New-York Historical Society

The Beekman Family Papers and the Archival Challenges of Women’s History

This post was written by Alisa Wade, New-York Historical Society Graduate Archival Research Fellow

James Beekman and his wife, Jane Keteltas Beekman, circulated in New York’s high society in the post-Revolutionary era.  After returning to the city following British evacuation in 1783, the Beekman family reintegrated themselves into the social circles of the urban elite, entertaining George Washington and others at their Mount Pleasant estate.

Unidentified Artist, "Mount Pleasant," c. 1856-1930, Watercolor on Paper, Gift of the Beekman Family Association, 1954.134

Unidentified Artist, “Mount Pleasant,” c. 1856-1930, Watercolor, Brown Ink, and Graphite on Heavy Watercolor Paper Laid on Board, Gift of the Beekman Family Association, 1954.134

Lawrence Kilburn, "Mrs. James Beekman" (1734-1817), 1761, Oil on Canvas, Gift of the Beekman Family Association, 1962.65

Lawrence Kilburn, “Mrs. James Beekman,” 1761, Oil on Canvas, Gift of the Beekman Family Association, 1962.65

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Their standing was entrenched by James Beekman’s flourishing mercantile firm, which he operated with assistance from his wife and other family members.  In fact, the records within the Beekman Family Papers at the New-York Historical Society—including account books, receipts, and property documents—indicate that Jane was an active participant in her husband’s dry goods business.  However, from reading information published on the family, the extent to which Jane Beekman and other Beekman women were central to circumscribing familial status within New York City is left unwritten; in many cases, it is almost as if the records don’t exist, a detail disproven by the sheer volume of primary materials within the collection itself.

Beekman Family Estate Inventory, including Jane Beekman’s investments, January 10, 1796, Beekman Family Papers, Box 37-38A, Folder 1

BeekmanWill

Will of Jane Beekman, Dated October 5, 1812, Beekman Family Papers, Box 43B, Folder 14

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This semester, I worked as a fellow at the New-York Historical Society. While there, a colleague from the CUNY Graduate Center and I spearheaded a project to create a system of organization and an online presence for the Beekman Family Papers, a massive collection first processed in the 1950s by a Columbia doctoral student named Philip White.  This opportunity has been eye-opening for me in terms of providing a valuable introduction to the labor that goes into archival processing; but, at the same time, it has revealed the possible biases within collection finding aids and, as a result, has fundamentally reshaped my approach to research.

Bond of Jane Beekman Van Cortlandt, December 5, 1816

Bond of Jane Beekman Van Cortlandt, December 5, 1816, Beekman Family Papers, Box 4, Folder 3

As a doctoral candidate studying the intersection of gender, politics, and economics in the early American republic, I have grown accustomed to some of the potential complications of researching women in the archive. Often lumped together into boxes titled “Family Papers,” the materials pertaining to women are only minimally described in container lists: certainly not in the exhaustive detail that exists for their husbands or other male family members. Working with the Beekman Family Papers has offered a wealth of insight into some of the reasons why these collections continue to remain so problematic. Philip White, who initially catalogued the collection with funding from the Beekman family, incorporated rather interesting value judgments into his assessment of materials that became his guide to the Beekman Family Papers. These included references to women’s correspondence and other material as being “blabberings,” “drivel,” or “very wifey,” and a declaration that “Most of these are worthless. Family stuff reported by one woman to another.” Such statements—which weren’t, of course, directed exclusively at women’s papers—are indicative of the broader trends within the historical discipline prior to when cultural history began to take hold in the 1970s and beyond. At the same time, though, it’s unsurprising that one might overlook this collection—and its vast amount of resources regarding women’s history, from the 18th through the 20th centuries—based on the descriptions provided in White’s guide.

These are simply not problems that can be solved overnight. But the creation of a clear, digitized finding aid that delineates the (hopefully unbiased) availability of materials in the Beekman Family Papers is an excellent way to start. This is a collection that offers a wealth of material for researchers, on topics ranging from property ownership, New York state politics, antislavery activism, and philanthropy, to sailing, medicine, pigeon collecting, and the creation of educational institutions. Hopefully, by collating White’s materials with an updated container list, we can create new access points for researchers within a collection that has so much to offer and, until now, has seen such little use.

 

Meaningful Utility: The Handwritten Word During the American Civil War. Pt. 2 of 2.

