Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Pelham's First Town Historian?

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Historian Heal Thyself! It may seem ironic, but although representatives of The Office of The Historian of The Town of Pelham have documented a tremendous portion of the history of Pelham during the 92 years of its existence, they have documented little about themselves. I recently have been working to assemble a "history" of The Office of The Historian of the Town of Pelham. Today's blog posting will document a little of the life of John M. Shinn whom I presently believe to have been the first Town Historian of Pelham.


New York State's "Arts and Cultural Affairs Law" provides that a "local historian shall be appointed, as provided in this section, for each city, town or village". The law further provides that:"It shall be the duty of each local historian, appointed as provided in the last section, in cooperation with the state historian, to collect and preserve material relating to the history of the political subdivision for which he or she is appointed, and to file such material in fireproof safes or vaults in the county, city, town or village offices." See N.Y. Laws 1983, Ch. 876 §§ 1, et al.

The law has been in effect in one form or another since 1913. For its derivation, see Education Law § 150, added N.Y. Laws 1947, ch. 820; and repealed by N.Y. Laws 1983, ch. 876 § 4. Said § 150 was from Education Law of 1910 § 1199-a, formerly § 1198, added N.Y. Laws 1913, ch. 424, § 1 (renumbered § 1199-a, N.Y. Laws 1919, ch. 181, § 2).

Pelham has complied with what is called the "Historian's Law" since the law was first enacted. During the last 92 years, eight local residents have served as Town Historian and have collected and maintained material in accordance with that law on behalf of the residents of The Town of Pelham.

John Marion Shinn

It appears that Pelham's first official "Town Historian" was a prominent local resident named John Marion Shinn. Interestingly, John M. Shinn was also an accomplished painter known for trompe still life paintings. He combined his talents and painted many scenes of historical significance in and around Pelham.

John Shinn was born in Dubuque, Iowa on October 25, 1849. He received his early education in the public schools of Waterloo, Iowa and Hannibal, Missouri. He later studied art at the Polytechnic Institute at St. Louis. In 1872, he moved to New York and enrolled at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. According to one source, "[i]t is likely that he was at the Academy at the same time as William Harnett, father of trompe l'oeil painting in America."

Black and White Photo of Painting of the Pell Treaty Oak
by John M. Shinn Now Hanging in the Second Floor Courtroom
in Town Hall.

Mr. Shinn also attended, and graduated with a law degree from, New York Law School. He practiced law in Pelham for many years.

In 1876, Mr. Shinn married Isabel King of New York who died in 1924. The couple had three children: a son named J. M. Clayton Shinn and two daughters named Grace A. Shinn and Natalie Shinn Smith.

According to his obituary published in the October 16, 1936 issue of The New York Times:

"Mr. Shinn was chairman of the County Board of Supervisors from 1894 to 1906. He was a former Town Historian of Pelham, a charter member of the Manor Club at Pelham Manor and the Huguenot Memorial Presbyterian Church there, treasurer emeritus of Winyah Masonic Lodge, Pelham, and a former chairman of the Republican Committee of Pelham."

Source: John M. Shinn Dead; Authority on Taxes - Lawyer, 86, Served as Chairman of Westchester Supervisors From 1894 to 1906, N.Y. Times, Oct. 16, 1936, p. 25.

While serving as Chairman of the Westchester County Board of Supervisors, John Shinn used his position craftily to resolve a very longstanding border dispute between the Town of Pelham and New Rochelle in favor of Pelham. The move resulted in litigation that ultimately affirmed the Board's decision to include a large amount of land previously located in New Rochelle within the borders of Pelham.

Although I have not yet located any dispositive records, it appears that John M. Shinn was the Town's first Historian and served through the teens and perhaps the early 1920s. Certainly by 1924 the position was held by Joan Elizabeth Secor.

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