William Berry Lapham: Local Historian and Genealogist


William Berry Lapham: Local Historian and Genealogist


Bethel Historical Society


Winter 2003




Full Text

William Berry Lapham
Local Historian and Genealogist

by Stanley Russell Howe

William Berry Lapham

William Berry Lapham (1828-1894) was one of the most prolific compilers of local history and genealogy that Maine produced during the latter half of the 19th century.  Not only did he complete five local histories of Oxford County towns, but he also assembled some twenty-five genealogical works.  In addition, he led an active life as a soldier, physician, postmaster, local official, state legislator, editor, and social reformer.

Born in Greenwood, Maine, 27 August 1828, where his family was temporarily residing, he moved to nearby Bethel when he was only a few months old.  Here he spent his formative years.  He later recalled some of these memories in his History of Bethel in 1891: “All of my early associations are with Bethel and her people.  It was there that I attended the common school and the academy, and the school house still standing, where I first attended, is the same in which I first tried to teach.  I have been familiar with Bethel for more than half its years.  I remember the days of lumbering stage-coaches, and mails only once a week, of the hard times for farmers for want of a near market, of the great scarcity of money, and of the enforced economy in household expenditures.  I have witnessed all the great changes brought about by the introduction of railways, the telegraph and the telephone, and the application of steam power for propelling machinery.  I was acquainted with some of the early settlers, and when a boy, I heard from the lips of Nathaniel Segar, the story of the captivity.  Of the second generation, I was acquainted with most of them, in all parts of the town . . . .  My interest in the dear old town is unabated, for whatever changes may have taken place in population, the river, the crystal brooks, the broad intervales, the hills and mountains and all the varied scenery remain the same, and after the lapse of all these years can be called in review at will.”

During his youth, according to his own account, he worked on various farms, and managed to graduate from Gould Academy and enter Colby University (now College) in 1851.  His comment on his early educational opportunities was that they were “limited.”  Lapham did not remain to graduate, but later was awarded an honorary degree from Colby in 1874.

After leaving college, he read medicine with Dr. Almon Twitchell on Church Street in Bethel, attended lectures at the Maine Medical School, and at Dartmouth College, and finished his medical education in New York in 1856.  Following completion of his M.D. degree, he began his medical practice at Bryant Pond village in the town of Woodstock, where he also served as postmaster, school official, and tax collector.  He was a charter member of the Jefferson Lodge of Masons and District Deputy Grand Master of the 16th Masonic District; he also served two terms in the 18th District as well.

When the Civil War began in 1861, he volunteered and was given permission to recruit a company in short order.  The Federal Government, believing in Lapham’s words, “it had all the men needed to subdue the rebellion,” disbanded the company as was the case with several others raised during this period in Maine.  During the winter of 1861-62, he assisted with hospitals in Augusta, and regiments without medical staff.  Finally in 1862, he enlisted as a private in the 23rd Maine Regiment, receiving promotion to Commissary Sergeant, then to Second and subsequently to First Lieutenant of Company F.  Following service with the 23rd, he aided in recruiting the 7th Maine Battery.  Eventually he was mustered into the service as Senior First Lieutenant.  He served with this battery during the remainder of the war, participating in several of the battles of the Army of the Potomac, to the surrender of the Confederate armies and the close of the war in 1865.  With the cessation of hostilities, Lapham was appointed to the rank of Assistant Quartermaster.  He was then ordered to duty in Vermont, and mustered out on 30 October 1865 as a Brevet Major.

After being released from the Army, he returned to Bryant Pond to resume his medical practice.  Here he became the Worthy Chief of the Lodge of Good Templars and, as a result, became a strong temperance advocate.  At this time, he also entered the political arena, becoming a member of the Maine House of Representatives in 1867.  The following year he received appointment to the Board of Trustees of the Maine Insane Hospital, serving in that capacity for six years, the last four as president of the Board.  During this period, he assumed command of the Grand Army of the Republic Post (G.A.R.) in Bryant Pond.  Since he was spending so much time in Augusta, he decided to move there in June 1871.  He soon became involved in positions in that city.  In 1872, he assumed the post of general and news editor of the Maine Farmer, a position once held by his former teacher at Gould Academy, Dr. N. T. True.  Later, he was agricultural editor of the publication.  Lapham was elected as commander of the Seth William G.A.R. post in Augusta.  He also took on the responsibilities as medical director for the G.A.R. Department of Maine.

