In part inspired by Rebecca Onion‘s observations about her own ignorance of the history of the place she lives despite her professional training as an historian, in part inspired by a decade of incurable archive fever, and in part inspired by a familial legacy of caring for the art and culture of America’s oldest seaport, I am embarking on an initiative to bring Gloucester, MA’s archives, which date back to the early seventeenth-century, to the people who live here and to the larger world of early Americanists. Specifically, I have volunteered to coordinate an exhibition of Gloucester’s archives at the Cape Ann Museum, tentatively planned for March 2018. As I learn about the city’s history (full disclosure: I have never written on Gloucester, but I have been an historian hobbyist of the city for most of my adult life), I will chronicle my work on this project here.
17 November 2015
Today I went through some of the vaults in the basement of City Hall, where the city archives are held. My guide through the archives was Sarah Dunlap, archivist and co-chair of the archives department. Sarah first showed me the First Book of Town Records, which dates back to 1642 and the vital records that date back to 1634.
These works have been disbound and preserved. They were transcribed in the mid nineteenth century, and I plan to read through this transcription to make some sense of what is there.
Sarah also took me into the Engineers’ Vault, which is stuffed with rolled up maps from the last two hundred years.
Perhaps of greatest immediate interest is a 1823 handwritten map that marks the land owners and places of interest what is now 127A. My next stop will be curling up with Guide One to the archives, which contains most of the town records up to 1874.
28 November 2015
Reading through Guide One to the Gloucester City archives, I am struck by how pervasive the records of war are in the archives. I suppose this sounds naïve, but the listing and relisting of both the soldiers who fought and of the relief efforts on the “home front” from the Revolution through the “German War” really struck me. Of particular interest is the “handwritten listing of Gloucester men who served in French and Indian Wars and earlier Indian wars (e.g. King Phillip’s War).” I also found mention of 1699 “deeds for land from Indians,” though I had always learned that the Native Americans had left (or been ravaged by plague) by the time the English arrived on Cape Ann.
Going through this hundred or so page list of items in the city archives makes me further consider how we will organize an exhibition. Our working themes, in no particular order, include: education, African American experience, religious growth, literary imagination, Native American experience, the Lyceum, the Library, and mapping Cape Ann. I am already seeing great potential in these areas, though the extensive documentation of military engagements has me wondering if perhaps there should be more focus there. Part of what I like about exhibition planning is negotiating that tension between what topics that seem interesting and the content of the archive.
11 December 2015
Today we had our second planning meeting and CAM Curator Martha Oaks encouraged me to come up with some language to describe what we are up to. Here is a draft:
Dating back to the first half of the seventeenth century, the Cape Ann archives include documentation from some of the first English settlers in what would become the United States, as well as records of the establishment of colonial life in the area. These archives are housed in City Hall, the Cape Ann Museum, the Sawyer Free Library, and at town historical societies. They contain rich depictions of the the political and social structures of our nation before its founding and through its early years, as well as windows into the cultural life of a place that would become a haven for artists and writers. Genealogists have recognized the importance of these records for decades, but historians have made less use of them. This exhibition aims to make their presence known to a wider scholarly and popular audience, to both residents of Cape Ann who are proud of their history, and to the professional and amateur historian who, if they knew they were here, would surely be delighted to listen to the stories these archives might tell. This exhibition, aims to ensure preservation of and appreciation for these amazing collections through increased access, both to the actual objects and to their digital manifestations.