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Romance in history.

by Miss Helen T. Wild, of Medford.
[Read before the Bay State Historical League, January 25, 1913, in Wilder Hall, New England Historic-Genealogical Society, Boston.

PERCHANCE you have chosen me to speak because you think me in romantic mood, I having spent the past month copying, re-copying and indexing marriages of 1912. Even in modern work a great deal of joy and sorrow, comedy and tragedy comes over the counter into every registrar's office. The people whose heart stories we listen to are almost too near us to enable us to view their experiences in any other than a prosaic light, but the old records have the fascination for the genealogist, amateur or professional, which the stories of our childhood have for the little folks of today.

There is a possibility of a ‘find’ in every old manuscript book, which invites research, and anyone with even limited experience along genealogical or historical lines knows what precious nuggets of information have been found in out-of-the-way places.

Old account books are mines worth careful working. [p. 33] Modern town clerks are rescuing those of the village doctors of long ago and filing the copies of entries regarding births and deaths with their vital statistics. Old diaries, inventories and letters furnish the personal high lights which enliven the official records. For instance, —a colonel at Valley Forge writes a note to a brother officer asking him to carry a letter to a sweetheart in a far-away home on the Mystic river, referring to the town as ‘That Mystical place where you are going.’ We find no marriage record and we know he died at Yorktown. We read that Commodore Hull unsuccessfully sought the hand of a daughter of a house in our neighborhood; that the man she loved played her false and that, in spite of all the other love with which she was surrounded, she died of a broken heart.

The pathetic appeal of an exiled loyalist pleading for the right to return to his home touches a responsive chord in our hearts now that the smoke of battles has rolled away. These incidents concern my own town, and I might mention others, although our history is not at all romantic compared with many others in our Commonwealth. Ordinary research develops so much romance that can be vouched for that I, for one, feel no sympathy with those who draw upon their imagination to vivify historical sketches.

To spend an hour in this perfectly appointed building to consult some printed book is always a profitable recreation. I plead guilty to sitting up with my January Historical register till I was afraid to look at the clock, quite excited in tracing the ancestry of my brand-new emigrant grandmother, Lydia Hucksteppe. I envied Miss French her ability and opportunity to hunt among old County Kent archives, and was not surprised to hear that some people were impatient for her to move to some other county and give others a chance of solving their riddles.

To read a local history which has been compiled by competent writers is a keen pleasure, but to put it together is literally never-ending delight. In my home town [p. 34] a good history, considering the material then available, was published in 1855. Another was published in 1886, which was a reprint of the first with a supplement brought up to date. We rested on our laurels quite content with ourselves and our knowledge for ten years. Then our Historical Society was formed, and for sixteen years it has published a quarterly of at least twenty-four octavo pages filled with interesting matter untouched by either of the two histories. And some of our writers have dared to contradict the elder historians and have produced the proofs of their statements. Every paper that is published opens new vistas. Last Monday evening I read what I call a lazy paper about the old street where I was born, giving my childhood's memories only. Mention of some eight or ten very old houses has started a desire to know something of their ownership when the town was young. Nobody knows what the search will bring to light. There is material enough if we have time or disposition to delve for it, and if we undertake the task there is plenty of satisfaction for ourselves in store.

The reasons for actions taken in town meetings are sometimes difficult to find, but they can always be traced to some political or commercial situation in the colonies or overseas. To get a true idea of the meaning of our colonial events we should study European history at the same time, and I wish that it were possible to obtain a text-book for children which could, in an interesting and simple way, combine the contemporary history of the world to interpret our own.

To enjoy the true romance of records one must study them in the places where they belong. A copy of a record is a plant in a flower pot; the original in its own town is an old fashioned garden.

Ever since our Historical Society was formed, I have done record work, sometimes for historical purposes and sometimes merely clerical, always in connection with my own family or my birthplace, but in 1911-12 I had the privilege of working in about a dozen Massachusetts towns, and I never enjoyed a year more. I read town [p. 35] and church archives, and cemetery inscriptions, besides many private and a few court records. The dovetailing of all these showed the wisdom of combining all in compiling vital statistics.

