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In Defense of Historical Accuracy

Freeing Emmitsburg's Glorious History
from the Shackles of Willful Lies & Folklore

Mike Hillman

One of the nice things about having the facts on your side is that it gives you a unique, if sometimes uncomfortable, perspective of the capabilities of those who chose to ignore the facts in hand. The actions of Commissioner Boyle and the Town commissioners in handling the issue of the town of Emmitsburg's founding date is a case in point.

During the February Town Council meeting, Commissioner Boyle made some sweeping, disparaging remarks on the quality of the research done by the Emmitsburg Historical Society on establishing Emmitsburg's founding date to be 1785 and not 1757 as misconceived by local tradition.  I think it is time to set the record straight.

Mr. Boyle listed several reasons for his rejection, of our detailed research, including:

  1. A claim that we don't accept oral histories.

    On the contrary, we highly value oral histories. Over the past seven years, we have recorded hundreds of hours of oral histories, much of which have formed the foundation of the many stories we have authored on the rich history of the Emmitsburg area. Our on-line archives are filled with personal memories. However, before any of these are used or put on line, we go to great efforts to substantiate oral histories and memories with legal records or historical news accounts.

    Only when they pass this muster are they considered credible. What we don't place any stock in is unsubstantiated hearsay or folklore. Had Mr. Boyle taken the time to join us at any of our meetings to learn what we are really about, he would have known that. But he never has ...
  2. That we didn't reference our sources of information.

    Reference? Reference? We gave every member of the town council, including Mr. Boyle, all our source documents outright, and even took the time to organize them in a nice, pretty folder that divided the information up into understandable, bite-sized chunks. How much more reference does one need? The town manager even asked for a copy himself, stating that it was the most detailed package he has seen yet on the town's history. Short of reading it to him, I am not sure what more we could have done for Mr. Boyle - but wait, if I recall correctly - I did read it to him.

    But the real issue here is that of Mr. Boyle's and the other commissioners' lack of familiarity, or outright unwillingness, to use the Internet. As the Historical Society has embraced the Internet as its principle mode of communication, we are taking the opportunity not simply to give readers title of references, but to actually link readers to those sources, as we've done above.  Of course, if you print out this document, or any of our documents, the hyperlinks don't work. But, if you read it on-line, the hyperlinks connect you to a wealth of information. This is something Mr. Boyle would have known had he taken the time to ask us. But he didn't ...
  3. The fact that our society doesn't have a charter or collect dues from its members!

    Give me a break! Over the years the Emmitsburg area has had several historical societies, all of which I assume collected dues, yet none left anything behind for posterity when they folded. The last historical society thought us credible enough to hand over their check book with $300 in it when they folded. They had collected the money over the years from their members. Unlike the other societies which placed greater emphasis on collecting dues than they did to documenting and sharing history, we promptly spent the $300 on scanning and placing documents on the Internet for use by people all over the country interested in Emmitsburg's history.

    That $300 is a pittance compared to what our own members have spent over the years, out of our own pockets, in researching and publishing the area's history. To reject our research because we, as a group, have chosen to allow each member to pay for their own research cost is ludicrous at best, childish at worst. And yes, we do not have a charter. What we have instead is a goal - to produce an accurate history of the area, something the other societies with charters did not feel worth doing.
  4. Because I changed the wording in another document.

    What Mr. Boyle failed to mention, however, was that the author of that document supported my changes and has encouraged me to continue with my research efforts.
    Mr. Boyle on the other hand had no problem at the April Town Council meeting changing the wording with changing the wording of the official March town meeting minutes, where the commissioners voted 4-0 to "Change" the words "Founded in 1757" to "Incorporated in 1825" on the Town's Flag and official seal, even after Ted Brennan, the author of the motion, would not support those changes.

    Following Ted Brennan's election loss, Mr. Boyle raised the issue again at the May Town Council meeting and all four commissioners voted to change the official minutes so they would not represent what actually took place in the February meeting. Talk about double standards! Mr. Boyle's actions are hypocritical at best. 

