My New (Second) Favorite History Blog
Like many history-related news stories, the news that Wheaton College was a stop on the Underground Railroad didn't come as much of a real surprise. It was common knowledge when I was a student there in the early 1990s, though some of the details (that escaped slaves had been shuttled around through the network of steam tunnels) were demonstrably false.
So the headline, "Prof: Wheaton College was Underground Railroad stop" prompted a shrug even from this history-enthusiastic Wheaton graduate.
But David Malone, head of Wheaton's of archives and special collections, explained to The Daily Herald newspaper that the discovery of a comment in an 1889 manuscript is actually quite significant.
"We've never been willing to say for ourselves that we were a stop on the Underground Railroad," Malone said. "Others were willing to say it for us. But we wouldn't confirm that. Now we're able to say with full assurance that this was a stop on the Underground Railroad."
Turns out the text isn't massively hard to find if you know what you're looking for: Google Book Search has a scanned, downloadable copy of The History of the Thirty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Veteran Infantry(Yates Phalax) in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865. Here's the passage, a first-person account of Ezra A. Cook:
In the fall of 1853 … we moved to Illinois and settled on a farm about twelve miles from Chicago. About four years afterward [my father] sold this farm and purchased another in Du Page county, about one and a half miles from Wheaton, his object being to give his children a liberal education; the oldest daughter having already spent several terms at Wheaton College.
The outbreak of the war in the spring of 1861 found myself and two sisters attending Wheaton College, which had a national reputation as an Abolition school in an Abolition town. So strong was public sentiment that runaway slaves were perfectly safe in the College building, even when no attempt was made to conceal their presence, which was well known to the United States Marshal stationed there. With hundreds of others, I have seen and talked with such fugitives in the college chapel. Of course they soon took a night train well-guarded to the next station on the U. G. R. R.
When Sumter was fired on, I did not doubt that it was the death-knell of slavery, and my heart was in the battle for freedom from that moment.
Who knows what other historical treasures lie in Google Book Search?
But the news led me to a discovery of a different sort: I had been completely unaware of ReCollections, the blog of Wheaton's Archives & Special Collections department, which first reported the discovery.
If you like this evangelically minded history blog, then I'm almost certain you'll want to add ReCollections to your RSS reader.
As an ongoing collection of items from the history of evangelicalism, it's great. (A recent post on The Fundamentals–the founding documents of the Fundamentalist movement–notes the irony that benefactor Lyman Stewart had wasted $125 he had raised to become a missionary on failed oil speculation. Later in life, Stewart was more successful and ended up co-founding what is now Unocal.)
As a Christian institution's version of American Heritage Magazine's popular "My Brush With History" department, it's fun (There's a roundup of presidential candidates who've visited, though the list could be expanded to presidents and candidates who visited when they weren't on the campaign trail, such as Williams Jennings Bryan. And there's a nice post on the connection between Wheaton and Ernest Hemingway.)
But what really attracts me is the eye for a great story. Wheaton is in the middle of a presidential search, so the blog decided to tell a wonderful story about a previous presidential search. In 1940, Louis Talbot, pastor of The Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles, received a telegram offering him the presidency of Wheaton. It turned out to be a prank–but Talbot (who later became president of Biola, twice) was able to turn the tables on the prankster.
Readers will enjoy the fact that the blog is written by historians and archivists, not by marketers and recruiters. One doubts that the fact that one of Nixon's "plumbers" was a Wheaton grad ever made the alumni magazine, but you'll find find here. And even those who spent too much time (as I did) playing in the attic of Wheaton's main library, where the archives are stored, will find their institutional knowledge challenged. Who was president of the college after Charles Blanchard? Wrong!
ReCollections is one of a few history blogs in my RSS reader. But what's in yours? Are you reading other history blogs? (It's okay, we won't be jealous.) Any recommendations?