One of New Jersey history’s founding fathers, William A. Whitehead can boast a limited name recognition at best. Scholars rely on his labors, especially the historical collections he began building in the 1840s and the eight volumes of colonial documents he edited in the 1880s. But few know anything of the motives and implications of his work, or of the spirit that originated and guided these monumental projects.
Born in 1810 in Newark, where the schooling he received was brief and indifferent, the young Whitehead had to rely on a talent for self-improvement to find his way in the world. While he clerked and ran messages for the Perth Amboy bank that employed his father, he seized any opportunity to cultivate his mind through reading, writing, music and art. In 1828 he began a series of adventures with a visit to Key West, the southernmost point in the vast Florida wilderness recently ceded to the United States.
Key West had its first accurate survey that winter from the hands of the eighteen-year-old Whitehead. His mapping of this strategic but undeveloped outpost was judged so useful and necessary that in 1831 he returned as collector of customs for its port. As the island’s senior civilian officer during the next seven and a half years, Whitehead recorded critical information about life on America’s southern frontier, documenting in the process his own development as a civic leader, chronicler and amateur naturalist. Those years would have a transformative influence on his future enterprises and interests.
Even before his permanent return to New Jersey, Whitehead began to campaign for the more systematic keeping and care of the state’s historic records. He pressed the legislature and his fellow citizens to support preservation of New Jersey’s earliest documentary treasures, leading to the foundation of a statewide historical society in 1845. Over the next four decades he was its tireless corresponding secretary, its foremost scholar and the chief architect of its collections. He wrote two seminal monographs, as well as scores of learned papers and articles based on original records he had purchased, obtained by gift, copied from other archives or rescued from dustbins.
Whitehead’s service to knowledge in his native state did not end at the doors of the Historical Society. The audience for his writings was enlarged by their regular appearance in the pages of local newspapers. He served as longtime board president of the New Jersey State Normal School. He co-founded and directed Newark’s first circulating library, and kept the city’s daily weather statistics for almost forty years.
A businessman as well as a philanthropist, self-taught preservationist and intellectual, Whitehead looked to history for help with the pressing questions of American democracy: the meaning of citizenship, the role of authority, the rights of the disenfranchised. His observations are a starting point, not only for traditional history but for the experiences of unseen and unheard individuals and communities. I conceived this website as a living guide to Whitehead and to the world that he knew, a challenge to the practice of history in our day as well as his, and a call to bring to it new perspectives and new meaning.
Copyright © 2017-2020 Gregory J. Guderian
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