The Mission of the State Historical Society
1905 – Academy of Sciences
In attempting an enumeration of the motives for local historical work in Nevada it is but natural that those which embody a conception of its most immediate and direct purpose should receive first consideration.
Certainly the thing that appeals most strongly to the members of the Society and to other citizens of the State is the work of saving the records of the past for future generations. Through a well-organized system of field work it is the functional of this Society to carry on archaeological investigations, the study of our own Indian tribes, and to accumulate manuscripts and other materials which will form the basis, not merely of a library and of a museum, but which will furthermore serve as a warehouse from which to draw materials for the writing of the true history of Nevada.
So far as the record of this Commonwealth is concerned – a record to which the coming years will give a value beyond our most sanguine estimates – the opportunities are unique, but they re on the wing. The story of Nevada’s infancy, fascinating as it now is, will become more important as the influence of the State increases. Shall that final record of the early days be written by those who have been separated by a long term of years from the events they portray- who have only the confused, obscured vision and dull inspiration which comes form the study of official records and ill-preserve archives – or shall the work be done now by those who have themselves made that history and who are therefore able to furnish that wonderful wealth of detail which alone can give to it the highest value?
The time has forever gone by when the writer of history has but to chronicle the deeds of kings, presidents, governors, or others who sit in high places. The history of to-day and that of the future must be the record of the masses, the events which have to do with human nature, which human hopes and ideals, and which point the way to the working out of the political and social order of the world. Aad if, perchance, here and there to one man or woman is given an extra page of the chronicle, the reason for such emphasis will be found, not in the strength of official rank, but in the heroism, the self-sacrifice, and the patriotism of the truly great individual.
Do we wish the history of Nevada to be thus written? Then it is fo jus as a Society to see that the landmarks of our history are not obscured, neither the portraits of our heroes and our pioneers lost to present view. Certain it is that the day connate be far distant when no human memory will be able to furnish the details of the events which have made us what we are to-day. Already there is a lamentable lack of interest among the younger generation. It will indeed be a sad day for Nevada when a people have grown up “who know not Joseph nor the way by which we came into this land.” I need not speak further of this immediate direct aim.
To explain the indirect and more distant, through no less important, purpose of the Society will require more space, for it must include a discussion o the Society as an educational force- an instrument in the fostering of that historic consciousness among our people which is the basis of civic patriotism.
And first of all let me assure you that I speak as a Nevadan. Shortly after coming to the State, when Stanford University vanquished Nevada in a game of football, it was impossible for me to conceal my pleasure at the result. There were many who chided me for my sympathy with my own college team but I shall never forget how the President of the University mildly remarked that he would allow me two years in which to change my views — that he did not believe in sudden conversations, anyhow. And two years was none too long a period in which to grow into citizenship in spirit and in truth, to become acclimated to these strange new conditions, to come to understand something of the struggle of the past by riding or driving over large sections of our desert wastes, and having borne in upon the sense the sparsity of population, the meagerness of developed resources, and the hardy, determined spirit with which these conditions are being met. To-night I speak t you as an adopted child of the State, and ask you if it not be true that those affections which come to us, not by nature, but by second nature – those friendships as of David and Jonathan which are based, not upon bold, but upon intimate knowledge and thorough appreciation, may not perhaps be stronger and deeper than even those of heredity?
True it is that I have come to love the mountains and the valleys and even the desert wastes of this State. For in few places on the earth’s surface have Nature’s gifts and her withholdings been equally complete. Nowhere are there broader and more majestic mountain ranges, nowhere better climate, nowhere broods an atmosphere more pure and exhilarating, yet nowhere are the deserts more appealing in their extent or the winds fiercer in their sweep. Who can withstand the prolonged daily, yes, and the nightly, wooing of the ever-changing mountains with their endless variety of form, which their infinite possibilities of color — sometimes of a mottled appearance, anon an iron gray, here and there soft as velvet they look, while over on the Western range lie banked at sunset the masses of dark blue shadows, those children of the brilliant sunset which tinges the Eastern peaks with edgings of glittering fire, which again in their turn faced away into strips of lilac and purple?
