John Trumbull, artist

John Trumbull, self portrait.

John Trumbull (1756-1843) was the son of Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull and first cousin of M’Fingall poet John Trumbull. John the artist graduated from Harvard in 1773 and served as an aide to General Washington during the Revolution. In 1784 he went to London to study with the painter Benjamin West. Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

Anti-slavery meetings in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles describes anti-slavery meetings she attended in June and July, 1834. Ms 101754.

Charlotte Cowles describes anti-slavery meetings she attended in June and July, 1834. Ms 101754.

On July 21, 1834, Charlotte Cowles wrote to her brother Samuel what she called a “very mean letter.” Evidently it was not as well composed as she would have liked. What I find fascinating is that at the age of 14, Charlotte was already attending anti-slavery meetings.

And first, I will give you an account of the Anti Slavery meetings which have been held here. The first was on the evening of Monday June 30. An address was delivered by Mr. Amos Phelps of Boston, who, as you probably know, is the Agent of the Anti Slavery Society. Esq. Pitkin gave notice that he should make some remarks at the next meeting, and the assembly retired without meeting with any disturbance.

The last comment is interesting, because Charlotte knew that vandalism and violence sometimes followed similar lectures and meetings. Amos Phelps (1804-1847) was a well-known anti-slavery advocate who is perhaps best known for his book Lectures on Slavery, and Its Remedy, published by the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1834. You can read the text here. Knowing Charlotte’s reading interests, I would not be surprised if she obtained and read a copy as soon as it was available.

She reports on another meeting:

Friday, July 6th was a most beautiful day. At two o’clock we had an address from Mr. Holley which was very good of course. There were a great many strangers, but most of the Farmington people went to Unionville, to hear an address from Mr. Asahel Lewis, after which they had a supper

under the trees, and all came home about five o’clock.

These meetings appear to have been as social as they were political, at least based on this description. I wonder why most of Farmington went to hear Mr. Lewis instead of staying closer to home? Sounds like a research project to me!

Fearless Charlotte Cowles

Charlotte Cowles' letter to her brother Samuel about an electrical machine demonstration. September 10, 1833. Ms 101754

Charlotte Cowles’ letter to her brother Samuel about an electrical machine demonstration. September 10, 1833. Ms 101754

Charlotte was only thirteen when Caleb Wright gave a demonstration of his electrical machine in Farmington on September 9, 1832, an event probably held at Union Hall in Farmington Academy. She was fascinated by the technology, and like many young people, thought she was invincible. Her reaction reminds me of a cat that does something ungraceful and then licks itself as if to say “What? I meant to do that.”

I was very much entertained last evening, by the exhibition of a splendid electrical machine owned by Mr Wright, said to be the largest in the United States. Various wonderful experiments were tried, such as combustibles set on fire by applying them to cold water. — a house demolished by lightning, — light machinery moved by the power of electricity, — lightning and the northern lights imitated, &c. I suppose you have seen the miser’s plate, with a piece of money on it which any one may have by taking it off. Each one seemed to be determined to have it, but none succeeded. Mr Wright told us that it was impossible, but still the people were resolved to try. When the plate came round to the ladies, a great many of them tried, but all drew back their hands as quick as flash. Well, Thinks-I-to-myself, I’ll not be frightened by a little spark of fire; so when the plate come to me, I was determined to persevere, and touch the money; my hand was actually within a quarter of an inch of it, when a little flame with a slight explosion burst from between the plate and my hand: a tingling sensation ran up my arm and through my head, and the next I knew of my hand, it was up in the air at least half a yard above the plate.

From Charlotte’s description, it sounds as if the men and women were seated in different sections of the room. Would that have been common at a mixed gathering like this? She makes similar comments at the political meeting she attends later on. That would be an interesting research topic.

Caleb Wright of Hartford made his electrical machine and it or a copy was donated to Yale for use in the Natural Philosophy “department.” Wright also became caretaker of the Steward Museum, parts of which can still be seen at the Old State House museum in Hartford. I am always fascinated by the connections that can be made from the contents of a single letter.