On a perfect June morning two of us drove out from Greenfield to hunt for Bible and graveyard records. In a few minutes we had left the thriving town and were out in the meadows with the winding river on one hand and the Shelburne hills on the other. We stopped first at a little burial ground whose broken headstones were piled up around the walls, but let me say in passing that before the work was finished my energetic companion had hired a man to lift them for her and had copied every inscription. These stones may be reset or carted away, but those records are safe. A little farther on was a comfortable farmhouse where the good lady of the house received us seated on a Sheraton sofa whose money value was nothing to her, but whose worth as an heirloom was priceless. As we copied the death record in her family Bible she told us the story of her kinsfolk who had died in a terrible scourge of typhoid; then, as we went on with marriages and births, she told us the simple annals of the lives of those whose names we wrote.

At another farmhouse the family record was a marvel of fancy printing and decoration, preserved under glass. The experiences of the collectors of old furniture and china are very different from those of the searcher for family records or traditions. At one house we were mistaken for collectors and the door was opened about three inches in response to our knock, but when our errand was understood, courtesy and hospitality were unbounded. The lady not only ransacked her attic for old church records (and she found some very valuable ones which she willingly restored to their rightful owners), but showed us all her ancient treasures in the line of mahogany, china and pewter. This experience was often repeated. People who are old residents of the parent town, love to tell the old traditions which are the background and atmosphere of the written page. [p. 36]

After many inquiries we located, in the outskirts of Greenfield, a little graveyard which was approached through a barn yard; when we at last reached it, we found it enclosed with a four-foot fence. My companion was the better climber, but we both went over it, copied our inscriptions and scrambled out safely; our horse, the only spectator, made no comments.

Going on toward the Bernardston road, we passed by the tablet marking the spot where the martyred Mrs. Williams, of Deerfield, lost her life. The neighborhood seems so remote from habitation, so picturesque and wild, that one can feel the thrill of horror which possessed the little band of captives on that terrible journey.

If you have never been in Heath you have missed one of the gems of Massachusetts towns, although its whole population would not crowd this hall. I went there on business bent and lingered for a vacation. The tiny village is the highest in the State and, across the valleys that surround it, in whatever direction you look, there are billowing mountains. The town clerk is a cyclopaedia of tradition. His daughter, who copied the vital records, knows almost as much as he. The stories of the old worthies, told in their inimitable way, was a pleasant diversion from our monotonous chant of long s, short s, cap Born, y-e up, etc. Several entries pertaining to one man astonished me. The dates of his marriages seemed to follow the deaths of his wives with alarming rapidity. I expressed my incredulity, but was convinced when told that the tradition is, that on his way home from his second wife's funeral he proposed to her sister, was accepted, and married number three inside of two weeks. Some village laureate thereupon composed the couplet,

He lived a sad and lonely life
Of thirteen days without a wife.

Rides with the town clerk were a continued story; every house and cellar hole had a tradition. The number of deserted farms is pathetic in all our country towns, but I trust that a better day is dawning and public sentiment [p. 37] and scientific farming will work miracles before many years have passed.

The site of Fort Shirley, with its lonely grave of little Anna Norton, who died in 1747 while her father, the chaplain of the chain of forts which guarded our western frontier, was a prisoner in Canada, is the property of the town of Heath. To reach the little tablet, I stumbled over the hillocks which were once entrenchments to guard the log fort and its precious well. I beg you not to try to study the Indian troubles of western Massachusetts before you have visited these places which are very slightly changed, outside of the towns, except by kindly Mother Nature.

The records of deaths which the old pastor of Heath wrote down, cannot fail to cause a feeling of sympathy for those who long ago passed from a life of privation to the life beyond. We wonder how they stood the terrible winters, with no physician and with communication with the river settlements practically cut off. But as we enjoy the clear air, the green pastures and fertile meadows which skirt the water courses, in summer, the lure of the beautiful country possesses us as it did the pioneers.

The memorial inscriptions in the burial grounds of the shore towns are as touching as the chronicles among the hills. ‘Died at sea,’ ‘Wrecked on the coast of China,’ or similar records we find on every hand, while across the marshes we hear the moan of the sea.

Speaking of Heath reminds me of an incident which came into the experience of a friend of mine. He was searching the archives for the service of a man whom he knew was a resident of Heath (or Charlemont, rather, for the former was not incorporated until after the Revolution). He found no mention of the name except one man from Shirley. Almost by accident he noticed that the company and commander hailed from Charlemont and a comparison of the company roll and the list of socalled Shirley men proved that the clerk of the company had recorded the men from the Fort Shirley district as of Shirley, thereby causing confusion by omitting the [p. 38] word ‘Fort.’ The men who served in the outlying districts of Medford were credited to ‘Mystic,’ but as no town of that name existed there is no chance of mistake. Perhaps this allusion to something which is outside of today's subject, may be of use to some puzzled applicant to a patriotic society.

