Henry James Young (1908-1995)

Henry J. Young, 1973

Henry James Young (friends jokingly put a comma between the middle and last names) was born February 16, 1908, in York, Pennsylvania. His family were comfortably placed; in passing he sometimes mentioned a German maid. Orphaned in his teens, he lived for four years at an orphanage in York before entering Franklin and Marshall College. After a varied career, Young in 1957 joined the history department at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

At Franklin and Marshall, Young majored in history, but he continued his study of the ancient classics he had begun in high school. He was especially fond of Greek, although his command of Latin was such that his marginalia were often in that language. Young also studied German, having some familiarity with it from home, and Italian. He was president of the college's Goethean Literary Society, the subject of his first book.

When he was twenty, a summer research project took Young to the State Library in Harrisburg. The friend who had promised to drive Young back to York never arrived, so, fortified with a bowl of baked beans at the Alva restaurant, Young proceeded to walk home, across the Susquehanna and down the old Susquehanna Trail, arriving at dawn.

After graduating from college, Young began a desultory search for a job, much of his time going instead to private research at the Historical Society of York County. The executive directorship was then vacant, and the post was offered to the quiet young man who seemed to know the holdings so well. Young held the position from 1932 to 1949, interrupted by his volunteering for military service. During the Second World War, Young served in the United States Army. From 1942 to 1945 he was in the corps of engineers, eventually deployed to the European Theatre. While in training stateside, he had bought some medieval British manuscripts from an antiquarian bookseller, and Young carried them around Italy and France in his pack, thus teaching himself the elements of palaeography. After the war, he joined Amvets and, until 1957, served in the Army reserves.

While resuming his duties at the historical society and serving in the reserves, Young also enrolled in the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University. From 1946 to 1955 he took graduate courses and worked on a dissertation, “The Treatment of the Loyalists in Pennsylvania.” During this time he also contributed numerous book reviews to the Maryland Historical Magazine.

In 1951 he changed careers, becoming an assistant archivist at the State Archives in Harrisburg. There he worked chiefly with military records, and he wrote a well-known article for Pennsylvania History on scalp bounties in colonial Pennsylvania. He later served as an associate editor of that journal.

Young earned his doctorate and taught history for a year at York College. He then moved to Dickinson, where he stayed until 1973, retiring as the College's first Charles A. Dana Professor of History. While at Dickinson he developed a course, “Introduction to History” — a forerunner to History 190, renumbered since to History 204 — that emphasized teaching students how to do historical research. Young's interest in local American history did not make him parochial; he insisted upon seeing American history in its European context. On final exams in a course on European history, Young sometimes asked, “Why did the Holy Roman Empire last so long?” Years later he told a friend that he had no idea himself, but he always hoped a student would offer something plausible.

After eight years at Dickinson, Young took a sabbatical. The academic year 1965 to 1966 saw him at Mansfield College, Oxford, where he read voraciously. His reading ranged widely, from Christian theology to crime fiction. He haunted Blackwell’s and the used bookshops, and somehow this disciplined man also did research on Loyalists and the War for Independence.

Once retired from teaching, Young returned to local history and genealogy. He transcribed the information on tombstones in Carlisle's Ashland Cemetery, and he prepared an abstract of naturalization records as found in the Cumberland County prothonotary’s office. He continued to research the Loyalists, compiling information on six thousand officers, all North Americans serving in the British armed forces. Young's research took him as far as Nova Scotia, and his note cards are now in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

In 1975, amongst searching for Loyalists and his own ancestors, Young helped launch a periodical for Dickinson's Friends of the Library, John & Mary's Journal. The first issue was composed entirely of a narrative by Young, “The Spirit of 1775,” based upon a letter he found in the College Archives.

Frail and owl-like, for some thirty years Henry J. Young was, with his cane and hats, a familiar figure on campus. He rented rooms on West Louther Street from Professor Donald Flaherty, but by the late 1980s declining health convinced Young to enter a retirement home. He moved to the Sarah Todd Memorial Home on Mooreland Avenue, where at the request of genealogical friends, he set to work translating from Latin church records from the various Catholic churches in York. He also continued to indulge his taste for murder mysteries, borrowing them from the Bosler Free Library and methodically recording on note cards the appropriate bibliographical information of each book.

A solitary man with a few close friends, Young never married. He had a dry sense of humor, notorious for his puns — some quite elaborate and erudite — and he often saw the absurd in life. This trait helped him appreciate the errors of people in the past; his Christian faith taught him of the origins of human frailty. Young was a vestryman at Saint John's Episcopal Church in Carlisle, and he compiled notes for a history of that church. He was Anglo-Catholic in his faith, keeping a crucifix on the wall above his bed and regularly reading Commonweal.

As his sight began to fail, other ills befell him. The end came February 11, 1995. The night before, a deacon from his church visited him, although she was told that Young was in a coma. She nevertheless read aloud from his beloved 1928 Book of Common Prayer; silently, Young's lips moved in recitation.

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Daniel J. Heisey
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