Why History Matters

Historian Walter Woodward says knowing Connecticut’s past can help residents effect change.

<p>Walter Woodward, state historian and assistant professor of history. Photo by Danielle Robinson</p>
Walter Woodward, state historian and associate professor of history. Photo by Danielle Robinson

Walter Woodward is the Connecticut state historian and an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He argues that all state residents should learn about its history – especially if they want to change the way things are done here.

You are the state’s historian and this is the 375th anniversary of our state. Do you find that most people know anything about Connecticut’s history?

Everybody knows something; most people could benefit from knowing a lot more. There’s a very practical reason people should know more about Connecticut’s history. So many of the things that affect our daily lives – from the location of roads to the structure of our tax system – are the way they are, and happen the way they happen, because of specific historical circumstances. Knowing the state’s history not only gives people an informed understanding of the hows and whys behind these life-shaping influences, it can help them know where to begin when and if they decide to try to change things.

If there were just three things about our state’s history that you would want every resident to know, what would they be?

  • That it’s important – because history really does affect the way you live today.
  • That it belongs to you – whether you arrived in Connecticut yesterday, or your family moved here 375 years ago, our past is your story to own and be enriched by.
  • That it’s fascinating. Connecticut’s history has everything that makes life and the study of people interesting – action, intrigue, drama, politics, war, justice, injustice, love, hate, and a fair dose of humor too. Best of all, it’s a history with tangible reminders all around you – wherever you are in this, one of the earliest American colonies.

What do you recommend to people who want to research facts about our past?

There are some wonderful sources for people who want to learn more about or get involved in the study of Connecticut’s past. The Connecticut Historical Society, local historical societies throughout the state, and places like Mystic Seaport, the New England Air Museum, and nearby Lebanon Green or the Nathan Hale Homestead are all great places to go for in-person exploration of the past. There are also wonderful online resources like Connecticut History Online, a site produced by the Thomas Dodd Center, the Connecticut Historical Society, and Mystic Seaport, that puts literally thousands of historic photos and documents right at your fingertips. The State Library’s iCONN.org statewide online database also puts a world of historical and genealogical information right at your fingertips.

You used to be an advertising executive and song and jingle writer. Does that background help you to make history come alive?

At their core, both advertising and songwriting are about effective story-telling. So is history. And I like to think (and at least I try) to bring a storyteller’s enthusiasm coupled with a historian’s intellectual curiosity to my writing and public presentations. Of course, I’m not the judge of whether I do it successfully. Those who read my work or come to my talks get to decide that.

Your new book Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture (1606-1676) is about alchemy and how it influenced religious tolerance and Indian relations. Just what is alchemy and how did it affect our legacy as a culture? Is it practiced today?

The answer to that question could fill a book! But a short version is that alchemy was an early modern form of chemical research that united science, religion, and magic in the quest to develop improvements that would help society and, alchemists believed, hasten the return of Christ. Many people today find this statement confusing, because our society places such firewalls between religion, science, and magic that it is hard for us to see them as so closely braided together. For John Winthrop Jr. – the early Connecticut governor who used alchemical knowledge in industrial, medical, and even political applications that powerfully shaped early Connecticut culture – religion, science, and magic could not be teased apart, and alchemy was the cutting-edge approach to making Connecticut a leader among colonies.

Are you working on a new project?

Actually, I’m working on two projects: a study of the great out-migration from Connecticut in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; and a study on the influence and use of music in early colonial contacts between cultures. Both topics, I’ve found, have a lot to tell us about the past and in surprising ways.