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THE WORK OF THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Annual Address of John Lee Webster, President, 1912
In the preparation of what I am about to say in this address, I had in mind a broader purpose than merely interesting the members of the Nebraska State Historical Society in the wealth of its possessions and the work it is doing. I wish as much as possible to interest all the people of the state in the variety and character of the material that has been collected and is preserved in the museum and in the extent and scope of the reference library of the society. I wished to create, if I could, in the minds of the people a desire to visit our rooms and to look at what we have. I hoped to induce the state to be sufficiently liberal in its appropriations to properly maintain and house these priceless records of its history.
History, of all studies, "contains the greatest amount of instructions and of principles and of ideas in the facts which it relates." "Humanity, viewed as a whole, is the most interesting subject for man." "Every man that comes into the world should make himself acquainted with the place he occupies in the order of time, the increasing or decreasing of civilization, age by age." The picture of humanity should be painted with broad strokes, as a Turner would use the brush, for the eyes of the people to see and enjoy it. History develops thought because it contains the elements of reflection, and by this process it develops conscience in the people. These are but glimpses of some of the primary purposes of state historical societies which make them worthy of state support and of the patronage of the people.
What Shakespeare said of the players might appropriately be said of the weekly and daily newspapers. They are the journals and diaries of the political, social, and business events of the time. In social science research the investigator goes to the newspapers to find the manner in which the people lived, their habits of life, the equipment of the social household, the schools of instruction, the growth of villages and towns, the advancement in local municipal government. They contain substantially the only record we have of the lives and hardships, the bravery, daring and adventures of the early pioneers.
The State Historical Society has on its shelves more than four thousand bound volumes of newspapers. They have a value which, to the investigator of the events of the past, cannot be overestimated. To the social science teacher, and to the historian, they furnish the elementary data and are the primary source of information. They will be all the more valuable a hundred years from now, and they will be prized still more highly a thousand years hence.
If it were possible to discover such a storehouse of information in the ruins of Babylon or Nineveh or Pompeii as these newspaper files of the society contain of the present times, all the civilized nations would be anxious for their possession, the reading world would wish every page translated into their respective languages, and the wealthy museums and historical societies would offer fabulous prices for their purchase.
It is but natural for us to have a curiosity to know what manner of men may have peopled these prairies hundreds, yes, thousands of years ago. What men were here on these prairies in the age when the Duke of Normandy invaded England? What men were here, and what were they doing, and what was their manner of living, in the age when Charlemagne achieved his greatest conquests and became the despotic ruler of all Europe? Yes, more, what may have
been the character of the people who roamed over these prairies, now comprising our state of Nebraska, in the days of old when the Pharaohs ruled over Egypt, or when the pyramids were built?
In the museum of the society there are some five thousand different specimens of stone implements, including stone axes, stone war clubs, household and mechanical utensils, and samples of pottery. Many of these were made by a people who lived at a time antedating any history we have of any of the Indian tribes of which we have any knowledge. How old may be some of these antique specimens and relics? No man knows. Centuries and centuries may have gone by since some of them were made.
We know but little of these prehistoric people; but in a large number of specimens of stone implements stored in our museum there may be traced evidences that they possessed some considerable degree of skill in workmanship. It is as fascinating to speculate on these ancient races who inhabited our wide domain of prairie in those olden days, whether nomads, barbarians, or Indians, as is the building of "airy castles in Spain." Their names are lost. Their language is lost. The time of their existence vague. They have vanished into the oblivion of the past.
The questions still come back to us, "Whence came I? Whither am I going?" And again, "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" Looking at these queries in the light of nature and from the pages of history, they apply equally to the ancient man of the prairies, whether red or brown, civilized or savage. In answer to these queries, to satisfy our curiosity, to please our indulgence in speculation, and to quicken our spirit for investigation, we are intensely interested in the examination of these specimens of stone implements which are preserved as a part of the property of the society for the general benefit of the people of the state.
It is inconceivable that there ever was a time, however remote, when these prairies did not know of the tread of man. That they left no monuments or ruined castles does not discredit their existence; for neither did the ancient or the modern people who lived as nomads on the deserts of Africa, yet that land has been the home of wandering Moors and Arabs beyond the era of the world's earliest history.
Some of these stone implements are rough in surface, as chipped from the ledges, similar to those which have been found among the human relics of the Cave Dwellers in Europe which followed soon after the age of the glaciers, a time so remote in the world's history that only geologists can speculate as to the degree of their antiquity.
Rough arrowheads and spearheads mark the beginning of the savage man's faculty of invention. It has been supposed that the rough and crude arrowheads and spearheads preceded the use of coarsely chipped and unpolished stone hammers, stone hatchets and stone knives. It may have taken ages or centuries before this advancement in skill or design was acquired by these men of little intellect. This has been shown by archaeological discoveries in Europe, and why is it not equally true in America?
As centuries went by, these ignorant people acquired a sense of beauty and likewise a development in the arts and invention, when the rough stone implements gave way to polished war clubs and polished knives and polished household implements. The men and women began to clothe themselves with skins which had been dressed with bone scrapers and cut and shaped with stone implements, and sewed together with threads of sinew by the use of needles of bone. There came into use household pottery, which in a great measure superseded the stone household utensils. As the people first lived in caves there followed the ambition to have homes above ground, so there came the tepees, wigwams, tents and lodges.
Many specimens of all of the articles and utensils which I have mentioned are found in the museum of our society. They are the historic evidences of development from the earliest primitive man who inhabited our prairies, down to the American Indian of the present day, and perhaps are the best and only evidence we have of the periods of advancement from the prehistoric age to the coming of the white man.
Professor Agassiz said: "America is the first-born among the continents. Hers was the first dry land lifted out of the waters. Hers the first shore washed by the ocean that enveloped all the earth besides." If this be true, evidence may yet be forthcoming that will establish the fact that man is as old as the continent and that our prairies may have been the home of the human race as early as any other place in the world.
So the curios-or many of them-found in our museum may be the possible human relics of a primeval race rather than that of the modern Indian; and this may also prove to be true of many of the chipped and unpolished arrowheads and of the rough and crude stone implements.
If here, as elsewhere, there were races more ancient than has hitherto been supposed, we can no longer look upon the western hemisphere as solitary and unpeopled, unknown and useless to man, until he, grown old in the east, was numerous enough and far enough advanced in intelligence and wants to wander abroad upon the face of the earth in search of a new home.
Who now knows how great a story of the human race may yet be evolved from these thousands of stone implements and stone arrowheads in the possession of the society? They are of great value now, but in the future they may become priceless as the basis for scientific knowledge, and the state should preserve them for the future of mankind, no matter how great the cost.