    As if this weren't bad enough, Mr. Boyle's changing of the official meeting minutes is going to cost the town several thousand dollars - for the town already had bought new flags based upon the original motion, and now will have to by new flags again - so much for being good stewards of the people's money -  money that should have, and could be spent, on more important projects - like fixing the water systems - by again, why let the facts get in the way ...
  5. That Samuel Emmit couldn't have farmed his 2250 acres without help, ipso facto, that help had to live somewhere, and that somewhere had to be the village that became Emmitsburg.

    Wow!!! What a leap of logic!!  Of all Commissioner Boyle's arguments against our research, this has to be his most fascinating and creative, and outright ludicrous.

    Let's be real, in 1757 this area was wilderness, not farm land. The settlers did not clear all the land they owned, but only cleared what they themselves needed to cultivate. Samuel Emmit, the son of a miller, chose to build his house on land that now plays host to the town's septic system. Over the years Samuel sold his holdings off in large hundred acre chunks, all of which were un-cleared. Not a single official record, or any record or source for that matter, supports Mr. Boyle's claim.

    To the contrary, official census and tax records clearly support our case, showing that no one, other than Samuel Emmit and his family, lived on his land. For his homestead land he chose land that is now the town's septic system, (so much for respecting the pretended town founder).  If Samuel Emmit had help, or people living on his land, taxes would have been collected and their names recorded in the tax register.  

    Lastly, in a 1823 first hand written account Father, later Bishop Brute's, describes Emmitsburg as being a wood in 1786.  One would think if there had been a village then, he would have described it as existing, not as woods ... But again, why let the facts get in the way ...

Along the same lines, Commissioner Sweeney rejected our research out of hand because, (I paraphrase here) he knew 'there was Churches here in 1757.' 

No Cliff, there were no churches here.  In 1757, a few Lutheran families did purchase an acre of land to construct a log church on land that was about three miles east of today's Emmitsburg on Four Points Road. It wasn't until 1797 that the congregation decided to build a new church in the town of Emmitsburg. Of course Cliff would have known that had he simply taken the time to read this church's history. But apparently he didn't think getting the facts straight was worth the effort.

As I said in the start of this article, one of the nice things about having the facts on your side is that it gives you a unique, if sometimes uncomfortable, perspective of the capabilities of those who chose to ignore the facts in hand.

When the issue was initially raised last year, Mr. Boyle first voiced concern that no action should be taken until the state weighed in. So we contacted the state, and inquired about the basis of their approval of the town's historical designation. The state representative laughed when he heard the request. They were only too happy to give the go ahead, as they had already recognized 1785 as the founding date of Emmitsburg.

The next roadblock Mr. Boyle threw up was to have the word 'founding' clarified by the Frederick Historical Society. Again, we were only too happy to procure it. Each of the examples offered were rooted in something actually being built upon newly acquired land, not the simple purchase of the land.

Of course, for us, it's academic anyway, for Emmitsburg wasn't built on land bought by Samuel Emmit in 1757. It was built on land the Delaney family Delaney family bought in 1744. Samuel had no title to the land, and therefore had no right to give it to his son in the first place.  Instead, William Emmit, the founder of Emmitsburg, did not obtain clear title to the land till 1798 and it was William, not his father, who took action to obtain the title. Something the proponents of the 1757 date have failed to point out ...

Next Mr. Boyle suggested that all the material be reviewed by 'real' historians. So we presented our research to the History Departments of Gettysburg, Mt. St. Mary's, and Hood Colleges. Interestingly enough, Mr. Boyle attempted to prevent the town manager from sitting in on the review of the papers at Gettysburg College. And when the Mayor supported the manager's participation, Mr. Boyle raised the issue of docking the manager's pay. Why? Is he so afraid of the truth?

The history professors assigned to review our research at both Gettysburg and Mt. St. Mary's College, (Mr. Boyle's alma mater  which he so proudly points out), have warmly received our research, and endorsed 1785 as the founding date of the town. Again, something the proponents of the 1757 date repeatedly fail to note.

I fear Hood has backed away because of the nasty tone that the defenders of the 1757 date have taken, and because of it, we might never hear from them. 

