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George R. Prowell develops an Interest in Documenting History

Portrait of George R. Prowell (Opposite Volume I Title Page of George R. Prowell’s 1907 History of York County, Pennsylvania)
Portrait of George R. Prowell (Opposite Volume I Title Page of George R. Prowell’s 1907 History of York County, Pennsylvania)

My post last Wednesday contained a link to a post I wrote about George R. Prowell in April; it was intended to be the first of two parts about George R. Prowell.  In part one, George recommended a Department of Common Sense in every College.  I intended to immediately complete the remainder of what George R. Prowell had to say, when he was 29-years-old, however it got lost in a shuffle with other posts in recent months.

I’m finally catching up; this is part 2; where you’ll learn when George R. Prowell developed his interest in documenting history.



George R. Prowell’s 1907 History of York County, Pennsylvania, is quoted quite often in YorksPast.  This is an extensive history that builds upon and updates John Gibson’s 1886 History of York County.

Gibson’s 1886 History of York County contains 772 pages of County History and 207 pages of Biographical Sketches.  Prowell’s 1907 History of York County contains 1109 pages of County History in Volume I and 1047 pages of Biographical Sketches in Volume II.  However looking closely at Gibson’s History of York County, one sees that George R. Prowell contributed pages 212-218, 278-289 and 299-772; i.e. 493 of the 772 pages (64%) of Gibson’s County History is written by Prowell.

Several years ago I was doing some family history research at Millersville University and stumbled upon a biography supplied by George R. Prowell to the historian of the Class of 1870 at the State Normal School at Millersville.   George Prowell wrote this when he was 29 years old and it was presented as part of The Class of 1870: A History; read at Millersville on July 14th, 1880.

George R. Prowell

The husband of our sweet singer of 1870 and some succeeding years, Mr. George R. Prowell, must now be heard.  [He says in 1880 (Continued from Part 1):]

I am at present an editorial writer on the York Daily and a regular contributor to the Harrisburg Patriot.  I have always been doing some work outside of teaching.  Have an instinctive love for the profession, and yet think that in this enlightened age the public schools of this country are not making much real advancement.  There is too much nonsense in our system of education.

I was married in Stamford, Connecticut, October 13th, 1875, to Miss Jennie Dean, of Stamford.  We have not had many family quarrels.  I am now opposed to female suffrage.  I have a happy home, but should not have such a one if Mrs. Prowell voted, as we differ in politics.  She is a Democrat.  My height is 5 feet 8-1/2 inches, and my weight 135 pounds.  My eyes are black, I presume; I never saw them, and even if I had, appearances are delusive, but I have faith in what others say.  My post office address is 87 North Beaver street, York, Pennsylvania.

We are not amphibious animals, if we do live on Beaver street, but a recent large fire came very near burning us out, being checked only a short time before it reached our house.  I omitted to say that during the year 1878 I taught with Dr. Ruley in the old York County Academy, a flourishing institution now in successful operation ninety-one years.  It was the first high school established west of the Susquehanna.  In the spring of the same year I taught the county Normal School, of sixty York county teachers.

I am a communicant of St. John’s Protestant Episcopal Church.  My forefathers came from Birmingham, England, in the eighteenth century.  There is but one family of the name in this county.  I am now preparing a biographical history of prominent persons and families of this county, which is intended to contain many interesting historical facts concerning its early growth.

In a private letter to the historian Mr. Prowell says:

I have two little girls, Nellie Brooks Prowell, a pert little black-eyed dot, who wants all the playthings that girls generally have, and now petitions for balls, wagons and guns, ‘just like the boys have,’ and wonders ‘why girls shouldn’t have boys’ playthings too.’  She looks like ‘papa,’ but has the mischief of her mother.  Hair and eyes black as jet, and she wonders ‘what books and pianos are made for.’  Miss Prowell, number two, Edna Dean, is an enchanting little blonde, eighteen months old, walks and talks, and begins to drum on the piano.  She is to be the musician.  She has long curls, and her mamma is persuaded she looks like her.  Presume she is right.

Recall that in 1880 George Prowell wrote, “I am now preparing a biographical history of prominent persons and families of this county, which is intended to contain many interesting historical facts concerning its early growth.”  Was Prowell’s early county history interest, while still in his late 20s, independent of John Gilbson’s work during his preparation of the 1886 History of York County?  We do know that George R. Prowell, in the biographical sketch of himself for the 1907 History of York County, Pennsylvania (Volume II, Page 21), notes his involvement with John Gibson in the two years prior to this 1886 publication:

In 1884-85 Mr. Prowell was associated with Hon. John Gibson in the preparation of a comprehensive “History of York County.”  After the completion of this work he was the literary editor of several local histories in Pennsylvania, published by L. H. Everts & Company, of Philadelphia.  In 1887 he wrote and published the “History of Camden County, New Jersey,” a large volume, which included the history of what, was originally known as the Province of West Jersey.  Many of the chapters of this volume contain original research relating to the early history of the State of New Jersey.

During the years 1890-94 he was an associate editor, engaged in the preparation of the “National Cyclopedia of American Biography,” published in twelve volumes, and now found in all the large public libraries.  It fell to his duty to prepare, for this work, the biographies of several of the presidents and their cabinet officers, all the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the members of the United States Senate, from the foundation of the Republic to 1894.  He also wrote the lives of all the governors of half a dozen of the leading States of the Union, including Pennsylvania, and the history of the University of Pennsylvania in the lives of its presidents and faculty.

He then returned the second time to educational work and served three years as superintendent of public schools at Hanover.  In 1898-99, while engaged as a contributor to “Lamb’s Dictionary of American Biography,” he spent eight months in New England and the Southern States in preparing the history, growth and development of the cotton manufacturing industry in the United States.  During the next two years he prepared and published the “History of the 87th Pennsylvania Volunteers,” a regiment largely composed of York county troops, which served for a period of three years in the Civil war, and the “71st Pennsylvania,” known in the annals of the Civil war as the “California Regiment.”

In 1902, at the solicitation of the Historical Society of York County, he began to collect and build up a museum, library and various collections of historic views and portraits for that organization, which occupies a large room on the third floor of the new courthouse at York.  His literary studies have covered the whole range of American history and biography, but he has devoted special attention to local history, which led to the preparation of the first volume of this work, entitled “History of York County.”  He has been a contributor to literary magazines and has prepared numerous historical papers and various publications.  He is curator and librarian of the Historical Society of York County, member of the National Geographic Society and the American Historical Association.

The Millersville publication has a typo, 1875 should be 1878; because Mr. Prowell was married, at Stamford, Conn., in October, 1878, to Virginia, daughter of Col. John and Sarah (Tillman) Dean.  Also, besides his daughters Nellie Brooks Prowell and Edna Dean Prowell, that George Prowell wrote about in 1880, he also had a son Dean Prowell.

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