Charlotte Cowles Letters, an introduction

First page of Charlotte's letter of April 17, 1833. Ms 101754

First page of Charlotte’s letter of April 17, 1833. Ms 101754

At last, I can write about my favorite young woman of the 19th century! Her name was Charlotte Cowles, and we recently acquired a number of letters she wrote between the ages of 13 and 21 while living in Farmington, Connecticut. I don’t know if she meant to be humorous, (it may be my modern perspective) but I find her writing delightful.

In a letter from April, 17, 1833, she starts by admonishing her brother Samuel, who is in Windsor, Vermont, for neglecting the family. He has not written for fourteen weeks. This theme about timely letters is one that appears repeatedly in her letters.  Like many of her early missives, she talks about family news—Ma being sick and Pa going to Providence. She then tells Samuel:

“I am as much of a reader as ever, but have not had much to do with novels yet. I do not suppose they are very useful to any one; and I never intend to read many.”

All I can think when I read that is the polemics in magazines of the 19th century about the dangers to young ladies; reading novels would corrupt their minds and souls! Evidently Charlotte believed that, too.

Unlike many writers of the same age and time period, Charlotte is not afraid to express her opinions in her letters, at least not to her brother. She does not have a good opinion of her cousin Isaac Andrews. All Isaac is doing in Berlin is driving about. Charlotte comments,

“but that is not very profitable employment for a youth of nineteen.”

She also has an opinion about Samuel’s friend Henry Seymour who left his employment without telling family or friends. She writes,

“Now he reaps the reward of his folly; and doubtless many like disappointments will happen to him, before this instance of youthful rashness is forgotten.”

It is very likely that Henry was older than Charlotte (she was 13 in 1833), so she is taking a rather motherly approach to his indiscretion.

Some of Charlotte’s letters are more revealing than others, and I look forward to posting about my favorites in the weeks to come. Thanks to all the individuals and the Farmington Bank for helping us secure the money to purchase these fascinating letters. You can read all of Charlotte’s letters, and their transcriptions, on Connecticut History Online.

Auction Angst

The auction house said they would call before 11:00 am. It was 11:01 and I was in a panic, only to have the call come in at 11:02. We were bidding on an amazing collection of letters written by a young woman, Charlotte Cowles, of Farmington, Connecticut. We have plenty of other collections of letters, but these were different.

Charlotte, the daughter of Horace Cowles, grew up in an abolitionist home and her family actively assisted runaway slaves on their way to Canada. She attended abolition meetings; she commented on changing opinions in the community; she reported on anti-slavery meetings; and she read anti-slavery literature including the book Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses by Theodore Dwight Weld.

Her comments in these letters, written to her brother Samuel between 1833 and 1841, include the “new” custom of singing at funerals, local elections, the exhibition of an electrical machine, the explosion of the Steamboat Essex, and the arrival of the new minister, Noah Porter. It is these intelligent observations that make this collection truly valuable for local and social history.

The end of the story? We had the winning bid! My stomach did a final flip-flop and my hands were shaking from the adrenaline, but this wonderful collection is coming back to Connecticut, thanks to the CHS and the help of many friends of the Farmington Historical Society. Thank you!

Dear Sir

Between 1865 and 1868, naturalist John Burroughs maintained correspondence with S.W. Adam of Canaan, Connecticut. The collection, now among our manuscripts (Ms 78678), is primarily letters from Burroughs to Adam, with a few written by Adam. While the bulk of their conversation pertains to birds, Burroughs managed to unwittingly stumble into a side conversation.

As the exchange began, all of Burroughs’ letters were’ addressed to S. W. Adam, Esq. He started each letter, “Dear Sir.” A couple of months into the correspondence, Adam wrote, “In conclusion you will allow me to say, that although somewhat of an advocate for ‘woman’s rights’ in my own family, I have not yet attained the position to demand the affix Esq. to my name!” The letter was signed Sarah W. Adam.

