Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cambridge Annual Archives Crawl: Day 3

A third beautiful summer evening for walking from archive to archive!

Mount Auburn Cemetery

There’s so much that can be said (and is said, and written, and photographed) about this 175-acre cemetery, delight of gardeners and bird-watchers as well as genealogists, but I don’t recall hearing much about their archives before. Curator of Historical Collections Meg Winslow and another woman (whose name I didn’t catch) shared their detailed and enthusiastic knowledge of the history, records, collections, and stories (was Mary Baker Eddy really buried with a telephone?) of the cemetery. Meg referred to the cemetery and its archival collections as “a balance of monuments, landscape, and lives.”

The cemetery, opened in 1831, contains over 98,000 burials today, and inspired the beginning of the public parks movement (including Boston’s beautiful Public Garden). Its historical collections (climate controlled) include a library, the cemetery archives, and a collection of ephemera. Meg explained that a burial produces several records, including: decedent card, burial record, entry on a lot card, burial permit, and death certificate. Lot files can contain a surprising amount of information: correspondence regarding care of the lot, letters stipulating that Uncle So-and-So is not to be buried in the family lot, detailed “planting plans” (the ones we saw appeared to be professional landscape designs), and plans for monuments  Cremations also produce records, even if the cremated remains are not interred at the cemetery; I was surprised to learn that a cremation requires a medical inspection (of the body) beforehand. The cemetery is now switching to digital files for contemporary records.

Meg and her co-worker seemed very open to researchers, but pointed out that appointments are needed and that photocopies of files might be provided instead of access to the originals.

The most surprising piece of information: Mount Auburn Cemetery has a book club. Honest! I was mentally making plans to ditch my burial plot here in Burlington and buy a lot in Mount Auburn, but then they pointed out that the book club is only for living people.

What I’d come back for: Anyone buried here. Meg pointed out that Mount Auburn immediately became so popular (really, if you aren’t from the Boston area, you must check out the photos on the website to see how beautiful it is) that many families bought lots for themselves and then relocated their deceased family members here from other cemeteries. So I’d be sure to note anyone who died before 1831 and look for their records not only at Mount Auburn but also at a previous cemetery.

Cambridge Historical Society

Located in the second-oldest house in Cambridge, the historical society (founded 1905) has a very nice archival collection, a resident archivist, and is digitizing some of its collections. Archivist Mark Vassar gave us an excellent overview of the history of the society’s collections and of the collections themselves. We were treated to letters and documents signed by First Lady Dolley Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and P. T. Barnum, among others. Collections include Revolutionary War diaries, family papers, some business records, photos, maps, plans, periodicals and newsletters pertaining to Cambridge, and records and papers of the Small Property Owners Association (local folks might remember them from the rent-control issues of not too many years ago). 

Specific collections highlighted included some sermons of Joseph Willard, president of Harvard in 1781, including a sermon he gave after the Declaration of Independence. Most of his papers are actually at Harvard, but some which had been in his grand-daughter’s possession made their way here instead. The Quincy-Hill-Phillips-Treadwell collection intrigued me, since it includes papers from a number of prominent families, covers a large time span, and includes correspondence with people outside the families. The account book and estate papers of Andrew Craigie, a big land speculator of late 18th and early 19th century Cambridge, are here; this one caught my attention because there are a number of Craigie’s papers in the Shattuck Collection (for which I wrote the finding aid) at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. I learned that more of Craigie’s papers are at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, and re-learned (I’d forgotten) that Craigie owned the Longfellow House (our next stop) before Longfellow did. And for fans of American patriot Dr. Joseph Warren (you know who you are!), the good news is that Mercy Scollay’s letters are here at the Cambridge Historical Society. I think we were told that they are now digitized, but check the website to be sure.

The Cambridge Historical Society is open to the public for research, by appointment only. My impression is that they prefer that researchers have specific questions or targeted research plans. In other words, be prepared to discuss your specific research needs with the archivist beforehand as well as setting a time for the appointment itself.

What I’d come back for: I’ll definitely be returning to the website to take a more in-depth look at the collections, their finding aids, time periods covered, and family names. Some of the families probably interacted with one or two families that I’m slowly researching, plus I’d like to have an even better overview in my head of the various collections.

Longfellow House/Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site

Our last stop of the evening was the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, also called the Vassal-Craigie-Longfellow House after the three families who owned it, and the Washington Headquarters National Historic Site in recognition of George’s presence here for nine months during the siege of Boston. Built in 1759, it’s now a National Park site.

We saw very little of the house itself as we made our way to the basement archives. The collections here are focused mainly on the house and families, especially (no surprise) the Longfellow family. Longfellow’s son (or grandson? my notes fail me) traveled widely and commissioned photos during his trips in the 1860s through 1880s, creating a rich and unpublished travel archives—the mention of photos of Japan during this time particularly interested me. Longfellow’s [grand?]son also had a good sense of developing an archival collection, and made purchases to increase it. Some of his acquisitions were laid out for our viewing: a certificate bestowing military rank signed by Catherine the Great; a letter to H. W. Longfellow’s grandfather Peleg Wadsworth signed by George Washington; and a 1789 order for payment signed by King George III.

What I’d come back for: I’ll certainly come back for the house tour sometime; it’s long been on my list. As for the archives, I don’t have an immediate sense of anything I’d be looking for here. Fanny Longfellow is from a family I’m researching, but she’s far enough removed from my client’s branch that I probably wouldn’t need to work my way down into Fanny’s own papers.

The Cambridge Archives Crawl
turned out to be as interesting as I had hoped. For local readers, I hope these three blog posts gave you a little idea of some historical collections that you might not have been aware of. For non-local readers, I hope it gives you some ideas of the types of historical repositories you might have in your own area. Happy researching!

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