Becoming intensely interested in genealogy, Lapham became a member of the Maine Historical Society, the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the Prince Society, an honorary member of the Weymouth, Massachusetts, Historical Society, and a corresponding member of the Royal Society of Great Britain.  In Augusta, he became a member of the Maine Press Association, the Society for the Preservation of Cruelty to Animals, and the secretary and a director of the library of that city.

In 1866, he married Cynthia Perham of Woodstock.  They had three daughters.  It was at this point of his life (in his early forties) that he began his career as a writer and editor while completing a study of the Lapham family in 1873.  Besides his work for the Maine Farmer, he founded in 1875 The Maine Genealogist and Biographer, a quarterly which lasted for three years.  This experience apparently whetted his appetite for research in local and family history.  During this period, he published genealogies of the Bisbee, Ricker, Tilden, and Chase families.

Dr. Lapham’s first town history, History of Woodstock, appeared in 1882.  It was soon followed by History of Paris (which he co-authored with Silas Maxim), History of Norway (1886), History of Rumford (1890), and History of Bethel (1891).  Concurrently, he also completed genealogical studies of the Bradbury, Knox, Hazelton, Clason, and Hill families, as well as a sketch of Hallowell and a volume of war memoirs, Recollection of the War of the Rebellion (1892).  He died in Togus Veterans Home of acute diabetes on 22 February 1894 at the age of sixty-five.  At the time of his death he was at work on a history of Kittery.  He was buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Bryant Pond.

At Lapham's funeral, Rev. H. S. Whitman said of him: “It was here that many of us came to know and love him.  That strong, earnest, intense personality made a deep impression upon my young life, by the force of his positive convictions and aggressive earnestness, he soon became a leader of men.  He threw his soul into all the life issues of the day and took a manly stand for what he believed to be the truth and the right.  He had enemies to be sure.  What man of force has not?  An eminent United States Senator has said, 'A man who makes no enemies is never a positive force.'  He took his position on questions as they came up, and was always ready to defend it with all his power.  He was a strong, affectionate, generous man, a man of convictions and courage.”

In May 1894, Charles E. Nash wrote of him in a talk before the Maine Historical Society: “In all of Dr. Lapham’s investigations, he was painstaking, critical, and conscientious, insuring to his published work a remarkable degree of accuracy and corresponding rank as historical authority.  He was a ready and fertile writer, commanding a style of composition that is delightfully simple and direct, and as little influenced by the play of fancy or imagination as the terse prescriptions which he penned for his patients in the days of his medical practice.”

To place Dr. Lapham within the historical frame of reference in regard to the state of history in his day, it may be fruitful to examine briefly the context and tradition in which he worked.

The first historians in what is today the United States were the Puritans who saw history and wrote it as a “working out” of God’s will upon human beings.  In other words, theirs was a history that was highly theological and frequently contained numerous biblical references, analogies, and moral judgments reflecting the Puritan concept that they were God’s “Chosen People” destined to establish in America the Christian ideal of the “City on the Hill.”  These historians were succeeded by the so-called patrician historians, such as Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, and Henry Adams, men of learning and leisure, who wrote history from an elitist point of view and who were often highly nationalist in bias.

The rise of the professional historian came in the latter half of the 19th century with the breakdown of the classical curriculum and the emergence of the elective system.  The rise of the Ph.D. degree also fostered this development.  In 1884, the American Historical Association was founded; its Review would appear in 1895.  Also significant was the formation of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (1907); in 1964, it became the Organization of American Historians.  Historians associated with the founding of these two organizations were among those pioneering professional historians who tried hard to apply the principles of science to human behavior, which is not always easy, as Homo sapiens are not usually so predictable.

The current view of historical writing mandates that practitioners of the historical craft should write as interestingly and objectively as possible, supporting all viewpoints with a careful analysis of all available evidence while eliminating as much as practical all prejudice and preconceptions.

With this in mind, it is possible to consider the interest in local and regional history that began to flower in the latter half of the 19th century.  Most writers in this genre were in the tradition of the patrician historians.  They were primarily clergymen, retired soldiers, doctors and professional people, who wrote with all the predilections of class viewpoint that one might anticipate from persons of that background.  They appeared heavily influenced by the tenor of their times.  In some ways, these chroniclers of the past are a good study model for today’s historians as they often mirrored their times in less self-conscious ways than the national historians, who tended to be more introspective.

