Dartmouth History Department Remembers Four Legendary Scholars

Professor Robert Bonner reflects on the enduring legacies of four late scholars who transformed Dartmouth's American history curriculum: President Emeritus James Wright and professors emeriti Jere Daniell, Bruce Nelson, and Kenneth Shewmaker.


This past fall, History department colleagues joined the Dartmouth community to pay tribute to President Emeritus James Wright. Around Carson Hall, Jim was mourned as a supremely talented fellow historian who was also a truly exceptional institutional leader. Jim's death marked the fourth time in three years that our department has bid final farewells to a distinguished emeritus professor of U.S. History. This stretch began with the passing of Ken Shewmaker in 2019. Then came three devasting 2022 losses in quick succession. We were freshly mourning Jere Daniell and Bruce Nelson when we received the sad news about Jim.

Absorbing four such deaths invites us to step back and to measure the cumulative impact of figures who, each in their own way, became revered across the campus. In their combined 140 years of faculty service, this quartet taught tens of thousands of undergraduates and fundamentally transformed what stories of American history were shared in Dartmouth classrooms. Initiatives they began to frame in the late 1960s brought newfound attention to African American, Native American, labor, and women's history. The dozens of senior theses supervised by this group speak to how relentlessly they coaxed Dartmouth students to reckon with the American past.

As lecturers, Ken, Jere, Bruce, and Jim had few rivals. Along with peers responsible for the non-U.S. sweep of our curriculum, they garnered a series of teaching awards that brought enormous distinction to our department. They were a core part of a generation of faculty that established History as the leading exemplar of Dartmouth's exceptional commitment to transformative teaching. And as scholars, they produced prize-winning monographs, launched new initiatives, and sustained, in Ken's case, the lengthy and meticulous production of the letterpress edition of the Daniel Webster papers.

The Dartmouth History department as currently constituted can warmly recall how each of these good men stuck to the craft of history after they officially stepped down from faculty positions. In their cumulative sixty years of emeriti status, each validated the historical expertise they had developed as consummate professionals within our discipline. Jim ventured back to the classroom and completed as many books after retirement as he had done beforehand. Bruce and Jere contributed in retirement to U.S. labor history and New England history, respectively, and both appeared regularly before public history gatherings and Dartmouth alumni groups. Bruce and Jere were among the most highly sought-after invitees to such occasions. Ken sustained a reputation as the leading expert on the singularly important figure of Dartmouth's own Daniel Webster and in the year of his death, was a guiding spirit for the 150th anniversary of the Dartmouth College Case of 1819.

At the outset of 2023, we as a department still grieve as we struggle to accept the permanence of these losses. We invite friends and graduates of the department, and the public more generally, to learn more about each of these treasured figures in accounts that detail rich and valued legacies:

Jere Daniell (1932-2022)
Bruce Nelson (1940-2022)
Ken Shewmaker (1936-2018)
Jim Wright (1939-2022)

Robert Bonner serves as the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography and Professor of History at Dartmouth.