I am not learned in genealogical lore, so it was a pleasant surprise to me to find in Bristol county, last winter, the births of people whose marriages I had read in Hampden county the previous summer. The linking together of histories of localities widely separated invites the student to investigate the reasons for changes in residence of whole communities.

In a little town in Bristol, I unearthed a church quarrel in good and regular standing which had lasted many, many years. There were three church quarrels or secessions in my own town, but next week the two churches which have grown up side by side in consequence will celebrate together the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first church in Medford. But there the breach had never healed. I was sent to hunt for the church records which correspondence had failed to bring to light. In a pouring rain I landed in an unfamiliar town, but by the use of my Yankee tongue and by persistent trudging through the mud I located the books, which proved to be valuable. I inveigled the custodian to loan one of them to me so that I might copy the vital records, and that night I slept with it within reach of my hand; but the next day I received notice that I must deposit it with the custodian every night, not on account of danger from fire, which was my bete-noir, but because some feared that I might carelessly leave it where someone from the other church might purloin it. Subsequent conversation on both sides of the parish lines, told me how strong a feeling existed and I did not blame the one who was responsible for their safe-keeping for not trusting the volumes too much to the honor of a stranger.

The copyist of ancient manuscripts must eliminate personal comfort and inclination and exercise patience [p. 39] and perseverance; the owners and custodians are often cranky and the work must be done in their way. Mental reservations and private notes are better and more successful than discussion.

I worked on one old Bristol county record with a congenial spirit, who, although she chafed sometimes at routine work, was never so happy as when, magnifying glass in hand, she was solving some obscure problem.

Some of the old books had long ago dropped to pieces and the leaves had become misplaced. When Emeryized, they had not been arranged in perfect order. One day we discovered that a fragment which was bound in with page twenty-something, was completed many pages farther on. After we had successfully patched the two together we had a regular love feast, which made up for all the differences we may have had as to long, short or medium s, or the proper way of transcribing the bothersome I's and J's. (Truly, the way one book abounded in queer s's and interchangeable I's and J's was enough to try the soul of a saint.)

The very uncertainty of the truth of records adds to their fascination. Most of us have learned by this time not to pin our faith to printed books, but we can scarcely credit the fact that original entries may be wrong.

One town record I firmly believe is only a copy of a church register and therefore less likely to be correct than the private one.

I have compared town records with original returns made by doctors, ministers and undertakers and found discrepancies. (Probably this has been your experience.) Lately several modern mistakes have come to my notice, which were fortunately detected before official reports were made to the State, and they set us wondering how many more went undiscovered. They were simple cleri-cal errors, but they might have caused trouble for the genealogist of the twenty-first century. A doctor, in reporting a birth interchanged the names of father and son —a literal rendering of ‘The child is father to the man!’ [p. 40] A clergyman wrote a bridegroom's name McDonald for Donnelly on a marriage return. If he had not written the father's name properly and in full, there would have been no way of detecting the existence of an error.

These are modern instances, but who believes that our forefathers were more perfect than their children?

As we read the records we grow very well acquainted with the dead and gone town clerks. We sometimes call them familiarly by their given names. We like John because he was such a good writer, mending his quill pen when it needed it, crossing his t's and dotting his i's when and where he ought, but we grow very much out of patience with Jeremiah, because he persisted in signing himself T Cler, Town Clerk, or T Clk just to catch us napping, it seems to us who are trying to make a literal copy. Sometimes the ancient worthies took snuff; we find a few grains between the leaves of their books, and often the sand from the sand box glistens in the light. Here and there the recorder makes a pungent comment, giving us a hint of his own character as well as that of his contemporaries.

If one cannot find amusement or human interest in old records, if he cannot forget the so much an hour in the interest he has in translating or recording, he would better change his occupation; but if he looks for hidden meanings, if he enjoys fitting seemingly unimportant fact or even hints together to make up the whole fabric of the history or statistics upon which he is laboring, he has his reward, he has found his romance.

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