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  • James Morton Callahan:The Making of a West Virginia Historian
  • Jack L. Hammersmith

When James Morton Callahan joined the faculty at West Virginia University in the fall of 1902, he did so as associate professor of European history, a position which more accurately reflected the needs of the institution than the academic preparation of the historian himself. Callahan, with a doctorate earned in 1897 from the highly acclaimed graduate program at Johns Hopkins University, was, at age thirty-seven, already well published with four major books in print. Yet once Callahan accepted a position at WVU, he quickly began turning to his more immediate environment for student topics as well as his own professional development, and, during the first three decades of his nearly forty years at the university, he would develop into a leading state historian, one whose research and publications were dominated by West Virginia subjects. His conversion was never complete, and in the last years of his career he reverted to diplomatic studies with major publications on U.S. relations with Mexico and Canada. During the lengthiest and most significant part of his academic life, however, the press of administrative duties as well as the lure of scholarly and economic opportunities created for him as much of a reputation as a pioneer state historian as he liked to think of himself a trail-blazer in diplomatic studies.

In truth, Callahan, an indefatigable worker, had a keen sense of timing and made maximum use of unique opportunities wherever he found himself. In his diplomatic studies, his accessibility while at Johns Hopkins to Washington, D.C., with the invaluable and unused materials of the U.S. State Department, propelled him into early prominence as a scholar whose work was especially well grounded in primary sources. Much the same was true of his role in West Virginia studies. In urging the organization of archival materials, in immersing himself at an early date through speeches and writings in various aspects of the state story, and in guiding his first graduate students into subjects of state significance, Callahan again seized the advantage of rare opportunity. His influence would be seen with greatest impact and clarity in the career and scholarship of his most successful graduate [End Page 25] student, Charles H. Ambler. Moreover, his early efforts at writing state and local history would reflect the political currents of the time, particularly the progressive sentiments at their peak as he produced his first comprehensive state history in 1913. Indeed, one could almost hear the echo of his hero, Theodore Roosevelt, in some of its most passionate passages. In other ways, too, Callahan had foresight. One in particular was his belief that the state story should be told "from the ground up" and embrace broad social and cultural developments as well as political and economic perspectives. In this he proved something of a pioneer social historian.

Of course none of these contributions to West Virginia history came without costs, especially to his initial intention of defining himself as a diplomatic historian. Rather, they reflected the competing demands of working in accessible subjects largely untouched by professional historians versus more general career aspirations which necessitated travel to the nation's capital and to foreign archives for prolonged periods of time, both requiring financial resources lacking institutionally and never, in his mind at least, readily available personally. Thus, his work in state studies (and his decision to undertake long-term administrative roles at West Virginia University) also underscored a drive for financial security more easily and immediately realized through the multiple opportunities which lay at his very doorstep than hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

When Callahan arrived at the university community of Morgantown, he easily settled into a location he described as a "quiet and clean University town" comparable to a "mountain summer resort."1 Already he had produced four substantial works in U.S. diplomacy, his specialization in his graduate program at Johns Hopkins University. His dissertation on the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817, which had signaled the start of a lengthy era of good feelings between Great Britain and the United States on the American continent, had appeared under the imprimatur of...


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