“Dear Madam,” Burroughs replied. “Is that right? Really I am very stupid, but how was I to know. I had said to myself my Canaan correspondent was a clergyman. I hardly know from what I drew my influence but such was my impression. But better than that it is a lady.” The remainder of the letter was once again about birds.

Burroughs was closer to getting it right. A couple letters later, he finally did.

Dear Miss Adam, I owe this to my good friend Mr. Benton. He assures me that you really are neither a Mr. nor a Madam but a veritable young lady, which seems quite improbable considering your tastes, as I have never known a lady old or young whom I thought had a deep and permanent love for nature or natural objects.

Burroughs just could not believe a young lady would be interested in topics such as taxidermy.

Adam and Burroughs did not correspond over the winter. Adam, in her next letter, began by mentioning that she did not see many winter birds. A couple pages later, in the midst of discussing Warblers, she wrote, “I saw your friend Mr. Benton, and took him to task for disabusing your mind of the idea that I was a ‘clergyman,’ able to shoot the Birds!” Two pages later, Adam again breaks from the bird discussion.

Here let me call you to account for your slander on my sex in yr. last letter – wherein you speak of knowing no ‘woman young or old who has a deep and permanent love for nature.’ Truly, you must have spent all your days in Washington or some more terrible place, if any such can be named. I will pardon you on the first sign of penitence.

From there Adam segued into an experience with frogs.

Penitence was offered in Burroughs’ reply.

I did not mean to say that a lady could not have a deep & permanent love of nature; I only meant to say that I had never known any such. Every lady professes the greatest love of nature but I find it does not go very deep. Do they go to the woods at all seasons and alone? That is my test.

“I am glad you apply such a mild test,” Adam wrote in her next letter, “to an ‘earnest love of nature’ – that of visiting the woods alone! Surely there must be a good many men among women, who can bear it. ” She admitted, though, she knew few.

Though the conversation would continue for at least another two years, Adam and Burroughs kept their discussion to birds, frogs, and nature in general. Burroughs probably never made assumptions again as to the gender of a writer!

John Burroughs letter to Sarah W. Adam, 1865 July 24, Ms 78678. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

This collection is open for research. Come visit!

Making Connections: Ann Frances (Darling) Ibbotson

Though I have not specifically mentioned our NHPRC funded project lately, it certainly continues. Yesterday we completed our 2400th record. That leaves us with 600 to complete in the next seven months, definitely an achievable goal. Since we began this project in September 2008, over 5400 collections have been cataloged (3000 during the first two-year grant, the current 2400 in the second grant period). These days, when I head into the stacks to find manuscripts to work with, there are so many fresh, acid-free envelopes and Hollinger boxes lining the shelves that it is more of a hunt to find uncatalogued material. But I do find it!

As I combed the shelves yesterday I found a slim manilla (very acidic and therefore harmful to collections) envelope bearing the name of Ann Frances Darling Ibbotson, and stating that it contained letters to her parents. It did indeed contain those letters, and a few other items as well. My initial reaction, though, was to be perplexed about the relation of the items to Connecticut.  Why do we have a collection of letters being sent from England to New York? However, it is this sort of mystery that makes this job exciting.

Following an afternoon of research, I figured out the Connecticut connections. Ann Frances Darling Ibbotson is a descendent of  the Ely family, who first settled in Lyme, Connecticut in the 1600s. Her father, Thomas Darling, is said to have been of New Haven and New York. Ann Frances and Henry Ibbotson were married out of her father’s New Haven house. Later, the Ibbotsons’ son, Henry William, married Lucy Matilda Cary and settled in her hometown, Portland, Connecticut.

Of the early letters (1832, 1833 and 1840), three describe life for Ann Frances, a bride in her husband’s native England. She obviously misses her family, and in October 1833 wrote to her mother,

Wherever we are, under every variety of circumstances in which we may be placed, ones thoughts naturally turn to home,_ the abode of our earliest friends with feelings of the liveliest affection: is it not so? I know my mother can, from her own experience, appreciate  my feelings, for doubtless after she was left in a strange country, altho among very dear friends, yet often, like me, did she long for the presence of her Parents, and in a thousand trivial matters to as a mother’s advice, and many a time the knowledge of what she approved determined her conduct.

