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A Life: Jere R. Daniell II; ‘Rarely did anything he didn’t enjoy’

  • Jere Daniell was an avid fisherman with a deep knowledge of local fishing holes, and he and his wife Elena regularly took fishing trips to his hometown of Millinocket, Maine. (Family photograph)

  • Jere and Elena Daniell married in 1969 and together raised his three sons, Douglas, Alex and Matthew Daniell, and her daughter, Breena Daniell, and son, Cliff Bradley. (Family photograph) Family photographs

  • Jere Daniell was the valedictorian of his high school class and also delivered the valedictory speech at Dartmouth College during his graduation in 1955. (Family photograph)

  • A map showing the locations of over 500 presentations given by the late professor Jere Daniell throughout New England hangs in his former home office in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, August 25, 2022. Daniell was an expert in the history of colonial New England and was dedicated to his students at Dartmouth College where he worked as a professor for 39 years. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus (above) and Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library

  • Jere Daniell teaches at Dartmouth College in an undated photograph. A 1955 graduate of the school, Daniell returned after getting his masters and doctorate at Harvard to work as a professor in Hanover, N.H., for 39 years. (Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library) —© Dartmouth College

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/28/2022 9:08:42 PM
Modified: 8/29/2022 9:43:04 PM

HANOVER — Jere Daniell studied and taught New England history partly for practical reasons.

His family has deep roots here. Daniell Point, where the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers meet to form the Merrimack River, in Franklin, N.H., bears his family’s name, and he grew up in Millinocket, Maine, where his father was a paper mill engineer. Daniell entered Dartmouth College expecting to study engineering, as his father and both of his older brothers had before him, but he gravitated to other subjects. The celebrated Harvard historian, Bernard Bailyn, turned Daniell on to New England’s Colonial history, then a busy field of study.

“If you’re going to be around a place, you may as well understand it,” Daniell told the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 1990. He’d been teaching at Dartmouth since 1964, most notably a course titled “History of New England.” “Had I ended up teaching in Arizona, I’d probably be working on Arizona history.”

There’s some gentle, Yankee cussedness in that “you may as well,” part credo, and part indictment. Daniell had cause to suggest his fellow New Englanders ought to look a little more closely at their region’s history. Though he was a gregarious man and generous with his time, Daniell’s field of study could be a bit lonely. While the region’s role in the nation’s founding and early growth was pre-eminent, its later history, particularly after the Civil War, doesn’t make it onto the course lists of many universities, even in New England.

“There aren’t any courses like what Jere Daniell taught,” Joseph Conforti, a retired professor of New England studies at the University of Southern Maine, in Portland, and the author of Imagining New England, said in a phone interview.

Daniell retired from teaching in 2003, but continued lecturing in towns across New England, mainly in public libraries and town historical societies, until shortly before he died, on May 17, 2022, at age 89.

By the time of Daniell’s retirement, courses in New England history had grown rare at New England colleges and universities, and they have only declined since. While students still study the Colonial period and the American Revolution, both of which center on New England, the region’s history beyond those years comes up only in other contexts, Conforti said. Native American history, which Daniell supported at Dartmouth, focuses on New England, and the region also is studied for its connection to the wider field of Atlantic history, in which it’s tied to Europe, Africa, the West Indies and South America.

In a globalized world, looking at New England as a corner of a wider canvas makes sense, but the study of regional American history is strong elsewhere, Conforti said.

“Southern studies is thriving,” Conforti said. “There may be more courses on Southern history in New England that there are on New England.” Study of the Western U.S. is also robust.

The 1990 reading list for Daniell’s class featured books written between 1936 and 1983. They ranged from Colonial history (Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, by William Cronon) through industrialization, which emptied out small towns and built up cities, and immigration, to the most recent wave of rural resettlement, of back-to-the-landers and well-heeled rusticators, a second colonization depicted in one of Daniell’s favorite New England novels, Ernest Hebert’s The Dogs of March, also on the syllabus.

Daniell felt the lack of study of New England keenly. His course, he wrote in the alumni magazine, started with a quirky test: “I ask students to list three items under various categories to complete the question: ‘When I think of New England I think of ….’ ” The answers were what one might expect. Fall foliage, maple syrup, Paul Revere and Robert Frost.