This post is by Jonah Estess, Digital Project Intern in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, approximately 60,000 amputations were performed during the Civil War. This equates to about three out of every four wartime operations. A large percentage of those soldiers had hand or arms amputated. For those who did not die from trauma, blood loss, or infection as a consequence of the surgery, further challenges to their daily lives lay ahead. How would one dress? How would one safely carry his child? Additionally, a cultural aversion to left-hand penmanship led parents and instructors to force many children to write with their right hands. For right-handed soldiers who were raised in this manner, the trauma and social stigma attached to left-hand penmanship would have posed yet another hurdle to overcome. These soldiers were now faced with the challenge of re-acquiring the means with which to communicate in writing their thoughts, emotions, business, and observations. What a fundamental, yet brittle faculty!

Undated. The flyer announcing the Left-Handed Penmanship contest and "Soldiers Friend." Page 1 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

Undated. The flyer announcing the Left-Hand Penmanship contest and “Soldiers Friend.” Page 1 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

In its Civil War Treasures digital collection, the New-York Historical Society has chosen to highlight papers related to the work of William Oland Bourne (1819–1901), a clergyman and chaplain at Central Park Hospital, journalist, and editor of The Soldier’s Friend, a Civil War era periodical. A selection of his papers, which date from 1862 to 1868, sheds light on the significant portion of veterans whose participation in contemporary communication culture was hindered by the loss of a right hand or arm. Like many of his contemporaries, Bourne would have been shocked to learn of the number of wounded Union “boys” who had survived the war, but had suffered all kinds of injuries. In 1868, from his office at 12 Centre Street, Bourne assembled a committee of high profile New Yorkers–New York State Governor George E. Fenton, President of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Reverend Henry Whitney Bellows, the poet and editor of the New York Post, William Cullen Bryant, the author George William Curtis, the philanthropist William E. Dodge, Jr., the industrialist and philanthropist Howard Potter, and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. The purpose of the new committee was to establish an “Exhibition of Left-Hand Penmanship,” a competition for soldiers who lost their right arm during the war.

Cash prizes totaling $1,000 (or between $14,920 and $15,940 in buying power in today’s dollars) were given out to twenty-eight of the 300 competition participants. The money would have delighted any soldier, and the committee took special pride in making that happen. Penmanship, Bourne believed, should be celebrated and rewarded because the nature and skillfulness of it marked one’s irrefutably triumphant return to civilian life. For example, an award of twenty-five dollars was given to Jesse S. Pendergrast of the 24th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment “for exceptional circumstances, having lost his right arm and two fingers and part of the thumb of the left hand.” Other awards were given out for literary merit and ornamental penmanship. The leftward sway and rightward swoop of the letters, the uniformity in style, the simple beauty of penmanship signified the resilience of the young and middle aged men who fought for the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union, only to find that the consequences of war followed them home. These consequences included limited job opportunities and would complicate one’s daily routine. Yet, the three hundred exhibition participants would uncover hidden dimensions of individual potential in the day-to-day.

Undated. A list of prize winners to accompany the printed announcement of the contributors and winners to the Exhibition of Left-Handed Penmanship. Page 4 of 4. New-York Historical Society Collections.

Undated. A list of prize winners to accompany the printed announcement of the contributors and winners to the Exhibition of Left-Hand Penmanship. Page 4 of 4. New-York Historical Society Collections.

Bourne’s exhibition garnered nationwide attention. On May 21, 1866, the Soldiers and Sailor’s Union of Washington, D.C. formally resolved that Bourne’s competition and exposition of left-hand penmanship was most estimable. They regarded his work as a “mission… deserving the hearty support of every patriot…” Individuals also lauded Bourne for the exhibition, asserting that with great determination and resolve, soldiers who had lived the trauma of having lost a right arm could return to civilian life. Phineas P. Whitehouse, Corporal in the 6th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment, wrote a letter to Bourne to be printed in Soldiers Friend. “Many of you have an idea that this can never be done to any degree of perfection; but in this you are greatly mistaken. You have no idea how readily you can make your left hand do the same things formerly done by your right, if you are really in earnest, and take hold of the pen with a determination to succeed.” For Whitehouse and others, to keep on writing was to keep on marching.