She continues to share information about their travels and activities in England. In the same letter Ann Frances describes the reaction her black servant, Eliza, has been receiving.

She attracts great notice, and crowds gathered round her when she first went to chapel to look at the novel sight of a black woman, and many shook hands with her…Perhaps Eliza is more looked at on account of her appearing better dressed than the servants here, whose apparel is subject to the direction of their mistress.

I have not had time yet to completely read Ann Frances’ letters, but am certainly curious what other observations she has.

After 1833, the letters skip to 1840 when Ann Frances and her children have arrived in Brooklyn. Her next letter is written in 1882, from her home in Binghamton, New York, to her granddaughter Anne.

Aside from the genealogical connections, I was also able to connect these letters with items in our museum collections.

The CHS has two pairs of shoes and a pelerine owned by Ann Frances, including the pair she wore at her wedding on 23 July 1833. It is so great to be able to read Ann Frances’ thoughts on paper and also catch a glimpse of how she presented herself in public. Overall, we come away with a more complete image of this former Connecticut resident.

The shoes, pelerine, and Ann Frances (Darling) Ibbotson papers (Ms 71966) are open for research. A catalog record for the papers will be uploaded to our online catalog, HistoryCat, in early February. The shoes and pelerine may also be viewed on eMuseum. Come visit!

A letter from William Gillette

William Gillette was a native of Hartford, Connecticut, growing up in the Nook Farm neighborhood. An actor, playwright, and stage manager, Gillette is best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. By the 1930s, when this letter was written, he had retired to a home in Hadlyme, Connecticut. Today his house is known as Gillette’s Castle. The Manchester Cheney’s, who he mentions, ran the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company in Manchester, Connecticut. At the time, Manchester was the center of silk production in the country.

I am sure I have written this before, but stumbling upon documents like this is part of the reason I love my job. This letter, the rest of the collection, and many others are all available for research. Come visit!

A letter from Lewis

With much of the U.S.  focused on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it seems letters and diaries from soldiers are being discovered in attics on an almost daily basis. Obviously, however, not all letters are alike. That is why we were particularly excited when we learned that a letter written by a soldier serving with the 29th Connecticut Regiment of Infantry (Colored) was available. There is little known documentation of this historically significant regiment, so we were anxious to add it to our collection.

Lewis Hazard was born in Winchester, Connecticut, about 1840. He enlisted in Company G of the 29th Regiment on January 5, 1864, describing himself as a farmer living in  Glastonbury, Connecticut. This particular letter was written from Beaufort, South Carolina, on May 20, 1864, to his mother Louisa who was living in New Hartford, Connecticut.

First page of a letter from Lewis Hazard, May 24, 1864, to his mother, Ms 101259.

The letter reads, without any spelling or grammatical changes, in part,

“my Dear mother, i now take my pen in hand to Let you kno that I am as well as usal and bill is to and i must say to you that i am rdused [reduced] to the ranks [from corporal] and i Like my persisian [position] much better i am as i must say to you that the privates get the same pay as the oncomissioned officers do and i think that i had rather be a private for the oncomissioned officers have it heard [hard] to be running hear and there on gard and so on first corpral of the gard one day and corpral of the perleise [police] the other and so it keeps you A going and they say that Richmond is taken [untrue] we got the news yesterday the 19 teenth and the battries fired their cannons and the artilary fired to and they say General Butler took it with 12 thousands Blacks and yesterday we sined the pay rolle for 700 dollers from the Government and they say the state of connecticut is to pay us 600 and that will make us 13 dollers . . .”

Lewis was killed in action near Richmond on October 27, 1864.

We have a large collection of letters and diaries from Connecticut men who served in the Civil War. You can check our web site at to read a description of some of our collections, or check our library catalog and eMuseum databases on our web site to see what other materials, including more diaries and letters, as well as photographs, uniforms and military accouterments that we have available for research.