The last twenty-five years of the 19th century brought a golden age in local history as the wounds of the Civil War began to heal and the national centenary celebration launched the colonial revival movement.  During this era, the past came to be romanticized.  Anglo-Saxons began to search out their genealogical antecedents in response to the swelling number of immigrants to America.  This tended to reassure those born in this nation of their superiority and special place in its founding, while reminding the immigrants of their station in national life.  Some of those who were native-born believed that the absorption of so many immigrants at once would dilute what they considered “Americanism.”  Industrial violence in the late 19th century, epitomized by the Haymarket riot and other disruptive events, lent momentum to the idea that foreigners were somehow alien to American values.  The rise of the pledge of allegiance, the founding of both the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution, and other patriotic movements and practices were among the responses by some who were intent on making certain all foreigners arriving on these shores would become 100% American.  The emphasis on native-born heredity and status came to be important to some elements of the U.S. population since America had inherited no European aristocracy.  Because of this perceived deficiency, one had to be created in the opinion of some American citizens.

It was into that atmosphere that local historians of Lapham’s era did their research and wrote their histories.  Various generalizations may apply to most of the writing in this genre.  Clio’s servants of the era often relied on hearsay evidence for their historical compositions, wary and even contemptuous of the rules of evidence and verification.  They often plagiarized freely from other sources and based their work on a narrow base of references.  It was not uncommon for them to change the text of a document that did not fit their purposes.  In a number of cases, they possessed and advocated ideas of racial superiority and inferiority, particularly toward Indians and other minorities.  In many instances, they focused on a narrow view of history, chiefly political in emphasis, thereby neglecting social, intellectual and economic aspects of the historical process.  They were primarily collectors of information accompanied by little or no analysis.  These historians of Lapham’s time frequently introduced personal opinions and perspectives into the text, often without qualifying remarks.  Many of these historians were motivated by family pride or a desire to achieve some form of immortality.  Not infrequently, they infused their historical writing with the idea that a good Christian life based on sobriety and self-discipline would lead to the best of lives and become the surest guarantee of success.  Finally, these historians commonly exaggerated the qualities of settings and the achievements of individuals.  The use of superlatives and the instances of local pride were often excessive.

What, then, can we learn about Lapham’s work in relation to the observations listed above?  On the question of relying on personal recollections, impressions, as well as hearsay evidence, Lapham, for example, on page 435 of his Bethel history observed that wolves were prevalent based on his personal recollection of sixty years before.  He also recalls numerous legends, and we have only his word as our source in many cases.  When discussing individuals such as Israel Kimball, Jr., Lapham wrote: “It is always a pleasure to speak of such a man as Israel Kimball, Jr., because pleasant things can be said of him without fear of adverse comment and without exposing the writer to the charge of favoritism.  Such men are the salt of the earth, and the world is better that they have lived.  He was honest, industrious, frugal, and thrifty.  He had an abundance of charity, but he bestowed it with discrimination and judgment.  He despised shams in whatever form they were presented.  He excelled in everything he undertook . . . .  His wife Sarah Webber Kimball was a most excellent woman, a model Christian mother, and an ornament to her sex.”  It appears clear also that Lapham admired him because Kimball reflected his position on the temperance issue.

Regarding a tendency to plagiarize, he had no qualms about quoting Dr. True’s earlier Bethel history extensively and often without attribution.  Concerning the limited sources question, Lapham must be found guilty.  He relied mainly upon town records and personal recollections.  There is no or little evidence of broad reading of newspapers, diaries, letters, and other documentary evidence to support his contentions.  At least in one case, Lapham changed the text of a document.  In his history of Rumford, Lapham altered Rev. Daniel Gould’s History of 1826 when he incorporated it into his work.