May 21, 1866. Preamble and Resolution of the Soldiers and Sailor's Union of Washington D.C., declaring support for William Oland Bourne and the Exhibition of Left-Handed Penmanship. Page 2 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

May 21, 1866. Preamble and Resolution of the Soldiers and Sailor’s Union of Washington D.C., declaring support for William Oland Bourne and the Exhibition of Left-Hand Penmanship. Page 2 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

April 27, 1867. A letter from Phineas P. Whitehouse to William Oland Bourne. Page 2 of 3. New-York Historical Society Collections

April 27, 1867. A letter from Phineas P. Whitehouse to William Oland Bourne. Page 2 of 3. New-York Historical Society Collections

The New-York Historical Society has chosen to highlight this collection, as well as Sarah Blunt’s letters (discussed in Part 1 of this post) because they are indeed Civil War Treasures. The two collections reveal the significance of the written word for those in service of the Union and for those who survived the conflict. The battle over the abolition of slavery was over, and America now had to rebuild its union. What then would be the role of Sarah Blunt, and William Oland Bourne and the soldiers within whom he inspired greater courage? Jocelyn Wills, Professor of History at Brooklyn College once said that one of the best things about studying history is that “you get to read dead people’s mail.” Reading the written word of those long (and not so long) gone is fascinating in its own right; history can be studied for the sake of history. But furthermore, the utility of the written word from the American Civil War (or any other period of recorded history) rests in its ability to show different aspects of the human experience and condition. Sarah Blunt, William Bourne, and American Civil War veterans needed letters as a means of practical communication, and to share their experiences and fight against life’s challenges. For all of us, their handwritten words provoke reflection on our own day and the days to come.

October 8, 1866. Description of the character of Thomas M.G. Browne by Nelson Sizer, copied by Browne and addressed to William Oland Bourne for entry into the Exhibition of Left-Hand Penmanship. Page 1 of 7. New-York Historical Society Collections.

October 8, 1866. Description of the character of Thomas M.G. Browne by Nelson Sizer, copied by Browne and addressed to William Oland Bourne for entry into the Exhibition of Left-Hand Penmanship. Page 1 of 7. New-York Historical Society Collections.

Undated. Letter from Alvin Blood to William Oland Bourne, written from Stevens Point, Portage County, Wisconsin. Page 1 of 1. New-York Historical Society Collections.

Undated. Letter from Alvin Blood to William Oland Bourne, written from Stevens Point, Portage County, Wisconsin. Blood inquired into the premium that his writing submission has the potential to receive. Page 1 of 1. New-York Historical Society Collections.

March 30, 1867. Letter from Norman Goff to William Oland Bourne. Goff describes his experience of losing a hand in a cotton factory accident and observes the process of learning to write for those who have lost right hands or arms. Page 1 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

March 30, 1867. Letter from Norman Goff to William Oland Bourne. Goff describes his experience of losing a hand in a cotton factory accident and observes the process of learning to write for those who have lost right hands or arms. Page 1 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

March 30, 1867. Letter from Norman Goff to William Oland Bourne. Goff describes his experience of losing a hand in a cotton factory accident and observes the process of learning to write for those who have lost right hands or arms. Page 1 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

March 30, 1867. Letter from Norman Goff to William Oland Bourne. Goff describes his experience of losing a hand in a cotton factory accident and observes the process of learning to write for those who have lost right hands or arms. Page 1 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

To access the fully digitized collection of the William Oland Bourne papers related to left-hand penmanship, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16694coll47/id/186

To access all other fully digitized collections within the Civil War Treasures Collection, please visit  http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16694coll47

“What the business requires”: Early 20th Century Firefighting in NYC

This post was written by Marybeth Kavanagh, Reference Librarian for Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections

On July 31, 1865, Engine Company 1 of the new Metropolitan Fire Department went into service, and the transition from a volunteer to a paid professional fire department in New York City had begun. The Metropolitan Fire Dept. was originally under the authority of state-appointed commissioners, but in 1870, the Tweed Charter gave New York City’s mayor control of the fire department and changed it’s name to the Fire Department of the City of New York.

As FDNY celebrates its 150th anniversary  this year, we’re sharing some photographs from the Frederick H. Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs. In addition to documenting some notable fires, including the Triangle Factory fire in 1911 and the Equitable Building fire in 1912, this collection offers a fascinating look at the many facets of early 20th-century firefighting in New York City, a few of which are highlighted here.

Firehouse interiors

Then as now, firefighters spent at least as much time inside the firehouse as actually fighting fires. Occasional visits from celebrities, like opera singer Nellie Melba (Downton Abbey fans may remember an episode  which featured a performance by Dame Melba at Downton!) were among the perks of the job.

