Introduction to Environmental History Resources Guide
From the period of its founding as an English settlement in North America, essentially a business venture from the start, Virginia has thrived on the availability and use of its natural resources. Whether recognized at the time or not, Virginia’s environment has both influenced and been affected by the peoples who have inhabited the land and waterways that make up what we now call the Commonwealth. Increasingly, an understanding of that complex and dynamic relationship has broadened beyond the important recognitions brought about in the second half of the twentieth century by the environmental movement in America. Today, researchers and historians are delving more deeply into Virginia’s past to explore a growing and diverse set of questions about land and water and other natural resources in the broader context of human history. To foster that study, the Virginia Historical Society has long offered resources to scholars and other users, but it has done so within the parameters of its overall collections processing and descriptive activities. With this guide, the VHS is pleased to initiate a special finding aid crafted to call attention to specific manuscripts materials that, to our staff, qualify as potentially useful to environmental research and merit the attention of students of this important and growing field of historical inquiry.
The Virginia Historical Society began collecting manuscript records of the commonwealth's past at the institution's founding in 1831. Over the years, a major collection of documentary materials has been compiled, the great bulk of which is concentrated on the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but with a rapidly growing portion relating to more recent times. The vast majority of the material initially acquired focuses on the lives and careers of Virginia's gentry families—especially the male principals of those families—with a collateral focus on businesses, institutions, and organizations in the Old Dominion. Within these records, much evidence of the interaction with and use of land and other natural resources may be found.
In developing this guide, VHS staff has considered the term “environmental history” in its broadest possible applications. We have reviewed existing collection entries in our online public access catalog looking for terms that might suggest the presence of appropriate materials. We have processed new collections with a sharper eye toward the appearance of such records. We have thought broadly about the breadth of our collections, including related published materials and three-dimensional objects, to seek out relationships among our holdings that might suggest fresh paths of investigation and the resources that might promote that work.
All this has been accomplished through the generosity of the Virginia Environmental Endowment. Because of the vision of its executive director, Gerald P. McCarthy, and its board of directors, this resource has been conceived and made possible. We are deeply grateful to the VEE for encouraging the VHS staff to take another very significant step forward in its commitment to the preservation of and access to its collections.
E. Lee Shepard