The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Aldrich, Charles
(October 2, 1828–March 8, 1908)

–journalist and museum curator—was born in Ellington, Chautauqua County, New York, the son of Stephen and Eliza Aldrich. He had a common school education and spent one year in the Jamestown Academy, Jamestown, New York. He began an apprenticeship as a printer in 1846 and established the Cattaraugus Sachem newspaper in New York in 1850. He married Matilda Olivia Williams in 1851. She shared a lifelong interest in the study of birds with her husband until her death in 1892. In 1898 Aldrich married Thirza Louise Briggs.

    In 1857 Aldrich moved to Webster City, Iowa, and founded the Hamilton Freeman newspaper. In 1862 Governor Samuel Kirkwood appointed him as first lieutenant and adjutant of the 32nd Iowa Infantry Regiment. On July 3, 1863, he was promoted to captain but refused the promotion. He was discharged for health reasons in 1864.

    In 1860 he had begun a long association with Iowa government when he became chief clerk of the Iowa House of Representatives. He served from 1860 until he joined the Union army in 1862 and again in 1866 and 1870. In 1882-1883 he served in the Iowa House of Representatives. During his time as chief clerk and in his legislative service, Aldrich authored or championed legislation that provided for the preservation of public documents, offered protection for songbirds, prohibited the issuance of railroad passes to public officials, and changed the system of county government by establishing boards of supervisors.

    Aldrich had a strong interest in ornithology and was a founding member of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1883. This interest is apparent in his later museum work.

    Aldrich had his most significant impact in the founding and early shaping of the Iowa Historical Department. In 1884 Aldrich presented to the state of Iowa his large and valuable collection of manuscripts, portraits, and autograph letters of famous individuals, which became the core of the Iowa Historical Collection, established by the Iowa legislature in 1892. Aldrich was appointed the first curator of the collection and what would become the Iowa Historical Department in 1893. His association with Iowa Senator William Boyd Allison led to Allison's assistance in securing specimens of birds, American Indian baskets, and an important collection of southwestern American Indian pottery from the Smithsonian Institution and the Bureau of Ethnology for the Iowa museum collections during the 1890s. That same association led to donations of historic military weapons from the Rock Island Arsenal. As a newspaperman, Aldrich began the collection of Iowa newspapers, which continues today.

    The legislature provided space in the lower level of the capitol for the museum, but by the mid 1890s there was no space for collection expansion. Property across from the capitol was acquired, funds were appropriated, and a new museum building was completed in 1899. Aldrich recognized the need to preserve the permanent records of government and began the State Archives program in 1906. Aldrich also revived the historical journal, the Annals of Iowa, and became its editor in 1893. Under his leadership, some of the first scientific archaeological investigations of prehistoric sites were conducted by museum director Thompson Van Hyning. Aldrich's personal relationships with early Iowa pioneers, lawmakers, veterans, and businessmen resulted in the donation to the department of many artifacts, portraits, artworks, manuscripts, and photographs. His contemporaries credited him as the first "Conservator of Iowa History."Aldrich saw the importance of establishing and supporting a museum for Iowa. In the Historical Department's first annual report in 1893, he wrote, "the State should build up and fairly maintain a great Historical Museum.... Such an institution should be kept growing, for a finished museum is a dead museum."He oversaw the department until his death in 1908.
Sources The Aldrich collections of correspondence for his years as curator for the Iowa Historical Department are preserved in Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. The department's annual reports are also valuable sources, as is Annals of Iowa 8 (1908), 563–639, an issue devoted to his memory.
Contributor: Jerome Thompson