Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

“sort of a little biography”

A couple of months ago there was an article in my local paper that described a situation in a nearby middle school. The social studies teacher had included creating a newspaper advertisement for a runaway slave as one of the independent activities available to students for extra credit. Several parents objected and the principal ordered the teacher to remove the project from the list. As a former high school teacher of social studies (not in the district referred to) I found myself conflicted. I would really appreciate comments from readers about whether you think such a project is appropriate and acceptable.

SOME CONTEXT: From a historian’s point of view it has been very difficult to find primary sources in connection with the slave population. Clothing is not likely to exist as it was usually worn out and discarded. Written accounts by enslaved workers in colonial America and later in the United States are rare. Few slaves could read or write; teaching them to do so was a crime in several states. References in plantation account books were usually limited to the sex and age of the slave, perhaps the name, date of acquisition, and the purchase or sale price. Census listings were equally limited. There are precious few details about how enslaved workers looked and dressed, what their lives were like, what skills they possessed.
Ironically ads for runaway slaves often provide answers to these questions because owners not only posted a reward for the return of the “absconded,” a word that was commonly used, but often provided a description of the runaway: color, height and stature, clothing worn and other information. Historians have been working to create archives of advertisements for runaway slaves. Joshua Rothman, a historian at the University of Alabama has said: “They [owners] wanted to provide as much detail about their appearance, their life story, how they carried themselves, what they were wearing . . . Each one of these things [ads for runaway slaves] is sort of a little biography.”

Transcription of the ad: New London, May 16, 1768. Stolen or Run-away from the subscriber, on the 14th Instant (of May), a Negro Woman named SOBINER, between 30 and 40 Years of Age, of a slender Body, and middling Stature, talks good English, and can read well; carried off with her one homespun check’d Woolen Gown, one blue and white striped Linen Ditto, two Linen Shirts, and one Woolen Ditto, three check’d Aprons, two or three pair Woolen Stockings, one quilted Coat, one Side brown, the other striped, a red short Cloak, a chipt Hatt, a Pair white Woolen Mittins, a Cambric Handkerchief, several Caps, and sundry other Articles. Whoever takes up and secures said Negro, so that her Mistress may have her again, shall receive FOUR DOLLARS Reward, if found within twenty Miles of this Place, and FIVE DOLLARS if further, and all necessary Charges paid by LUCRETIA PROCTER. N.B. All Persons are forbid entertaining or concealing said Negro under Penalty of the Law.

I chose the ad above because it was placed in a Connecticut newspaper and shows that slavery was more common in the North than we are likely to admit. And I believe that the list of particular clothing in the ad for Sobiner is due to the fact that the slave owner was a woman.

Back to the use of runaway ads in the social studies curriculum. While readers may have mixed feelings about a student-created ad as a project, I hope that there would be little objection to a teacher’s using several ads as a topic for discussion and critical evaluation in class. Students could look up the numbers of runaways, discuss motives, the risks involved, destinations, penalties for those who helped them, the likelihood of capture, etc. And they could evaluate the ads as primary sources of information: are they accurate, representative, useful, historically significant?

This SITE is the source for the quotation and provides information on this subject as does this SITE. The above ad is one of the many compiled for a PROJECT by students at Wesleyan.

posted August 27th, 2018 by Janet, comments (5), CATEGORIES: Clothes,Connecticut,Lesson plans,Research,Runaway slaves

A woman rediscovered in a false-bottomed trunk


ELIZABETH WILLING POWEL (1730-1830) and her husband Samuel entertained lavishly in Philadelphia during the late colonial and early national era. In the Mount Vernon digital encyclopedia Elizabeth is referred to as the city’s “premiere Saloniste.” She was a friend and confidante of George Washington and has figured in two posts in this blog: here and here.

Powel House in Philadelphia is open to the public courtesy of The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. In June the Society announced an amazing discovery: a cache of letters, receipts and accounts written by Elizabeth Powel found in the false bottom of a trunk belonging to her descendants. Rather than recount the details of this coup I refer you to this post of the Society. It is a rich and well written story conveying the excitement of finding new sources of information by and about a prominent woman. I could not do better.

I am grateful to Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway for bringing this story to my attention in their blog.

Some interesting correspondence between Elizabeth Willing Powel and George Washington to follow.

Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel by John Wollaston, c. 1755-1759. Yale University Art Gallery, 1987.58.1.

posted August 21st, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Mount Vernon,Philadelphia,Powel, Elizabeth Willing,Primary sources,Research

“by applying laudanum and sea water . . . “

As writer and historian HANNAH ADAMS says in her Memoir “It was poverty, not ambition, or vanity, that first induced me to become an author, or rather a compiler. But I now formed the flattering idea, that I might not only help myself, but benefit the public.” She set out to write a history of New England.

