This post was written by Archives volunteer Marie Jarry.
All of us have that drawer at home for items we don’t know what else to do with–the junk drawer, the miscellaneous drawer. Perhaps you have a shoebox designated as such or even an entire closet. Well the Connecticut Historical Society has their own version of a miscellaneous box, only it’s approximately thirty boxes stuffed full of papers from another era. Some were tossed in the boxes after a flood a few decades ago. Others had been separated from their collections and were waiting to be reunited. Then there were items that nobody knew what else to do with.
When Barbara Austen, Florence S. Marcy Crofut archivist here at CHS, asked if I would like to make heads or tails of their miscellaneous manuscript collection, I jumped at the chance. Sure it was thirty boxes but my mind began to race with the possibilities.
What would be found in there? Perhaps a document signed by Abraham Lincoln? Or maybe some long forgotten copy of the Declaration of Independence? No, nothing as “glamorous” as that was found, though one of the first items I pulled out was a long-lost tax list of slaves in Hartford. History isn’t just about the people and items who made headlines, it’s also about the everyday people and day-to-day activities that inform where we came from and why we do the things we do today.
Sometimes I found entire collections sitting in one box waiting to be cataloged. One of the most interesting was a collection of papers from a lawyer in Hartford named Andrew Broughel around the 1890’s. He had saved depositions from his cases, correspondence and bills. It was interesting to see what a couple getting divorced in 1897 had to argue over.
Another collection I found was created by the Connecticut Daughter’s of the Revolution Committee on Old Trails. From 1910-1930, they worked to preserve markers from the Old Boston Post Road. The collection contained hundreds of post cards, various maps and printed material. My favorite were little pictures of the “Madonna of the Trails” emblem that were “worn by anyone interested in the National Old Trails Road, the new Ocean to Ocean Highway.” They would cost you $1 each with all the proceeds going to the project.
Unfortunately, not everything in the miscellaneous boxes was as easy to catalog. There were hundreds of disparate letters, bills, promissory notes and poems that I had to try to make some sense of. I made detailed lists of names, places and dates from each item hoping to see some connections.
I began to notice I was accumulating a large number of letters from the town of Hampton addressed to Samuel Bennett and Harriet Spaulding. I figured these had to go together somehow. Now it was time for some detective work.
I first check the catalog at CHS to see if the person is already listed. If not, it’s on to ancestry.com and familysearch.org. If I have the person’s name, town and rough estimate of the year, I can usually find out when they were born, who they married, when they died. Family and town books in the CHS research center are also helpful. Follow the breadcrumbs and you will often be surprised by what you find.
In the case of the Bennetts and Spauldings, I did discover there was already a William Bennett from Hampton in the catalog. Could he be related to Samuel? So I did some research on familysearch.org and lo and behold, the William Bennett in the CHS catalog was the father of the Samuel from my letters! Now I had to figure out if Harriet Spaulding was related to this family. Sure enough, she married Samuel.
I’d like to say I was able to process all the papers this easily, but it often does not end up that way. I still have hundreds of letters that don’t have enough identifying information to formally catalog, but I can say those thirty boxes have been culled down to two. Maybe soon you’ll come in to CHS and check out an item rescued from the “junk drawer” of history.