“Although not a single student has ever listed a factory or smokestack, the six-state region has always been the most industrialized section of the country,” Daniell wrote. “It has also been the most urbanized, ethnic, and Roman Catholic part of the United States — yet only ‘countryside’ and WASPs appear in the quiz responses.” Even descendants of French-Canadian families who grew up in factory towns referred to pastoral Yankee cliches.

“Jere, he would always grind about it,” Steve Taylor, who asked Daniell to help shape the New Hampshire Humanities Council in the 1970s, said in an interview. Taylor, a Meriden resident and former state Agriculture commissioner, tried to interest a Boston Globe reporter in the story of “the almost disappearance of New England history not only from New England institutions, but also from the professoriate,” but it never came about.

After Taylor roped him into the state Humanities program, Daniell became a star speaker, traveling around New Hampshire and the region to talk about local history. He researched the town where he planned to speak and often gave a talk that illuminated some part of town history that wasn’t widely known. These experiences led Daniell to concentrate his research on the New England town.

Unlike other parts of the country, New England has based much of its daily life on the town, which serves as a both a fundamental unit of government, but also a kind of organizing principle for the entire region. Towns could be utopian experiments or dysfunctional messes or pretty much anything in between. Even now, members of the libertarian Free State Project have, in advance of their goal of taking over New Hampshire, laid claim to a few towns, notably Grafton and Croydon. Town boundaries are parochial, but also aspirational.

Each student taking Daniell’s course had to write a tightly focused research paper, and these often were illuminating to the professor grading them. “Dartmouth students have taught me about harvesting cranberries, John Kennedy’s grandfather, the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel, water levels in the Rangeley Lakes, the Rhode Island-Connecticut boundary, and much more,” Daniell wrote. What he learned in one year’s batch of papers often found its way into the next year’s lectures.

Where Daniell found the time for all the talks he gave around the region, along with teaching, raising five children in the blended family he and his second wife, Elena, formed in 1969, serving as academic advisor to the Dartmouth men’s basketball team, tramping into the woods to remote trout-fishing holes and holding regular poker nights with a group of Hanover friends is hard to account for. It’s likely that his focus on New England was attributable to his energy, and vice versa. He got back as much as he gave.

“He had a great life, Jere Daniell did,” Elena said in an interview. “He rarely did anything he didn’t enjoy.” As with his students, the town talks taught him more about his area of study; they would “fill in these little nooks and crannies in his brain,” she said.

Though he read history books as early as grade school, he didn’t study it at Dartmouth, where he majored in government. At Harvard, he was studying for a doctorate in American studies when Bailyn, the eminent scholar of Colonial New England and westward expansion, got hold of him.

“You couldn’t do it today, but he just flipped from one Ph.D. candidacy to another,” Elena said, despite “having had no history.”

He kept a map, now a family heirloom, on which he marked each town in which he gave a talk, more than 300 squares of New England soil. In his career, Daniell felt that he’d ridden a wave of interest in town history, Elena said, referring to “the rise and fall of the sacredness of the New England town.”

Indeed, he lived to see many towns that had fared well in the 20th century start to hollow out in the 21st. Schools have closed for lack of enrollment and industries have either collapsed or moved away. Daniell was well aware of the tension between generational residents of Northern New England and newcomers who have moved in over the past 40 years. Even in 1990, he saw Hanover as an example of the “suburbanization of rural New England,” which has only increased in the decades since.

“New England as a ‘place’ is very much a product of the past,” Daniell wrote, adding that in his Dartmouth course, “I keep a tight focus on what took place within the regional borders.”

Conforti, who retired in 2011, saw the program he developed in Maine shuttered in 2015. Neither Daniell’s course, nor the Maine program have been replaced by similar efforts elsewhere, he said.

“It’s doubtful that New England is going to be the exclusive focus of a course like what Jere taught for years,” he said. “We take New England for granted now within the region,” he added.

For New England to get its due, it might take another Jere Daniell. We’re in for a long wait.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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