Smyth Housewatch

Fireman on house watch, 1906. PR 63

 

Smyth Dorm

Bunk room, Engine Co. 76, 1904. PR 63

 

Smyth Recreation room

Recreation floor, Hook and Ladder Co. 7, 1906. PR 63

 

Smyth Nellie Melba visit

Fire Chief Edward F. Croker and opera singer Madam Nellie Melba inspecting Engine Co. 65, 1910. PR63

 

Fighting Fires in the Modern City: The High Pressure Pumping System

The Croton Aqueduct had supplied water to NYC hydrants since 1842, and the fire department supplemented the Croton supply with water from the river. But as the city grew, available water pressure was insufficient to reach the new skyscrapers that were rapidly becoming part of the urban landscape, and it became clear that high-pressure water delivery was needed to fight fires in a vertical city. Between 1903 and 1908, four new high-pressure pumping stations were constructed, two in Brooklyn and two in Manhattan. In response to alarms, these stations would increase the water pressure threefold or more and send it through high-pressure mains to fire hydrants, where the trucks would tap into it. The Gansevoort Station had five pumps, each of which could deliver 2,700 gallons per minute, and it was the station called into action fight the Triangle Factory fire.

 

Smyth Gansevoort room

Interior of Gansevoort Street High Pressure Pumping Station, 1910. PR 63

 

Smyth Gansevoort Pump

Detail of a pump at the Gansevoort Street High Pressure Pumping Station, ca. 1910. PR 63

 

Smyth high pressure hoses

High-Pressure Pumping System test, West & Bank Streets, 1908. PR 63

 

 Fire Apparatus: Horse, Motor, and the Slow Transition

According to FDNY’s 1910 Annual Report, there were 1,508 horses in service as of December 31, 1910. Motorization of  fire apparatus began in 1911, but horses remained an integral part of FDNY for another decade. As the 1914 Annual Report explained, “Changing from horse-drawn to motor means that stalls must be removed, gasoline storage tanks installed, floor strengthened in most cases…and a considerable change in the equipment of companies, all of which must be done without the company going out of service.” The last horse drawn engine was in service until December 1922.

Smyth Hitching

Interior, apparatus floor, quick hitch system suspended from ceiling, Engine Co. 76, 1907. PR 63

 

Smyth Hitching up horses

Hitching up the fire horses, Hook and Ladder Co. 25, 1906. PR 63

 

Smyth Anvil wagon

Fire Department horseshoe wagon outside firehouse, 120 West 83rd Street, 1909. PR 63

 

Smyth Auto engine

Automotive Fire Engine, Engine Company 58, 1911. PR 63

 

“Firefighters do not regard themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.”

- Edward F. Croker, Chief of the FDNY 1899-1911

“A Terrible Mass of Wood, Iron, Steam, and Water – and Worst of all Lives and Souls!!” – Dwight C. Harris, Lusitania Survivor

This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian.

On the morning of May 1, 1915, the German Embassy in the United States placed ads in New York newspapers issuing serious warnings to anyone planning to travel on an Atlantic voyage; alerting them that a war zone existed in the waters adjacent to the British Isles and any vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or her allies, was taking a great risk and liable to destruction.

 

Lusitania - NYT

New York Times headline, May 7, 1915. N-YHS newspaper collection

 

Despite the warnings, 1,264 passengers boarded the RMS Lusitania for her 101st voyage across the Atlantic. This ocean liner, once the largest and fastest in the world, was originally launched by the Cunard Line in 1906. Prior to boarding, the ship’s crew, along with numerous detectives, went to great measures to ensure the safety of their passengers by having them line up single file, thoroughly checking their paperwork and examining all baggage and packages. With Captain William Thomas Turner at the helm, the Lusitania left New York bound for Liverpool just after 12pm on Saturday, May 1, 1915.

Lusitania1

Lusitania postcard, mailed May 2, 1915. BV Lusitania – MS 1757

Cunard equipped the Lusitania with advanced turbine engines, wireless telegraph, electric lights, generous passenger space and extensive luxuries. Passengers were not aware that the Lusitania was also carrying over 170 tons of weapons and ammunition destined for delivery to the British allies.