It is important to understand how the 1757 date succeeded the 1785 date. Up until 1957, 1785 had been the date recognized as the founding date of Emmitsburg. In 1957, a few residents of the area got together with a traveling, fly-by-night, New York based production company which made its living by producing bicentennial plays and decided to put on a bicentennial party.

To support the basis for a bicentennial party, they simply
manufactured material to fill in the gap between 1757 and the real founding date of 1785. In short they lied, and in doing so they sacrificed the town's real history to make a few miserable bucks. It is this very lie that is now being defended by the proponents of the 1757 date.

In 1992, when Emmitsburg was placed on the National Registry of Historical Places, a decision was made not to use the date 1785 upon which the state gave its recognition, but to use 1757 on the newly erected signs around town. The reason for that choice was that it would be easier to sell more houses in a pre-revolutionary war town than in a post revolutionary war town. And once again, the town's history lost out to greed.

But for me, the saddest statement on the whole affair came from one 'Senior Resident' opposed to the 1785 date. When asked if she would like to review the research, she replied: "No. I don't care what the facts are, I'm not going to live long enough if they change the date to 1785. I want my party!" When asked if it didn't bother her about robbing the next generation's opportunity to celebrate the true 250th anniversary, she replied: "I don't care about the next generation or their kids ... I want my party! They can fix the date when I die ..." A rather selfish statement I must say.

"I don't care about the next generation or the kids."  Is this what Emmitsburg has become? Is selfishness, greed, or the fear of embarrassment more important that historical accuracy?

Commissioner Boyle was correct about one thing however: we are not going to let the issue die. Unfortunately for Mr. Boyle and the proponents of the 1757 date, time and facts are on our side. We intend to continue to press the issue. As one lawyer pointed out, the facts supporting the 1785 date could win in any court.

Where in the past, the issue may have fluttered off everyone's radar screens, thanks to the Internet, the real history of Emmitsburg's founding, and all the legal documents supporting it, are available to one and all. Because of the Internet, the town's history is no longer held hostage to those who place higher emphasis on folklore than over scholastic research. It's no longer hidden behind secret doors or held in close secrecy as a rite of passage. The town's history belongs to everyone, not just to those born here. And it deserves to be true.

But back to the opening statement of this article ...

Our sympathies to Mayor Hoover, the only 'outsider' now in the town government who has to deal with the town Commissioner's ostrich-like attitudes on a daily basis.  Not surprisingly, the mayor was one of two elected representatives who took the time to actually read the material we presented the town government, (Ted Brennan was the other).  It only took the mayor a few minutes to understand the issues.  Had Mr. Boyle taken 1/20th of the time he spent in coming up with reasons to reject our research, instead of actually reading it, he might just understand how clear cut the issue really is.  But he did not.

One can only wonder, given the way the issue of the town's founding date has been mishandled by the town commissioners, what is happening to more pressing issues before them? If they can't understand, or will not take the time to comprehend simple documents like deeds, can we justifiably expect anything better on more complex issues that are before them? If they can't do simple mathematics, are they really capable of understanding a multimillion dollar budget? Given how easy they appeared to ignore the facts, one wonders how often this occurs in other issues brought before them.

But more importantly, if a town commissioner is so willing to dismiss, with such prejudice, the input and advice from individuals for the sole reason that they were not born here, what hope do we have to resolve long standing issues besetting the town, answers to which are readily available today if they choose to seek outside advice, which they apparently refuse to do.

Disdain for non-natives of Emmitsburg, as expressed by Mr. Boyle in his recent comments to the Washington Post, does not reflect the traditional friendliness and openness that was the trademark of this once great town.

Traditionally, Emmitsburg was a safe haven for "outsiders," something of which we should all be quite proud. Political dissidents, seekers of religious freedom, refugees of slavery and those of humble origin were all safe to settle here. There was an attitude of acceptance and a mindfulness of one's own humble roots, an attitude of live and let live prevailed. The "welcome" was genuine. Only in recent times have we seen the counterproductive attitudes of provincialism and close-mindedness. 

If we must be reactionary, then let's choose what better elements of our past history we would like to, and need to, rekindle today. Let's freely welcome newcomers and new ideas. Let's listen objectively and complement our own proven experiences and traditions with that of the newly arrived.

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