Throughout his historical writing, one finds frequent reference to race that was so typical of that era.  Moreover, Lapham often made value judgments in regard to Indians, referring to them as “treacherous and savage.”  A good example of his personal views being evident in his historical writing appears in the account he composed regarding Consider Cole in his Bethel history: “Consider Cole was a Greenwood man, but he was often at Bethel Hill, and when there, provided he had the means to gratify his insatiable appetite for drink, he was sure to become intoxicated.  On one occasion he crept into the school house which stood near Robertson’s shop [now the site of the Bethel House on Main Street], intending to spend the night there.  It was a bitter cold night, and seeing him enter I followed him.  He was camped upon the floor, and when I entered, he lifted his head, and resting upon his hand, his elbow on the floor, he peered into my face and said, ‘Are you the school committee? If you be, won’t you have glass set in the windows to keep out the wind.’  I took him to the tavern where he obtained his drink, and by a little coaxing and a few threats of prosecution, induced the landlord to take care of him for the night.  At another time, I with another, found him late at night in a horse shed, upon the ground, in a drunk stupor.  It was a bitter night and glittering stars looked coldly down upon the snow-clad earth.  We raised him up, and each taking an arm, walked him off toward warmer quarters.  As we were going along, he turned upon me, and having some idea were he might be going or ought to go, with a drunken leer, he enquired, ‘Be you the devil?’  Our interference on this occasion doubtless saved his life for he could not have outlived that frigid night.  Consider enlisted and went to the war and never returned, which was, perhaps, just as well.  He could not resist an appetite long indulged and which was hereditary.  His father, lying before an open fire in a drunken sleep, was roasted alive, and the whole family were slaves to the intoxicating cup.  Consider and his brother did not marry, and the family has become instinct.”  The bias is so obvious here that one can perhaps hear Lapham saying in regard to this Cole family, “Hooray!  The problem is over since the family no longer exists.”

Lapham’s views on the temperance issue are also evident in a letter he wrote from Augusta on 20 July 1890 to the Oxford Advertiser and printed in the 5 August 1890 issue of that paper.  In discussing the town of his birth, he wrote: “Greenwood City had an unsavory reputation for many years in the olden time, when rum was sold in quantities, and there were frequent gatherings of the yeomanry round about, who indulged in wrestling, pitching quoits, horse racing, and sometimes in fighting.”

In a series of articles in the Oxford Advertiser in 1887, Lapham, using the pen name “Index,” recorded information on the history of his birthplace.  While doing so, he did not miss an opportunity to elaborate more fully on the growing popularity of rum in Locke Mills, a village in the town of Greenwood: “A large trade was soon carried on and a hogshead would not supply the weekly demand.  The business was too good for one man to have a monopoly long and soon another store was opened of the same character.  Then a tavern did a remunerative business in dealing out the poison that ‘stole men’s brains’ for a number of years.”  In summary, Lapham wrote that “the reign of rum in Locke’s [the name was later shortened to Locke] Mills covered a period of about twelve years and during that time did a great amount of harm.”  He cited mortgages issued during this period and never paid, adding, “Not only was the money wasted by being exchanged for rum but valuable time was lost in loafing about the village, and under the influence of liquor men were often persuaded to buy things that they did not need; in this way the account was run up and then it must be secured.”  In conclusion, he noted that “enlightened public sentiment has driven the [liquor] business from the rural towns into the dark corner of the cities and large villages, where this and kindred crimes ever have and probably ever will be committed.”

Lapham was very definitely moved by family considerations and a desire for immortality.  His sketch of his life in his Woodstock history is detailed.  He also wrote the volume on his role in the Civil War expressly for his progeny, to be certain that they would not forget his service to the Union cause.

In his descriptions of places, Dr. Lapham was effusive in his praise of the local color.  He reflected enormous pride in his discussion of his early years in Bethel, but was not so approving of the town of his birth, believing that the people of his birthplace (Greenwood) were not as temperate as he might expect them to be.

Some of Lapham’s historical writing was also performed for monetary gain.  His Rumford history was most notably assembled for money.  As a result, it is perhaps the weakest of his five major histories, since he appears to have had little personal connection with the town.  All of his publications netted him some income, but he struggled financially most of his life.

Despite all these shortcomings, Lapham’s histories are particularly strong in their notation of geographic features as well as the detailed descriptions of local flora and fauna.  In this role, he clearly understood particular aspects of the historical craft when he quoted Edmund Burke to declare that writing of the past helps “to attend to the neglected and to remember the forgotten.”

In summation, Lapham’s histories and genealogies are still consulted to this day because he recorded so much information that would otherwise have been lost.  He was well aware of John Quincy Adams’ observation that “posterity delights in details.”  Researchers in Maine history are all the richer for his labors.