International laws, known as Cruiser Rules, prohibited firing upon non-military ships without warning. German U-boat commander, Walter Schweiger, breached this law by firing a torpedo at the vulnerable target, Lusitania, when she was about 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland, near the Old Head of Kinsale in County Cork. Unfortunately, the Lusitania was also in violation of the Cruiser Rules by traveling in a war zone and carrying munitions.

At 2:10pm, on May 7, 1915, the torpedo fired by German submarine U-20 struck the Lusitania on the starboard bow, just below the wheelhouse. That blast was soon followed by a much larger explosion which ripped the massive liner apart and caused her to list toward the starboard side as she filled with water. Due to the rapidity with which the Lusitania began to submerge and the angle at which she was leaning, both crew and passengers had a very difficult time loading and launching lifeboats. Passengers were thrown overboard by enormous waves. Within 18 minutes this massive ship had sunk bow first into the bottom of the sea, leaving hundreds of panic-stricken victims scrambling for safety as the stern disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean.

Out of a total of 1,960 crew members and passengers on board the Lusitania, 1,193 people perished and only 767 survived this terrible ordeal.

Among the survivors was 31 year old Dwight C. Harris, a U.S. citizen who’d been living abroad. Harris was from a prominent New York family and was traveling to Liverpool to visit his new fiancee, Aileen Canvendish Foster. In fact, The New York Times announced their engagement just one day prior to the bombing of the Lusitania.

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Sketches by Dwight C. Harris, May 1915. BV Lusitania – MS 1757

 

Harris, a First Class passenger, had been enjoying a leisurely cruise playing games in the ship’s lounge, conversing with fellow passengers and reading books. In a 12-page letter written to his mother on May 10, Harris provides an astonishingly detailed first-hand account of his own struggle, the horror he witnessed in the water and the aftermath following this disaster. Not only was he able to save himself, but also rescued a young boy who’d been separated from his parents–and was, thankfully, reunited. He recalls the dead bodies he had to push past in order to make his way to an overturned raft for he and the boy to cling to. Harris also mentions the mine sweeper, Indian Empire, that rushed to the scene to transfer he and many others from life boats to dry land. Rescue vessels brought the exhausted survivors into the harbor in Queenstown, Ireland, where they were given shelter and food in hotels and private homes as well as dry clothes from some local townspeople.

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Letter from Cunard regarding insurance claim, May 1915. BV Lusitania – MS 1757

The first line of the letter from Dwight C. Harris to his mother reads, “Thank God I’ve come safely through the most awful experience anyone could imagine!” Our library holds the scrapbook Harris compiled after living through the traumatic event. This unique item consists of correspondence, sketches, newspaper clippings and political satire. Had he not purchased a life vest from Wannamaker’s prior to the cruise and had the wherewithal to properly put it on during the chaos, he may not have lived to tell the tale.

A common misconception is that the sinking of the Lusitania prompted the United States’ decision to enter WWI. Although this heinous crime drastically changed public opinion toward Germany and certainly acted as a catalyst, the U.S. did not officially declare war on Germany until April 6, 1917.

This poster, featuring the artwork of W.A. Rogers, uses imagery of young children in a Lusitania lifeboat receiving assistance from U.S. sailors. Posters such as this were common during WWI and were used not only to encourage new recruits to enlist in all branches of the U.S. Military, but to rally support on the home front and bolster participation in charitable organizations such as the Red Cross.

 

LusitaniaEnlist

WWI propaganda poster, 1917. N-YHS Broadsides

 

On this 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, let us take a moment to reflect upon those who lost their lives and to honor the many individuals who selflessly provided comfort and aid to hundreds of innocent victims.

Meaningful Utility: The Handwritten Word During the American Civil War. Part 1 of 2.

This post is by Jonah Estess, Digital Project Intern in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.

What would we do without the written word? Written communication has been, and still is, our saving grace. The Civil War was the first time that the American military used the telegraph to communicate information across vast distances in wartime, from commanders to officers and vice versa. Since the 1840s, instant messaging had slowly entered the daily lives of people everywhere. Still, there have always been those who rely on more traditional means of communication. For Sarah R. Blunt, a Union Army nurse, lending her pen to paper was the only her only means of communicating to the world beyond Point Lookout, Maryland, and Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Her letters to her family in Brooklyn, New York, comprise a portion of the larger Civil War Treasures Collection in the New-York Historical Society archives. Being letters, they represent the most reliable means of communication for all who lived prior to the computer age. All soldiers, regardless of rank, wrote letters. All people, regardless of address and social standing, wrote letters. But the Civil War  marked the first in a number of advances in technology, slowly relegating the art of letter writing to the corridors of history. What Blunt chose to write about is rich with historical detail. (What a gold mine for social historians!) But even for Blunt’s contemporaries, a thoughtfully composed letter in hand was worth any number of messages on the wire.

