March 08, 2011
By Isaac Sprik
What type of person in 1949 bestows a fortune on the AHA? An individual who was a quiet humble indexer who lived a long and full life from 1871 to 1949; a man who was not looking for credit or money, but for the preservation of history. His name was David Maydole Matteson. He started his path by earning a bachelor’s degree from University of California in 1892 and then moved on to Harvard intending to earn a second bachelor’s, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in history; however, while pursuing his master’s at Harvard he hit a major junction in his life—a tragic bicycle accident that left him deaf. Due to this injury he was no longer able to attend his doctoral classes; so with his master’s degree he turned to the underappreciated field of indexing and library work.
He spent the years of his long life serving the historical community in the Harvard library and the Library of Congress indexing many different subjects, particularly an index of 37 volumes of The Writings of George Washington for the American Historical Association. He labored at this project of love for many years without much thanks or attention, and in the end he passed away before he could finish his masterful index. In addition to adding many indexes to the stacks, he propelled a profession that was often glanced over as a place of scholarly importance in the library and historical communities. Both the library sciences and indexing are not notorious for their large salaries and bonuses, so where did David Matteson earn a fortune? Sticking with his character of advancing history and learning from behind the scenes he took up a career of ghost writing of secondary school history books and maps. Although unexpected, this was a profitable career in which he was compensated per word he wrote. Through his multiple historical careers he quietly furthered history and simplified research for many future historians with his expansive indexes.
Today we should look to David Maydole Matteson not only as an indexer who pushed the profession, but as one of the great patrons of history. He deserves the title because when he passed in 1949 he gave his fortune of over $80,000 to a sole beneficiary, the AHA, to be used on the David Maydole Matteson Fund to continue to support tools for researching and publishing of history. This fund was used for the first seven years to finish Matteson’s 37 volume index, and since then it has been used as part of the endowment fund of the AHA to support Recently Published Articles and the Guide to Historical Literature. This is a gift that has been given to many historians, and to all who appreciate history, and it will continue to support and benefit the historical community. We owe special thanks for such a generous gift to David Maydole Matteson, a great forgotten patron.