Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

“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.

Solving the Mystery of Prince

In a search for possible pastels by Prince (see previous post), we corresponded in 2008 with the Prints and Drawings Department of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston but came up empty-handed.

Author J.L. Bell, in a recent blog noted that two unsigned portraits by the enslaved artist had been discovered by Paula M. Bagger at the Hingham (Massachusetts) Historical Society and a signed portrait at an antiques show by Amelia Peck, curator of Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.* Moreover, they were able to fill in some of Prince’s biography. His full name was Prince Demah Barnes, and was in his twenties when he lived with Christian Barnes. From October 1770 to July 1771, Prince went to England with Henry Barnes, and received some instruction from a “Mr. Pine” (possibly Robert Edge Pine). When he returned, Prince apparently made “five pictures from life . . . three of them as good likenesses as ever Mr. Copling took”. [9 March 1772]. Is it possible that two of the five pictures were those of Christian and Henry Barnes? Was one of Elizabeth Smith, who had returned to Boston mid-1771 and had married Ralph Inman on 26 September 1771? Perhaps Mrs. Barnes’s letter of 22 July 1773 to her friend gives a clue:

if you have an hour to spare at any time when you are in Boston you will allow Prince to make some alterations in the Coppy he has taken from your Picture [by Copley] which he says he cannot do but from the life and Please to give him any direction you think proper as to the Dress of the Head. . . .

Did Prince also make a copy of the Copley portrait of Ralph Inman, a pastel now at the Boston Athenaeum? Might he have done portraits of Henry Barnes’s brothers-in-law, Nathaniel Coffin and Thomas Goldthwaite?

What is certain is, that, in February 1773, Prince signed and dated the portrait of William Duguid a Boston merchant (shown).

Soon after, politics and escalating tensions terminated Christian Barnes’s enthusiastic support of her talented slave. In March 1776, Christian and Henry Barnes and their daughter Chrisy sailed for Bristol, England, never to return. Chrisy died of consumption in 1782.

The Barnes house in Marlborough was at first occupied by General Henry Knox. Barnes’s niece, Catharine Goldthwait, who had tried to salvage the estate by petitioning the Court in December 1775, wrote Mrs. Barnes:

All your furniture removed over to the shop chamber, except the family pictures, which still hang in the Blue Room, & the Harpsichord that stands in the passage way, to be abused by the children and servants in passing through. Mr. Knox found it inconvenient to be moving furniture, so has taken nothing but the Linnen, which at this juncture is by far the most valuable part. **

How ironic that Knox, whose own in-laws were loyalists, should be occupying a loyalist house!

It is likely that Daphney remained in the area; she and Mrs. Barnes did communicate from time to time. In April, 1777, Prince, now free, enlisted in the Massachusetts militia. Taken ill, he made his will, which he signed “Prince Demah, limner,” and died in March 1778. ***

On 28 February 1784, Mrs. Barnes wrote Elizabeth “Betsy” Murray, a niece of her friend Elizabeth Smith Inman:

I shall inclose a line to Daphney to desire she would send my Chrisys Picture drawn by her Son, and must beg the favor of you to take charge of it, if Mrs. Forbes [Dorothy Murray Forbes] has parted with her Portrate, she will find upon her arrival the exact resemblance of it, hanging in my Parler dress’d in her white Satten Coat.

Spurred on by Peck’s and Bagger’s discoveries, let’s hope that some of the works by Prince Demah (Barnes) described in the letters cited here will be found.

* “Portraitist and slave in colonial Boston,” in The Magazine Antiques, Jan/Feb. 2015, pp 154-59.
** Nina Moore Tiffany, ed. Letters of James Murray, Loyalist (Boston: Gregg Press, 1972), p. 251.
*** The Magazine Antiques, p. 158.
The quotations from Mrs Barnes are from the Papers of Mrs. Christian Barnes, Library of Congress, DM16.157. The portrait of William Duguid by Prince Demah can be found on the Hingham Heritage Museum website HERE. It is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Midwife’s Tale

The Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was published in 1990 and won a Pultizer Prize. A splendid work, the result of years of painstaking research, it presents ten long transcribed passages from the “raw” diary entries of midwife Martha Ballard, one per chapter, each with an interpretive essay. The essays help flesh out the character of Ballard and give readers insight into the society and culture in which she lived and worked. Explaining her approach Ulrich writes: “Juxtaposing the raw diary and the interpretive essay … I have hoped to remind readers of the complexity and subjectivity of historical reconstruction, to give them some sense of both the affinity and the distance between history and source.” Wise words.

In researching materials for In the Words of Women my colleagues and I considered including some of Martha Ballard diary entries, but it seemed presumptuous of us given Ulrich’s extraordinary effort and the availability of her book. Besides, the raw entries tend to be short, repetitive, and “submerged” in what Ulrich called “the dense dailiness” of life. Here is an example dated August 16 1787.

At Mr Cowens. Put Mrs Claton to Bed with a son at 3pm. Came to Mr Kenadays to see his wife who has a sweling under her arm, Polly is mending. I returned as far as Mr. Pollards by water. Calld from there to Winthrop to Jeremy Richards wife in Travil [labor]. Arived about 9 o Clok Evin.

As you can see considerable space would have to be allotted to explain who the people were as well as the context, and we could not afford that luxury.

The reason that prompted this post is that I finally viewed the television documentary “A Midwife’s Tale” (1997), one in the PBS series the American Experience. Brilliantly done, it tells Ballad’s story through reenacted scenes, readings from her diary, and participation and commentary by Ulrich. In addition to acquainting viewers with Martha Ballard it demonstrates how a historian works, and how challenging and complex that work is. It is available from Netflix.

Ulrich’s book can be purchased from Amazon.

posted January 28th, 2013 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Childbirth,Daily life,Health,Primary sources,Reading old documents,Research

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