County Histories and Historical Records

I was pleased to read a new column by David Parker, professor at Kennesaw State University and friend to Reinhardt’s history program. Happy archives month!

County histories remind us of need to preserve historical records

In 1929 the Georgia General Assembly passed a resolution urging counties to compile their histories in honor of the state’s upcoming bicentennial (in 1933, 200 years after the founding of Georgia in 1733). More than 100 counties appointed official historians, and nearly three dozen published their histories. These books varied, but they typically included chapters on geography and natural resources, Native Americans, the Civil War, churches, schools, newspapers, and so forth.

Among the authors of these books were teachers and lawyers, preachers and journalists, school superintendents and county court judges, and leaders of local historical or patriotic societies. The published histories tended to be long—an average of nearly 500 pages, from Schley County’s 33 pages to Upson’s 1,122. Many of those pages consisted of census records, military rosters, lists of county officials, and reprints of newspaper articles. Some books had lengthy biographical sections, with histories of prominent individuals or families. Many included general sections on life in the old days—quilting bees, militia days, barn raisings, corn shuckings, log rollings.

David Kyvig and Myron Marty, authors of Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You (1982), noted that the county histories written in the early 20th century tended to be “long on local pride and short on critical observations.” The first part of that formula was certainly correct. The title page of the Coffee County history explained that the book was “a story… showing that Coffee County, in South Georgia, is God’s Country and a good place to live.” Walker County residents were “a hardy, brave and patriotic citizenry,” and those of Chattahoochee were “splendid men and women… whose lives are a credit to the civilization of America.”

The books were certainly “long on local pride,” but were they “short on critical observations”? In many cases, yes. A number of the county historians uncritically embraced Lost Cause ideology, a historical perspective that downplayed the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War, overstated the support of white southerners for the Confederate cause, and distorted the nature of Reconstruction.

Perhaps the Lost Cause is most evident in the discussions of slavery. The Dougherty County historian noted that the institution “was a feudalism as illustrious as that of any medieval country of Europe. The barons were the slaveholders—the serfs were the negroes, and perfect tranquility in relations prevailed.” In Schley County, “White settlers were kind to their slaves, clothed and fed them, and allowed them to worship with them in their churches.” In Upson County, “Everyone knows that slaves were treated very kindly indeed, and only in rare instances was there any trouble between slave and master.” In Walker County, “There were generally, almost universally, the kindest of relations between master and servant.” And in Coffee County, “The training the negroes received while they were slaves has been a great blessing to them.”

Embarrassing sentiments, to be sure, but not universal ones. Find out more at the link.