The Non-Profit Organization Protects, Preserves and Promotes the Diverse History of Westchester County and Its People
Elmsford, NY…“The particular business and objects of the Westchester County Historical Society are hereby declared to be to obtain and preserve information pertaining to the history of the United States of America, of the State of New York, and especially of the County of Westchester,” reads a Certificate of Incorporation filed on October 10, 1874. The now yellowed, fragile record is signed by 21 men, many with names still familiar: John Jay (the grandson of the Founding Father and first Chief Justice), Alexander Hamilton (the grandson of the Founding Father and first Secretary of the Treasury), Edward DeLancey, and Robert Getty. The extraordinary accomplishments first envisioned by these gentlemen will be celebrated this year as the Westchester County Historical Society (WCHS) marks its 150th anniversary with a variety of engaging programs and initiatives.
“This is an ideal occasion to highlight the work of WCHS, and let Westchester residents know about the treasure we protect, for the benefit of all,” said Co-Director Susanne Pandich. “WCHS is itself steeped in history, yet using all contemporary opportunities to keep ahead of the times. History is happening every moment, and we are committed to making sure that it continues to inform and inspire our daily lives.”
In addition to the regular activities of the organization, special events and initiatives will showcase the work of the society and Westchester’s extraordinary heritage. These will include a county-wide family 150th History Hunt, a public 150th anniversary meeting and forum, a commemorative publication, and a traveling, digital exhibit.
WCHS is primarily a library and research center, which has served as county historian since 1998, providing all the services mandated by the State of New York law. The non-profit organization is located in the Westchester County Records Center in Elmsford, where the county’s public records and archives are also housed. The work of the professionally-run WCHS library falls into three categories: acquisition of new materials, processing, and preserving the library’s collections, and providing public access for those WCHS collections. Documents, maps, photographs, manuscripts, and books have been collected since the inception of WCHS, the only history organization that is steward of materials representing all of Westchester. The collection of over a half million materials are preserved in 10,000 square feet of state-of-the-art, temperature controlled vaults, on shelves equivalent to the length of 215 football fields. WCHS continues to add new materials to the library by gift, purchase, and long-term loan.
Digitization and online accessibility of the collection is a top priority of WCHS. Over 100,000 items, primarily photographs, have already been digitized and can be found at https://westchester.pastperfectonline.com/ or by visiting the WCHS website: westchesterhistory.com. WCHS also shares a Reading Room with the County Archives, and those wishing to utilize archived materials in the collection of both entities can make appointments on Wednesdays.
“Connecting the public to our collection is the crux of our work,” said Co-Director Barbara Davis. “Our ‘home runs’ run the gamut: finding missing puzzle pieces to unsolved mysteries, providing information that may protect a historically-significant property, connecting long-lost family members.” The WCHS staff answers over 1,500 research questions a year and continually makes referrals to appropriate resources. Inquiries from individuals, scholars, students, corporations, and media outlets—-by telephone, email, or in the Reading Room—are wide-ranging in time period and scope, and involve every community and era in Westchester’s long history.
Westchester’s past is also promoted through programs conducted by WCHS. Thanks to digitization, staff are able to illustrate engaging presentations with images and documents in our collection. “Historic Gardens of Westchester:, “Researching Your Westchester Home”, “Westchester Dining in Historic Settings”, and “Remembering Remarkable Women of Westchester” are just a few of the titles that are made available in libraries, colleges, and organizations, and on-line. WCHS presents about 45 free programs a year to more than 2,000 participants.
WCHS also brings the history of the county to life through articles in The Westchester Historian, a 32-page quarterly journal that features richly illustrated, well-researched, relevant articles on Westchester history. Produced continuously since 1925, it is the only publication focusing on the county’s heritage. Related books produced by WCHS and available for purchase at local bookstores, at our offices, and on our website include an exceptionally-researched four-volume set on all of Westchester’s burial grounds. This unique set of reference books has become a cornerstone for historical research in the county. The inventory also includes Westchester County: A History, written by noted New York State historian Field Horne. Published in 2018, this is the first new history of the county published in many decades.
In 2023 WCHS reached its goal of researching, photographing, annotating, and posting on the Clio educational/cultural/tourism application the more than 350 sites and historic districts in Westchester County listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hosted by the Clio Foundation (www.theclio.com) is a free national educational website and mobile application that identifies and geo-locates cultural sites nearby.
Also in 2023, WCHS was awarded a federal grant from the National Publications and Records Commission, a division of the National Archives, for a project to digitize, transcribe, annotate, and widely share rare primary-source documents: the McDonald Papers. This 1,100-page document contains 407 first-hand accounts of individuals experiencing the American Revolution as it unfolded in the geographically-significant area of the war, which is now Westchester County. Their experiences allow researchers and the public to gain a better understanding of life in the late 18th century, and how men and women, from various walks of life, survived the struggle for independence. These include enslaved individuals, those who formed a military unit, and those who took up arms to defend their enslavers’ properties from British and colonists of Loyalist persuasion. These records provide an invaluable perspective for the upcoming 250th Anniversary of American Independence.
The digital display showcasing “Treasures from the WCHS Collection” will be traveling to public libraries, the County Office Building, and other public buildings during the 150th Anniversary Year. A Family History Hunt will take place from May 24th (National Scavenger Hunt Day) to September 3rd, and will include clues that take participants to historically-significant spots in all parts of the county. A 150th Anniversary supplement to the Westchester Historian will be published in October, in conjunction with an anniversary event featuring a keynote speaker, a festive reception and awarding of History Hunt prizes.