Why Unfolding Histories?
In the last several decades, historians have worked to dismantle the monolithic narratives of United States history, starring great white men as the founders of our country and the sole creators of the culture and politics we inhabit today. Our understanding of who can be seen as historical actors has shifted mightily as we consider, to cite just two examples, what the American Revolution may have meant for an enslaved person, or how women, who were not encouraged to publish their writings, formed their own communities of practice. These “histories from below,” although they explore different topics and employ different methodologies, share an important feature: the centrality of historical records, not just in official publications, but also in local, personal and often ephemeral manifestations. The special collections available on Cape Ann offer myriad examples of such records, which taken together compel us to reconsider the histories we have been told about the place we inhabit.
Cape Ann has always been proud of its beautiful location and its place in American history. In the early 1600s, Samuel de Champlain named it Le Beauport for its breathtaking natural beauty. Almost two hundred years later, the Reverend William Bentley praised the people of Cape Ann: “May their hospitality be preserved in our National Character.” The twentieth-century journalist and local historian Herbert Kenny seemed to be responding to Bentley when he wrote that Cape Ann’s “spirit has crept into the bloodstream of the United States of America.” In Unfolding Histories, I hope to offer, rather than a hagiography of place along the lines of Kenny, John James Babson, and James Pringle, a modest attempt to let the archives, and by extension the people of Cape Ann’s past, tell the story of this place.
This exhibition and its accompanying catalog offer not an exhaustive history but a suggestive one, highlighting features that make Cape Ann unique as well as those that make it typical. Cape Ann stands out in the national context because of the early presence of European settlers; its geography, which has led to both opportunity and isolation; and its artistic output and inspiration. I have also sought out materials that remind us that the United States’ disgraces are Cape Ann’s as well. We might think, for example, of the violent taking of native lands and the near destruction of native cultures. Or we might think of the enslavement of people, which was not only an assault on their freedom, but also hypocritical, as liberty was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. My own historical inquiry is also guided by Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The ways in which the people of Cape Ann have cared for each other, have struggled with addiction, have lived side by side with conflicting political and religious beliefs—these are the stories that remind us of the presence of the past.
Unfolding Histories traces my travels through Cape Ann’s historical record over the last three years, but also my conversations with the people who, largely on a volunteer basis, safeguard these amazing collections. If we are not vigilant, we can lose our history. Records can be relocated, split up or, worst of all, destroyed. My hope is that this exhibition will serve as a reminder that our archives deserve our greatest care and attention. Preservation of historical materials is expensive and time-consuming, and it requires considerable expertise. Yet we owe the care of these records to the generations past who left them, as well as to the generations to come who will unfold them in their own ways.
. Samuel de Champlain, Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, 1604–1618, ed. William Lawson Grant (New York: Scribner’s, 1907), 92.
. William Bentley, Diary of William Bentley, 1793–1802, vol. 2 (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1907; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1962), 309.
. Herbert A. Kenny, Cape Ann: Cape America (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1971), 12.