Pesky research questions

Don’t get me wrong, I love trying to help researchers find the “right” answer. But why do I always find the answer days or even weeks after the question was asked? Several weeks ago now, I had a woman here doing background research for a novel she is writing. Among other things, she asked me what men would have worn in the army during the Revolution. Fortunately I was able to find breeches of the period in our collection using E-Museum to provide part of the answer (without just blurting out what I surmised based on years of soaking up history and costumes. I am an archivist, remember, not a curator?). 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

16 pairs of stockings?

Charles H. Post ran a well established general store in the center of Hebron, Connecticut. Recently, his fourth day book made its way back to Connecticut from Savannah, Georgia, thanks to a gracious donor. We have a large collection of account books, but it never fails to amaze me what people had available in the 1830s in a relatively small town. On one day, May 7, 1829, Post sold:

4 small combs,  1- 1/2 yards broad cloth, 11- 1/2 yards of cotton stripe,2 silk handkerchiefs, 1 pound of tea, 1 yard of fillet, 1/2 yard of padding, 1 yard brown linen, 1-4/12 dozen coat buttons,  2 skeins of silk, 1/4 gallon of rum, one palmetto hat, 1/4 gallon of whiskey, 2-1/2 yards of ribbon, 4 yards of calico, 5 yards of gingham, 4 pounds of flour, 16 pairs of stockings, 5 yards of gingham, 3 cotton handkerchiefs, 1 belt ribbon, 1/2 pound of tea, another 5-3/4 yards of gingham, and 1 peck of peas.

This account book is actually a day book in which Post entered transactions on a daily basis and later transferred the data into a ledger arranged by person, listing all debts and credits. You can sometimes tell what a person was planning by looking at the types of materials purchased over the course of a month or so. With a day book, one can only surmise. For example, why did someone need 16 pairs of stockings? Was he the keeper of the alms house or of a school? Or did he have a large family? To find the answers, you could do some research on the purchaser and build a more complete story. That is what makes research fun–putting pieces together and solving riddles. Anyone up for a challenge?

If you would like to see Mr. Post’s day book, ask for Ms 101681 when you come to the Research Center.

Items sold on a day in December at Charles Post’s general store in Hebron, Connecticut, 1829. Ms 101681.

The CHS “Junk Drawer”

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.

Just a sample of the miscellaneous boxes!

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 and 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 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.