The William Watts Folwell Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1922, corresponding with Minnesota historian William Watts Folwell, Thomas A. Robertson mused, “This writing of history is, of course, a very particular and tedious work, but it seems sometimes that they catch too much at mere hearsay matters and try to make a history of it.”

I love Folwell’s papers, which reside in the temperature and humidity-controlled bowels of the Minnesota Historical Society. [1] So much so that I spent two of the best research years of my life reading through all 123 boxes. That’s 50 cubic feet of holographs (originals), three-quarters in handwriting; the other quarter in Folwell’s cast-iron typewriter type.

A purist might quibble about whether a typewriter can produce a holograph. But between the typewriter’s idiosyncrasies and Follwell’s quirky operator errors, I recognize a Folwell typescript on sight in other collections, kind of like bumping into a dear old friend at the grocery store.

William Watts Folwell 1833-1929

A Civil War veteran and professor of mathematics, Folwell became the first President of the University of Minnesota in 1869 at the age of 35. That year, the University had 14 enrolled students. Folwell’s graduate work in Philology, the textual analysis of oral and written documentary sources, undergirded his passion for books and history. He organized the Minnesota Library Association in 1891 and pulished his first history book, Minnesota: The North Star State, in 1908.  North Star was a critcal failure. Folwell’s papers show the criticism honed the style that distiguished his seminal work, A History of Minnesota, published in four volumes between 1921 and 1930. Folwell was President of the Minnesota Historical Society from 1924 to 1927.

Most people access Folwell’s work via his books. Connoisseurs know the best parts are his notes and appendices. But Folwell was humble. Unlike some of the luminaries of Minnesota history, he didn’t purge his papers before donating them to the Historical Society. Folwell left us every last scrawl in the palm-sized notebooks he habitually carried in his pocket –just in case he ran into someone to interview. He left us the penciled notes he took as he read books and the jottings he made on the backs of the receipts that came to hand after his car overturned in a ditch on a rutted dirt road in out-state Minnesota.

In Folwell’s case, historians have it all. It’s a nauseating amount of  “all” if you hope to find a Cliff Notes version of a controversial story. But it is a wonderful amount of “all” if you love historiography. Folwell left us the ability to discover the sources available to him and the process by which he drew his conclusions.

Folwell began each of historical inquiry, as all of us do, with a “mere hearsay matter.”  He chased down rabbit trails of clues through the thickets of history and frequently found himself stuck. At an impasse, his papers show, he’d do something else, like write a newsy letter to one of his children or go for a long walk in one of the Minneapolis parks he loved.

Sometimes he’d send out an SOS to a comrade like Return Ira Holcombe or  to a main-stay informant like Samuel J. Brown –letters in which Folwell confessed his trademark expression, “I’m up a stump.” I imagine Madrecita (his term of endearment for his wife, Sarah Heywood Folwell) must have brought him food and water, because, at the rate mail traveled at the turn of the 20th century, Folwell would stay treed for weeks before help arrived in a letter in reply.

Other times Folwell simply tabled an inquiry until something new turned up. He dogged some stories for decades before finding a break-through source or simply accumulating enough small clues to render an opinion.

But what really earns Folwell my admiration is that he changed his mind. His aim was never to proof-text a hearsay matter, but to root out as much of the story as he could find.

If our ideas do not change along the way of doing history, then we are not really doing history, simply using it for our own ends.

Folwell sometimes used his power of storytelling –or rather, his power to refrain –to protect people. He chose not to publish some of his best stories to shield the reputations of men he admired and whose lives were enmeshed with his own. But Folwell preserved evidence in his papers he might have taken with him to his grave. Thanks to the stories Folwell left buried in his papers, important stories are no longer hearsay matters.

Others are still a matter of period gossip. But how many other historians collected hearsay like jewels, patiently waiting to encounter someone who might supply the setting that pulled the tiny diamonds together? Folwell did, leaving us a broad sampling of what people believed to be true on some sensational subjects for which factual proof is still outstanding.


1 Two additional collections of Folwell’s Papers are available in the University Archives at the University of Minnesota.

This entry was posted in Doing Historical Research, Minnesota Historical Society, William Watts Folwell. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The William Watts Folwell Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society

  1. Pingback: A Fable Agreed Upon, part 2 | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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