The Grassroots Historian
C. L. SONNICHSEN*
H ISTORIANS NOWADAYS ARE LIKE DOCTORS AND ENGINEERS. THEY
have to specialize. Nobody takes all history to be his province.
He goes in for Colonial Latin America or the Populist Movement or
American Diplomatic Relations with France during the War of 1812.
The areas of specialization become smaller and more refined every
year, and nobody is much surprised to hear of a new one. There is
one type of historian, however, who never gets any attention. He is
modest and shy, hesitating to call himself a historian at all. He works
in out-of-the-way places, reads country newspapers, prowls about in
county courthouses, and spends a lot of time interviewing old men and
women. When he appears at conventions of state historical societies,
he does so a little self consciously and speaks to the professionals cour-
teously and respectfully, if at all. Any word of appreciation or ap-
proval overwhelms him and leaves him starry-eyed with happiness.
I call him a grassroots historian. John Jenkins calls him a cracker-
barrel chronicler." He is low man on the historical totem pole, but
he is not as low as he used to be. His numbers are increasing (probably
half the members of the Texas State Historical Association could qual-
ify for the club), publishers are much more hospitable to him than
they used to be, and he has a surprising number of readers. It is time
that somebody spoke up for him, and since I have been a grassroots
historian for thirty-five years, I can tell you a good deal about the
diurnal -and nocturnal habits of historianus herbidus-what he does
and how he does it, and what has happened to him during the years
I have had him under observation.
There is one special reason why this matter needs to be aired. Many
fine grassroots historians have never recognized themselves for what
they are. They think of themselves as harmless eccentrics who collect
local history as other people collect mustache cups or Blue Amberola
*C. L. Sonnichsen, professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso, gave
this paper as a luncheon address at the Association's annual meeting on May io, 1969. He
has published many books of "grassroots history," some of which are mentioned in later
notes in this article.
1John H. Jenkins, Cracker Barrel Chronicles: A Bibliography of Texas Town and County
Histories (Austin, 1965).
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 73, July 1969 - April, 1970. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117147/. Accessed February 1, 2015.