I selected this subject, rather from public utility, than for my own gratification. My object was to render my compilation useful to those in early life, who had not time or opportunity to peruse the large mass of materials, which . . . lay scattered in many publications. I knew my work would require much reading upon dry subjects, such as ancient news prints, state papers, &c. But I wrote for bare subsistence, and never wished to gain anything from the pubic which I had not at least earned by laborious investigation. I also considered, that attention to such an antipoetical subject would have a tendency to keep my mind in a more healthy state, than the perusal of works which are calculated to excite the feelings.

Hannah did extensive research, examining records and old manuscripts, traveling to cities where they were housed. She drove herself hard, writing early and late during one winter. She found that her eyesight began to fail suddenly and she was obliged to stop work. She consulted several doctors.

The gloomy apprehension of being totally deprived of my sight was distressing beyond description. I not only anticipated the misfortune of being obliged forever to relinquish those literary pursuits which had constituted so much of my enjoyment during life, and was at this time my only resource for a subsistence. . . . At length, by the advice of a respectable friend, I applied to Dr. Jeffries; and by assiduously following his prescription for about two years, I partially recovered my sight. For the encouragement of those who are troubled with similar complaints, I would mention, that when I first consulted the doctor, he had not any expectation my eyes would recover so as to enable me to make the use of them I have since done. But by applying laudanum and sea water several times in the course of a day, for two years, I recovered so far as to resume my studies; and by employing an amanuensis to assist me in transcribing my manuscript, I was enabled to print the work in 1799.

Hannah was careful in her work to give credit where it was due.

Preciously to putting the copy to the press, I consulted all the living authors, and showed them the use I had made of their works in my compilation, and they did not make any objection. As my eyes were still weak, I could not bestow the same attention in condensing the last part of my History, as the first; and consequently the History of the American Revoluton was much more prolix than I originally intended. In giving an account of the war, my ignorance of military terms rendered it necessary to transcribe more from Dr. [David] Ramsay’s History, that I had done in any other part of the work. I therefore wrote an apology to the doctor, and had the satisfaction of receiving in return a very interesting letter from Mrs. Ramsay, expressing her approbation of my work, and inclosing a bill of ten dollars.

Although she had intended to solicit subscriptions to defray the cost of printing. the problem with her eyes prevented her from doing so. She had to publish the work entirely at her own expense.

A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams 1755-1831 (Boston: Grey and Bowen, 1832), pp 22-27.

posted March 17th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, Hannah,Illness,Medicine,Research

Research for “In the Words of Women”

The book Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jaytook approximately four+ years to research and write. In the Words of Women published in 2011 took six years, understandable because the scope was much broader than that of the first book and the research more challenging because many of the subjects were little known and obscure. On the other hand the research process was quite different for, in the space of time between books, libraries, historical societies, newspapers, and browsers like Goggle began to digitize their holdings and archives.
I was sceptical of the process at first with regard to manuscripts because I didn’t think the technology was good enough to produce legible copies. I was wrong. See for instance the Massachusetts Historical Society’s wonderful Adams Family Papers Historical Archive. The text of the correspondence between John and Abigail is clear, in part due to the legible handwriting of the pair, although you can consult a transcription if necessary. You can also zoom in on the pages and distinguish quite easily between a comma and a period, upper and lower case letters. Digitization of primary source materials allowed us to read them sitting at our computers.
There are, however, some drawbacks to this development. Digitization is a work in progress. Some institutions cannot afford the cost so there still is a large amount of material out there in manuscript form which still requires visits to libraries etc. Moreover holdings are often digitized selectively, based on someone’s judgment. Janice P. Nimura in her article in The New York Times Book Review titled “Under No Certain Search Terms” “Under No Certain Search Terms” points out another drawback: you get only the information that is relevant to the wording and focus of the search terms you entered in the browser. Nimura notes that “You find exactly what you’re looking for, and nothing that you’re not. . . . Search algorithms leave no room for serendipity, and without that, some of the magic leaks out of the pursuit of the past.” Do you remember browsing in the stacks and coming across other books of interest in the vicinity of the one you were looking for. Books that provide new information or details, or even a particular slant that you might not otherwise have discovered.
While digitization of sources relevant to the subjects of our second book was very useful and convenient, it did away with some of the excitement and pleasure of handling the actual letters, diaries and journals of the subjects, lessening the possibility of “research rapture” that scholars thrive on.

posted March 7th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Reading old documents,Research

“Niagara Falls: the grandest sight imaginable”

The article I wrote for the online Journal of the American Revolution has appeared. “Niagara Falls: the grandest sight imaginable” is in the August issue and can be found here. I enjoyed doing it as it involved more research into primary sources—I had to include the observations of a few men in addition those of the women (which I already had as a result of my work on the book In the Words of Women). Do have a look. You might want to subscribe to this Journal which is relatively new; it has a number of interesting articles in each issue. I’m searching for another topic on which to write a piece.

The illustration is a watercolor of Niagara Falls from the Canadian side painted by Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim Graves Simcoe in 1791.

posted August 27th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Ashby, George,Izard, Ralph,Niagara Falls,Powell, Ann,Primary sources,Research,Schieffelin, Hannah Lawrence,Simcoe, Elizabeth,Weld, Isaac Jr.

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