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.
Continue reading “Historians from the Past: C.W. Butterfield (1824-1899)”