And then there is the occasional bank or streak of silver snow, the sign of water for man and the promise of food for beast .How it glitters in the moonlight – a moonlight more resplendent than that of other climes as the sunlight is purer and warmer. Who shall describe the glory of those clouds banked around the horizon at sunrise and sunset – clouds which minister to man’s needs as truly as thought they precipitated their moisture upon the thirsty soil? Absent for a time from these surroundings, how the imagination recalls the silvery sheen of the sagebrush when the stream shines across its tops; the alkali fields dazzling white as with hoar frost; the capricious rivers, whose waters rise and flow and waste within themselves; the sulfurous waters which beat and bubble beneath the surface and occasionally burst out in clouds of steam. What tongue shall ever be able to describe the sense of peace and inspiration combined which holds as by spell the human soul which has once come to an appreciation of the grandeur of this desolate desert life?
You will understand me, then, I believe, when I say that, to my mind, in but few other places in these United States is there to be found in the same space such poverty of ideals in social and intellectual life, and, perhaps I might add, in political life as well. The East never tires of girding at Nevada, denouncing her as a “rotten borough,” scoffing at her so-called barbarism and uncouth ways. And I ask you to consider whether we, not as individuals, but as a whole, have not in some measure at least, merited the criticism which have been heaped upon us? Has not our development, as compared with that of our neighbor States, been in the main a materialistic one, so materialistic in fact that when men even today accumulate a competency they go elsewhere to enjoy a richer, more inspiring life? I leave you to answer these questions for yourselves.
If this which I have just said of Nevada is true, what, then, are the reasons for the peculiarities of her civilization? Many a superficial reason has been given: the sparsity of her population, the greater attractions of California as to climate and scenery, the higher taxes, the undue altitude — these and scores of others. The real reason is to be bound, I believe, in the physiographic conditions of this district and the peculiar westward movement of the frontier.
The ever-changing frontier of the United States is, without question, the most vital topic in American history, for in it are included all the great movements of the Nation and in it, as in an index, may be found the key to American characteristics: energy, ambition, and the power to do. “A rapid advancement of the boundary, whether of settlement or political control, speaks of vigorous, abundant forces behind demanding an enlarged field of activity; a retrogression or caving-in of the frontier points to declining powers, inadequate strength: Nevada is scarred, because of the unfavorable geographical condition and because an unusual factor, gold, diverted still more strongly the natural westward development which should have included this section.
the population flowed all around it and about it and then, when the California trail was opened, directly through it, and left it still an isolated vacant spot. Then a little part of the human mass which has poured by ebbed back into the Washoe District; then came the discovery of gold and silver and the great rush to the Comstock; and then the conferring of Statehood upon this people of abnormal growth.
And may I suggest right here that we bear a Spanish name, Nevada, to-day as a token of this abnormal development? For I think that you will find that it is only in those places and States where the white man has come into possession of the country gradually that the old Indian names have been preserved.
And still the scar remains and always will remain. For it is a scar, not merely of scant population, but of retarded development as well – the scar that comes from the lack of home-building instinct and from the absence of an agricultural stage in its proper time and place. California, though the child of gold, and although for a brief moment her mining interests seemed to obscure all other resources, had, before attaining the age of twenty years, out grown her parentage, and had come to depend more on her agriculture and her commerce than upon her mins for prosperity. Unfortunate has it been for Nevada that its youth was spent, not under the open skies in closest contact with even a desert soil, but in the deeps of the darksome mines. Something of the light and joyousness of her life has been sacrificed forever. You cut your finger and the wound may heal, but if the hurt be but deep enough, the scar will remain through life.
Is it true that our pure sunlight and wonderful color effects are due to the very sparsity of our population and the lack of vegetation; that the desert air is not thickened day particles of moisture and factory dust and human breath? It may be true. But who is there among us who has witnessed the travail of Nevada’s birth or the struggle of her early years who can say that the American desert should never be reclaimed? It may be good theory to say that some sections should lie fallow in order that other sections may be richly productive, and that the deserts as breathing-spaces on the continent furnish health to the plant as well as to the human. but practically we are not willing that Nature should come to her own again here. Even now we plan the extension of cultivated fields and the promotion of manufactures and commerce as well as the future development of the mines. We are indeed determined that Nature shall reap, if it be necessary, even when she has not sown. How is it with respect to the less material interests of the State?
