional historian.  Born in Oswego, NY, he moved with his family as a boy to Seneca County, Ohio in 1834, briefly attended school in Albany, and then took a brief tour of Europe in 1846.  The following year, he wrote a history of Seneca County, which was published in 1848, the same year he was elected the county’s Superintendent of Schools.  The job didn’t last long as he set out for California during the Gold Rush.  Rather than becoming a “Forty-Niner” he ran for Superintendent of State Schools, but narrowly lost.   Then it was back to Ohio, where he studied law, served briefly as Secretary of a Railway Company, and eventually opened a legal practice in Bucyrus, Ohio.   Along the way, Butterfield, who lacked much in the way of formal education but was clearly adept at learning, took the time to publish a book on punctuation.  Then, in 1873, the Cincinnati publisher Robert Clarke & Company issued Butterfield’s An Historical Account of the Expedition Against Sandusky Under Col. William Crawford, in 1872.   (The campaign’s climatic battle took place about 20 miles from Butterfield’s law practice.)  The book was a hit and the transplanted Ohio lawyer changed careers. 

            By the time Butterfield arrived in Madison in 1875, he was already working as an historian. For the rest of the decade, his access to Draper and the archive resulted in some of the best resources for America’s pioneer history, particularly during the Revolutionary War.  One of his first projects was organizing, collecting, and documenting George Washington’s activities on the frontier just prior to the war, eventually published as The Washington-Crawford Letters, which goes well beyond their correspondence and into a history of colonial America along the upper Ohio river.  Volumes on the history of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin, French exploration of the region, county histories, the infamous (among Americans) Girty family, and The Washington-Irvine Letters between the Commander in Chief in the Brigadier General William Irvine in the last years of the Revolution followed, along with articles in various periodicals.  In his mid-60s, Butterfield relocated to Omaha, Nebraska and soon produced A History of South Omaha before passing in 1899.  Additional manuscripts existed at the time and his history of George Rogers Clark’s Conquest of the Illinois and Wabash Towns 1778 and 1779 was published posthumously.  

            During his lifetime, Butterfield evolved as a historian.   His account of the Sandusky Campaign reads like a cross between the early efforts at story-telling and a serious attempt to separate fact from fiction but is poorly sourced and suffers from some of the methodological limits of its time.  His later work on the Girty family and his collections of letters from the frontier, however, clearly demonstrate the benefit of access to original documents and experience as an archivist.  They are more thorough—bewilderingly so, at times—and offer a more comprehensive look at specific elements of the war on the frontier.   Indeed, some footnotes run several pages as Butterfield offers a thorough explanation and context for the material.  Anyone wanting a better understanding of the war on the frontier would be well served to dig through them.   They are usually available on Internet Archive.

Further Reading:

W.H. Hunter, “Consul Wilshire Butterfield—Historian,” in Consul Wilshire Butterfield, History of George Rogers Clark’s Conquest of the Illinois and Wabash Town 1778 and 1779 (Columbus, OH: F.J. Heer, 1904).

Andy Osterdahl, “Consul Willshire Butterfield (1824-1899),” Politicalstrangenames.blogspot.com, April 24, 2018.   Available at: https://politicalstrangenames.blogspot.com/2018/04/consul-willshire-butterfield-1824-1899.html   Accessed April 21, 2021.

C.W. Butterfield, History of Dane County, Wisconsin (Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1880).   Available at: http://wigenweb.org/dane/biographies/butterfieldcw.html.   Accessed April 21, 2021.

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