Paper was as valuable a commodity as anything during the Civil War, especially in the South. Ernest M. Lander, Jr. writes that small scale paper manufacturers thrived in South Carolina before the war, but went out of business during the war. Despite the shortages, it can be said that paper remained more readily available to officers and quartermasters who needed it for military purposes. Theodore Spencer Case, Quartermaster for the State of Missouri in 1865 compiled a list of how stationery and writing equipment was apportioned according to each officer’s rank during the war (Figures 1, 2).

Figure 1: The Confederate Army quartermaster was in charge of dividing stationary and supplies for writing among his officers. Credit: Theodore Spencer Casey, as reprinted by Rodney C. Lackey.

Figure 1: The Confederate Army quartermaster for the state of Missouri was in charge of dividing stationary and supplies for writing among his officers. Credit: Theodore Spencer Casey, A. Q. M., as reprinted by Rodney C. Lackey.

Figure 1: The Confederate Army quartermaster was in charge of dividing stationary and supplies for writing among his officers.

Figure 2: The Confederate Army quartermaster for the state of Missouri was in charge of dividing stationary and supplies for writing among his officers. Credit: Theodore Spencer Casey, A. Q. M., as reprinted by Rodney C. Lackey.

The July 2, 1863 issue of The Daily Citizen (Vicksburg, Mississippi) was printed on the back of a sheet of wall paper.

The July 2, 1863, issue of The Daily Citizen (Vicksburg, Mississippi) was printed on the back of a sheet of wall paper. Page 1 of 1. New-York Historical Society Collections.

Thus, goods were appropriated where they were perceived to provide the greatest benefit. Historians agree that paper scarcity was of greater concern in the Confederate States, but neither the Union nor the Confederacy enjoyed bountiful supply lines. Both armies were worried about the fragility of their supply lines, and quartermasters were pressured to account for all needed and available supplies, including paper. For the lone nurse, access to paper and writing utensils was not protected by official protocol. Since many were far from home, the possibility of losing the ability to write to acquaintances or loved ones was especially distressing, and made nurses and soldiers of a lower rank more vigilant of these precious commodities.

The content of Sarah Blunt’s letters reflects the wide scope of topics that letters were meant to carry. In at least 119 pages of correspondence with her mother Mary, father Edmund, sisters Eliza (possibly also referred to as Liza) and Agnes, and Cousin Jerry, Blunt shares valuable insight into and meaningful observation of the treatment of contraband slaves by soldiers, conditions in military hospitals, and social life among the nurses. In a letter dated March 4, 1862, she writes to her mother about the brother in-law of a slave owner who pays a visit when she and Charlotte Bet, a contraband slave, are cleaning a window. (In the context of the Civil War, a “contraband slave” was any runaway slave whose master sided with the Confederate States of America. On August 6, 1861, all contraband slaves were freed by order of the Union government.) “I noticed a man not in uniform looking in the door. As he did not belong there I told Charlotte Bet to shut the door, but just then, Mrs. Gibbons came along with Dr Sterns, and while we were all talking this same man kept poking his head into the door.” The man was asked what his business was, and he pointed to Charlotte. He claimed that she was his brother-in-law’s property. Mrs. Gibbons called the man a “rebel,” and expressed that his rights to keep property did not extend as far as he believed.

March 4, 1862. Sarah Blunt writes to her mother about an incident involving a contraband slave named Charlotte Bet. Page 1 of 4. New York Historical Society Collections.

March 4, 1862. Sarah Blunt writes to her mother about an incident involving a contraband slave named Charlotte Bet. Page 1 of 4. New-York Historical Society Collections.

This letter, written 303 days before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, serves at least two purposes. For historians, letters such as this one show that Union nurses believed as ardently in the cause of abolition as Lincoln or Frederick Douglass. For historians, and visitors to the New-York Historical Society or the New York Heritage Digital Collections website, the fact that Sarah Blunt chose to include this incident within her limited correspondence suggests that it was especially important to her. Each letter is multiple pages in length, the script large and spread out. She writes somewhat infrequently, and sometimes not for months at a time. Of course, some letters may have been lost to decay or thrown out. Assuming all of her letters are intact and are part of the digitized collection, she may have written infrequently because her job of caring for sick and wounded soldiers may have occupied the bulk of her time. Another factor may also have been that, as I hint at previously, paper was scarce and thus limited the frequency of one’s correspondence.