It is a true saying and worthy of great acceptation that civilization at bottom is economic, but at top it is ethical. What are the ethical forces at work in Nevada? The church and the school, you will answer. And truly these are potent instruments in developing a broader, better type of manhood and womanhood. I wish to present to your attention this evening the Historical Society as an active assistantships in this educative ethical work. And in order to make my meaning more clear, allow me to speak first of history study in genera. History is not simply a collection of events. It is the logic of events. Historic intelligence is not merely information respecting events. It is the comprehension of their logic, and history is therefore one of the most difficult of studies. It is the great channel which conveys to man the past experience of the race, showing him the different phases of his progress upward and onward into civilization, and it may be taken, as a general rule, that this people who cannot look very far back into their past do not look very far forward into future needs and conditions. No wrk can stand unless it grows out of the real wants of the age and strikes firm root in the soil of history. And I question whether any man can be called truly educated unless she has so far and so well studied history as to be able to feel with Tennywon:
“Yet I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.”
History, moreover, is moral knowledge. By it study conduct is shaped and the intellect is disciplined. Bishop Stubbs once said: “While of all studies in the whole range of knowledge the study of law affords the most conservative training, so the study of modern history is, next to theology itself, and only next in far as theology rests on a divine revelation, the most thoroughly religions training that the mind can receive.”
In the next place, I hold that the judy of local history has more than ordinary historical value as an ethical and intellectual force. There is perhaps no better corrective for the unpopularity of historical studies in general than to bid people in their own little hamlets and towns work out the history of the men who have lived and died there. Elementary history teaching must perforce commence with what we call the sense phase of the subject, or thought and feeling as expressed in outward acts – acts which can be seen, heard, and felt. Through careful training in this stage, the child becomes able though the transforming power of the imagination to build pictures of the deeds of all people of all times, and finally to reflect upon these pictures and to form judgments. Such likewise must be the best method for the development of the historic sense of a community, and therefore local historical work finds its justification, not only in its bearing upon the affairs of the community, but also in the fact tithe tit furies a basis in actual understanding for the proper comprehension of all history. IN other words, such work will life th institutional facts of the community up to their place in the general historic process and at the same time bring the apparently remote historical movement down to the present and root it in the concrete life of our people, enriching thereby our civic institutions.
Moreover, historical insight depends intimately upon human sympathy. You must think and eel with the people you are studying, and therefore the more historic association we can link with our localities the richer will be the daily life of our people in human friendships and affections, as well as in accuracy of thought and of judgement. If to think and feel the truth be indeed to know God, then shall this local historical work be for us a religious and ethical influence, increasing in value as the days and years go by, bringing to our people eventually a true freedom of spirit.
Is this time ripe for it now, or are we seeking to form eit by undue means, is a question which should be carefully considered. Any such movement, if it be an exotic, rarely flourishes, and is too costly in human strength for mere idle experiments. I feel that we stand at this time at the parting of the ways. It is not that our people are unwilling to aid in the work, but that they need to have its importance impressed upon them. I do not wish to say that our people are without energy or capacity. A Western man has bene defined as an Easterner with added experiences. You will grant that this is true of Nevadans. What we do need is intelligent organization of the forces, the passions, that are swaying the hearts and lives of our people. We need, as some one has said, “The primal support of basal moral quality to insure success.” The call of the wild is very strong all over this American desert. Constantly, like Buck, we are harking “back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of things in the howling ages.” Places once humanized and full of life have become desolate within a few mines of where ewe are to-night. Nature has come to her own again at Washoe City and many another spot within our borders. An interesting subject for investigation would be to find out how many names which were on the maps of the 50’s and 60’s are known no more to-day.
But we are determined that Nature shall not always conquer us thus. We are determined that out of all this adversity and pain and struggle there shall finally emerge a strong, enduring, and self trusting Commonwealth, that the final triumph in government, in social development, intellectual advancement, and in material supremacy shallop lbe on a scale commensureate with the hardness of the way in which we have come. Let us hope that in this work the Historical Society may find an honored and useful place.
Source: Originally published in the First Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society 1907-1908.