Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Scharf's "History of Delaware: 1609 -1888"

J. Thomas Scharf
In our continuing series of "Resources for the MCH Researcher" (also known as "Things I Use a Lot to Look Stuff Up"), we look now at probably the most commonly cited piece of Delaware history out there, J. Thomas Scharf's "History of Delaware: 1609-1888". And yes, now that this is the second one (the 1868 Beers Map being the first), I can officially refer to it as a "continuing series". To be honest, when I first decided to write this post, I was just going to say a few words about what the book is, what it's good for, what it's not, link to it, and that was about it. However, after some quick research, I've found that the author himself is worthy of some digital ink, as well as his, for the time, unique methods of conducting his research.

I had always assumed that Scharf was some stodgy old professor or historian who had assistants do his work, while he just sat back, edited a little, and stuck his name on the books. As it turns out, he was nothing of the sort. John Thomas Scharf was born in 1843 in Baltimore, MD, had a Catholic education, and went to work as a bookkeeper at his father's lumber yard at age 16. When the Civil War broke out two years later, he left Baltimore and joined the Confederate Army with an artillery battalion. He saw action in numerous battles over the next two years before being wounded in 1863. After recuperating, he decided to leave the army and join the Confederate Navy. Scharf served in the navy until early 1865, when he rejoined the army and was sent on a covert mission to Canada. The young Marylander's luck finally gave out on him, as he was captured in February 1865 and spent the rest of the war in prison. After the war, he returned to Maryland and joined the state militia, rising all the way to become the aide-de-camp to the Governor.

In the 1870's, Scharf became a lawyer, but also began writing newspaper and magazine articles on Baltimore and Maryland history. He soon stopped practicing law and went full-time into writing, even becoming a newspaper editor. He wrote histories of Baltimore, Maryland, Philadelphia, the Confederate Navy, and several others. Much of the last few decades of his life were spent in public service, holding several offices and finally working as an investigator sniffing out fraud and corruption that surrounded Chinese immigration in New York. He died on February 28, 1898, at his home in New York.

I know all this has little to do with MCH history, but I thought it was interesting -- much more so than I had imagined it would be. As far as we're concerned, his most important work was his History of Delaware, published in 1888. It is very long, published in two volumes, and is not something you'd sit down and read front to back. It reads more like a compendium of many smaller histories than it does a single work. This, I think, is due to Scharf's methods of research. First of all, unlike most historians of his time, he utilized newspapers and magazines as primary resources. The book credits his "able assistants", and I think he had a group of people combing through publications and probably writing parts of the book, which he later stitched together. Also, it seems that he sent out detailed questionnaires to people in the areas he was researching, so likely every time there is a long, detailed biography of a person or family, it's because he got that information from them on their questionnaire.

As mentioned, the work consists of two volumes, which can be found here and here. Volume 1 contains a general history of the state, followed by chapters covering specific topics like public education, the press, medical men, and men of the law, as well rosters of Delaware's Civil War regiments. Volume 2 focuses on local histories, with one chapter devoted to each of the state's hundreds, and multiple chapters about Wilmington. All in all, although Scharf was a self-trained historian, the work is pretty accurate and very well researched. In addition to using newspapers and his questionnaires, Scharf also dives regularly into legal documents like wills and deeds for much of his information. Now knowing that he was a lawyer, this doesn't surprise me.

Luckily for us, Scharf didn't think of history as "Stuff that happened a long time ago", so the book reaches all the way up to its present day, 1888. As such, it gives an excellent snapshot of the state in the middle to late 19th century. More specifically for us, the section on Mill Creek Hundred is overflowing with names, dates, lists, biographies, and even a few pictures and drawings. And while it sometimes seems like a disjointed mishmash of flowery prose and cold, dry history, Scharf's History of Delaware is unquestionably one of the most valuable resources available to us.

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