Decoration Day A Century Ago

As the end of May approaches I begin my mental checklist of things to do over Memorial Day (originally named “Decoration Day”) weekend: mow the lawn, plant the vegetable garden, make barbeque plans (after consulting the weather gods), attend the local parade, maybe go biking or kayaking; oh, and put flowers on my parents’ graves. Memorial Day, the unofficial gateway to summer in these latitudes, carries multiple meanings for many of us. Continue reading

America’s First “Brown Water” Navy

This past weekend we offered a special Civil War-themed behind the scenes tour at CHS. I spent a day selecting a wide variety of objects, manuscripts and graphics items to include in the tour, including several that I had not used in the past. Among these was a pair of fine photographs of river gunboats being constructed in September 1861. Continue reading

Looking at the Backs of Things

Curators and catalogers spend quite a bit of time looking at the backs and bottoms of things, trying to glean information about pictures and objects.  Labels on the back of the frame of an oil painting may tell where and when it was exhibited or purchased.  Marks on prints and drawings may prove clues to previous owners.  Photographer’s names often appear on the backs of nineteenth-century photographs rather than on the fronts.  If the photographer moved frequently, then the address in the imprint can help determine the date of the photograph as well.  Other kinds of museum objects such as ceramics and silverware often bear their makers’ marks as well.  As a graphics curator, I’m not only fascinated by the artifacts that I work with, I’m fascinated by the people who made them.  The imprint of the Hartford photographer Daniel S. Camp appears on the backs of a lot of photographs of local landscapes and people taken in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Who is Alvin?

Signature of D.F. Johnson on the letter. Ms 101848

Signature of D.F. Johnson on the letter. Ms 101848

One of the things I really like about working with manuscripts is trying to identify the people mentioned in a document. For example, we recently received a letter that was written June 12, 1864 from Willimantic, written by D.F. Johnson to his mother and referring to “our Alvin that was reported wounded”. Okay, it is 1864, so Alvin must be a soldier, but there are probably a lot of men named Alvin who served in the Civil War. So, where to look now?

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Sam Colt in Texas


Manuscript map of Lamar, Texas, on Aransas Bay, 1858. the Connecticut Historical Society, 2012.312.204 (detail)

A month ago I visited Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the south Texas Coast, the wintering grounds of the last wild flock of whooping cranes. The great white birds can be seen feeding in the vast marshes of the refuge, and also foraging in pastures and agricultural fields in nearby communities such as Lamar. In 1858, there were probably a lot more of them. That was the year when James W. Byrne, a native of Ireland and a veteran of the Texas Revolution, sent this map of the area to the Hartford gun manufacturer Samuel Colt, urging him to establish a gun factory in Lamar. Colt was evidently interested, and he acquired several large parcels of land. The last transaction between the two men took place on April 2, 1861, barely ten days before the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Colt died in 1862 without ever visiting Texas. Byrne died in 1865. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened, if the factory had been built. Today Lamar is a sleepy little town catering to hunters and fishermen and birdwatchers, but the captain of the boat that took me out to see the cranes knew all about Sam Colt.

In 2011-2012, with support from Connecticut Humanities, the Connecticut Historical Society digitized more than 800 historic maps from its collections.  To see more maps, explore our online catalog.

Peek Behind the Scenes All Year Long!

behindc the scenes at CHSIt is time to unveil the 2014 line up of Behind-the-Scenes Tours. We’re offering even more access to the hidden treasures of Connecticut history that are normally behind closed doors, and with the option of buying a Season Pass, you can get that sneak peek at a great 20% discount!

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David Starr, Civil War soldier

Photograph of David Starr. 2013.221.

Photograph of David Starr. 2013.221.

David Allen Starr was the son of David H. and Harriet Rogers Starr of New London, Connecticut. In 1862 he and his brother Elisha enlisted in the 5th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers. David was captured by the Confederate Army at the battle of Cedar Mountain and taken first to Libby Prison and then to Belle Isle. He was lucky enough to be paroled in five months but not before being starved and enduring the hot sun with no place to take cover. After his release, David was placed on guard duty at a hospital in Frederick, Maryland, before rejoining his regiment which was preparing for General Sherman’s “march to the sea”. Continue reading

What is this?

spoon-thumbOur exhibit, Making Connecticut, showcases over 500 objects, images, and documents from the CHS collection. “What is this?” posts will highlight an object from the exhibit and explore its importance in Connecticut history every other week. What is this object? What is the story behind it? To find out more, Continue reading

The Statue on the Green

1995_36_81The Hartford photographer William G. Dudley took this photograph of a Civil War monument on the town green in Glastonbury shortly after it was erected to commemorate Frederick M. Barber and other Glastonbury men killed in the Civil War. Barber, a captain with the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, died on September 20, 1862 of wounds received in action at the Battle of Antietam. His widow Mercy dedicated the monument in 1913, more than fifty years after her husband’s death. Mrs. Barber lived for four more years and died in 1917 at the age of eighty-seven. This summer, Jay LIchtmann, a volunteer at the Connecticut Historical Society, scanned over 1000 of Dudley’s original glass negatives, and Sasha Agins, a student from Bryn Mawr, finished formatting and finishing online records begun a decade ago by yet another dedicated volunteer, Norm Hausman. It was Agins who identified the monument in the photograph and determined its location.


Death on the Wing in the Summer of ’64

Let’s face it, this summer’s weather has been a godsend for mosquitoes! Over a foot of rain in June, combined with record heat in July, has been a recipe for disaster, at least comfort-wise. As summer wore on the now familiar news reports of mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus or the even more dangerous Eastern Equine Encephalitis (“Triple E”) have become more commonplace. I believe state authorities even closed a portion of a popular state forest recently because of the threat of this latter disease. Continue reading