After all these years, I finally find out that I am apparently a microhistorian.
Not that I’m that small, of course. Just like you, I could stand to lose a little weight. No, I’m talking microhistorian as a person engaging in a specifically narrow kind of history.
According to biographer Jill Lepore, microhistory can be defined as the history of “hitherto obscure people” that “concentrates on the intensive study of particular lives” to reveal “the fundamental experiences and mentalités of ordinary people.”
And what, I imagine you are wondering, is a mentalité? Well, according to Wiktionary, it’s a French word meaning “A person’s feelings about the wider society and world they live in, and their place within it; a worldview, outlook.”
From my point of view, microhistory is all about telling the stories of mostly unheralded people and how those people’s stories fit into the overall flow of the rest of history. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do on this here blog since my first post back in early March 2010—not to mention the local history column I started writing for the old Fox Valley Sentinel back in 1977, and continued after the creation of the Ledger-Sentinel in 1980.
Local history is replete with people who slogged their way through exciting times, made their contributions, and then faded from view after making their presence known, sometimes locally, sometimes statewide, and sometimes nationally. Those are the stories that fascinate me. And there are a lot of those stories to tell right here in our own Fox River Valley of Illinois.
There were, for instance, the African American farm families that moved to Kendall County after the Civil War, settling out in the Minkler-Reservation Road area south of Oswego. Almost all were former slaves who, for one reason or another, decided to settle amongst an entirely white neighborhood after the Civil War to farm and raise their families. The Lucas, Washington, Hughes, and a few other families eventually made their mark, not only on the Oswego area, but also on the nation as a whole.
One of those settlers, Nathan Hughes, not only escaped from slavery in Kentucky, but also volunteered to fight for his own freedom against the south during the Civil War, where he was wounded, recovered, and then went back to fight and be wounded again.
His son-in-law, Robert Ridley Smith, likewise escaped enslavement and then fought for the Union during the war before coming to Kendall County, where he married one of Hughes’ daughters. After the war, Hughes went back down to Kentucky to find his family and bring them north. He brought his children, although his wife decided to stay in a place that was familiar to her and not come north to the strangeness of the Illinois prairies.
Smith’s children became the first African Americans to graduate from high school in Kendall County, Ferdinand with the Oswego High School Class of 1903 and his sister, Mary, with the OHS Class of 1904. Their descendants went on to contribute to the nation as they carved out careers as public school educators, college professors, and, for at least one of them, as a federal judge who eventually served on the FISA Court.
Strong women made their marks in local history as well. Sarah Raymond began her educational career teaching in one-room Kendall County schools during the Civil War and ended it as the superintendent of schools down in the normal college town of Bloomington. She was the first female school district superintendent in the nation when she was appointed in 1874. After her retirement in 1896, she moved to Boston for several years where she married and hobnobbed with such luminaries as Jane Austin, Mary Livermore, Julia Ward Howe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Emily Murdock lost her brother, Alfred, to a rebel bullet during the Civil War Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta. She went on to become a mystery novelist, writing several bestsellers under the pen name of Lawrence L. Lynch, the name of her first husband. This was at a time when women simply didn’t write mysteries, so she adopted the subterfuge of writing using a male pen name.
Other local historical heroes include Alfred Browne, who came and went in Kendall County’s history, first as a young soldier in the Union Army. He was tapped as one of the honor guards for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral car at Springfield after the President was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. After the war, Browne, a strong believer in emancipation and racial equality, joined the Freedman’s Bureau in Montgomery, Alabama during Reconstruction to help educate former slaves. He found the struggle against the violent racism and terrorism turned against the South’s former slaves too much to bear, and returned to Kendall County. Taking up agriculture on the family farm outside Newark, Browne taught himself Norwegian so as to better communicate with his numerous Norwegian immigrant neighbors.
Margaret “Maggie” Shepard started out teaching country school before moving to Oswego to open her own millinery business. It proved so successful she became a major property owner in the village as well as a businesswoman. She also bucked the odds to adopt a daughter while still an unmarried single woman, before later marrying Oswego hardware retailer Tom Edwards.
And we can’t forget Nancy “Nannie” Hill, a Yorkville girl who went into teaching Kendall County rural schools before moving to Aurora to eventually become principal of Oak Street School on the city’s West Side. While she and one of the school’s female teachers toured Europe in the summer of 1914, World War I broke out. That required Hill and her companion to display large helpings of both pluck and luck to make their way through war-torn Europe to England and then back to North America despite the dangers of armies clashing on land and the threat of German submarines on the sea voyage home.
In April 1892, Florence K. Read became the first woman office-holder in Kendall County when she was elected to the Oswego School Board, which was quite an achievement.
But she wasn’t the first Kendall County woman actually nominated by a political party for a countywide office. That honor goes to Nettie Chittenden. She was nominated by the New Party in 1873 as the nation was beginning to suffer from one of its longest financial depressions. Called the Long Depression and the Panic of 1873, economic conditions didn’t improve for a decade. Farmers and laborers, desperate for change and fair treatment from railroad and other monopolies, formed the New Party in 1873 to elect candidates sympathetic to their issues. Chittenden, 26, was nominated for the office of county superintendent of schools, running against the GOP’s popular candidate, John R. Marshall, publisher and editor of the Kendall County Record, the county’s newspaper of record. Although they managed to elect a local circuit court judge, the rest of the New Party’s candidates, including Chittenden, did not fare well in the November election. Even so, a few New Party candidates were elected to the Illinois General Assembly as well as to local offices elsewhere in Illinois.
So, yes, there’s plenty of microhistory around these parts. Sometimes, those whose stories I’ve told realized they were having an impact beyond their small community on the wider world. Most did not, as they just kept on living their lives as best they could given the circumstances in which they found themselves. Their stories, and how they fit into the great mosaic of the history of the region, state, nation, and world continue to offer plenty of interesting grist for a microhistorian’s mill.