Sullivan County Historical Society History Preserver Award 2006
James Eldridge Quinlan
“ ‘Quinlan’s History of Sullivan County’ – the magic words that always create a ripple of excitement at auctions and a flurry of spirited bidding. It was and continues to be a collector’s item. How fortunate we are that James Eldridge Quinlan took the troubled to assemble this material, the sources of which have almost all vanished with the passage of time.”
Thus did Manville Wakefield, an outstanding county historian of the twentieth century, salute James Quinlan, his nineteenth century predecessor. In this brief quotation, Manville expressed the regret which afflicts all historians and genealogists investigating the history of Sullivan County prior to the Civil War: so many original documents have been lost. Fires, floods and perhaps a general carelessness as regards historical preservation were some of the factors at work. Given the limited number of original sources, one can appreciate how important it is to have a seven hundred page volume, published in 1873, which provides an overall view of the life of the county to that point in time.
If our knowledge of the County in the nineteenth century is limited, so too is our knowledge of Quinlan, the History’s author. There is very little written about him and to date, we have not found any family records. We can only share a few biographical facts which do poor justice to such an active and valuable life.
James Quinlan was born in 1818 and died in 1874; the year after his work on county history was published. As is still true today, some of our most popular historians come from a background in journalism rather than from time spent in a university library. This was true of Quinlan who became owner and editor of the Republican Watchman in July 1839 and except for a few periods of illness was an active and successful journalist until October 12, 1866. His interest in the history of the county reflects the practical approach of a man of affairs. In addition to being an editor and publisher, he was Clerk of the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors for three terms, 1849 to 1851. One contemporary said of him that “he was one of the outstanding figures in the literary and business circles of the county.”
We do not know how many copies of the 1873 edition of the History were printed, but the printing was eventually sold out. However, interest in the book with its unique record of early county life was so strong that in the 1960’s FPC Advertising reprinted a total of 2,500 copies from a surviving copy of the original edition. These copies in turn were sold out in a few years to interested readers both locally and across the country. At present, arrangements are being made for another reprinting.
In a Preface to his history, Quinlan speaks of “long years of patient research” made more difficult by recurrent illness. As a news editor for many years, he would have absorbed considerable information about the county simply in the course of a day’s work. However, that kind of casual information was just the beginning of his research. There were several men, Billings Grant Childs and Jay Gould, who had attempted a history but were unable to complete such a daunting project. Fortunately, Quinlan was able to acquire their memoranda and notes and incorporate some of their research into his History. He was even more indebted to a Professor Antisell whose work on geology and the Leni Lenape Indians was so thorough that Quinlan did not hesitate to incorporate it into the opening chapters which take up almost the first one hundred pages. Another source of knowledge was provided by friends and neighbors who had actually lived through events he described. He was greatly concerned with the accuracy of his history and made a great effort to check his sources.
“We have been favored with the oral and written statements of nearly one hundred well-known residents of the county. These statements we have compared with each other and with official documents and records, as well as what we have found in files of old newspapers and gleaned from other sources of information. The result, gentle reader, is before you. You may detect errors of commission and omission; but we have guarded against both, through long years of patient research; and we hope that you will decide that our work is not wholly destitute of merit. . . . It has lightened the burden of our life. May it enhance the enjoyment of yours!”
The structure of Quinlan’s History is helpful to any reader. After discussing in detail the geology of the county, the climate and the Leni Lenape Indians, he divided the History into fourteen chapters, each one dealing with the story of one of Sullivan’s towns, beginning with Bethel and ending with Tusten. (Cochecton and Delaware were combined into one chapter.) He writes in detail and with affection for the men and women who lived in a particular town and contributed to its founding and subsequent growth. He also deals with important historical events which took place in each town. For example, the Battle of Minisink which we commemorate each July 22, is described in detail under the Town of Highland. There are also final chapters on new modes of transportation- the Delaware and Hudson Canal, the New York and Erie Railway and the New York and Oswego Midland Railroad (later the New York, Ontario and Western Railway) which were transforming county life.
In an Appendix, Quinlan wrote that he had completed 250 pages of manuscript which included additional information about such matters as Slavery, Temperance Reform, the Patented Lands of Sullivan County, etc. It was his intention to publish this research. Alas, he died the year after his History was published and those additional chapters never saw the light of day. If today these manuscripts were discovered in some obscure corner of a small-town library, they would be greeted with unalloyed enthusiasm by current scholars.
Quinlan was not writing about some far off country or far-off events. He found Sullivan County a fascinating place and had probably seen first-hand most of the places mentioned in his history. In one sense he was a trailblazer like so many pioneers of that era. No one had written a history of Sullivan County, so he had to create his own pathway. Realizing the debt we owe this man who persevered through years of illness, we can only be grateful for the journey he actually made. The Historical Society is proud to honor him with the History Preserver Award for 2006.