May 31, 1863. Sarah Blunt writes to her mother about traveling home to visit her sick niece. Page 1 of 2. New York Historical Society Collections.

May 31, 1863. Sarah Blunt writes to her mother about traveling home to visit her sick niece. Page 1 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

June 3, 1863. Sarah Blunt writes to her mother explaining her delay in coming home. Page 2 of 2. New York Historical Society Collections.

June 3, 1863. Sarah Blunt writes to her mother explaining her delay in coming home. Page 2 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

June 3, 1863. Sarah Blunt writes to her mother explaining her delay in coming home. Page 1 of 2. New York Historical Society Collections.

June 3, 1863. Sarah Blunt writes to her mother explaining her delay in coming home. Page 1 of 2. New-York Historical Society Collections.

Distance was another factor that made letter writing an invaluable way to communicate one’s thoughts, fears, hopes, and care to those at home. Point Lookout and Harper’s Ferry were each nearly three hundred miles southwest of Brooklyn’s Third Ward. This was a considerable distance from which to stay up to date on her family’s affairs. In two letters, dated May 31 and June 3, 1863, respectively, Blunt communicates her desire to see her sick and dying niece. On the verso of the second letter, she writes that a problem with the boat that she was to board prevented her from coming home before her niece’s death. “I have just received the sad news of little Manny’s death. Poor Aunt Mary and all of them. I wish so much I were at home with you. I shall come home however at once.” Furthermore, leaving her post to visit home was difficult. In one letter, she encourages her mother to visit her at Harper’s Ferry. Deprived of personal contact with her family, Blunt uses keen observation to convey a series of specific events that make her wartime experience human, and relatable.

Blunt likely had little opportunity to use the telegraph. The newness of the telegraph and its usefulness to officers and Abraham Lincoln himself made its use a kind of exclusivity. In the case that she could find and operate a telegraph, she may not have been able to communicate the same sentiment or humanness that handwritten words convey, not to mention that her family also would have needed access to the telegraph to receive messages.

Diagram of a Morse Telegraph, invented my Samuel Morse and successfully operated in 1844.

Diagram of a Morse Telegraph, invented by Samuel Morse and successfully operated in 1844. Page 1 of 1. New-York Historical Society Collections.

During the Civil War, letter writing was not only the most practical form of communication, but it was the most personal. Each empty page was subject to its holder’s thoughts, and his or her thoughts were limited by the size and quantity of pages available. This dance between Sarah R. Blunt and her empty pages resulted in a narrative that reveals an often forgotten aspect of daily life before the computer age. Today, we take for granted the ease with which we share thoughts and opinions, substantive or not, as though doing so were an innate right or freedom. But questions such as the ones I raise here pertain equally to our period in history: How do we value our means of communication? How do our times shape how we communicate, and how do our circumstances and daily lives shape our narrative? Sarah Blunt may or may not have been conscious of these questions, but she offers up an answer which the New-York Historical Society seeks to preserve and make known to a wide audience.

Like the New-York Historical Society on social media and visit the N-YHS Library blog soon for part two of “The Written Word During the American Civil War: Meaningful Utility.”

To access the fully digitized collection of Sarah R. Blunt’s personal correspondence, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16694coll47/id/119

To access all other fully digitized collections within the Civil War Treasures Collection, please visit  http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16694coll47

Earth Day Photos Reveal the Dirt on NYC

Now that every inch of Manhattan is covered with buildings or fabricated parks, it’s hard to imagine the city was once just another patch of earth. To celebrate Earth Day, here are photographs that reveal some dirt on New York City’s past.

View north from roof of Dakota Apartment Building, 1887.  Geographic File, PR 20.

View north from roof of Dakota Apartment Building, 1887. Geographic File, PR 20.

The first one shows the land currently occupied by the New-York Historical Society.  It was taken in 1887 from the top of the recently-built Dakota Building (finished in 1884), located at 72nd Street and Central Park West. The building in the center is the original Victorian Gothic structure of the Museum of Natural History, which was under construction at the time. Although still standing, this building is now surrounded by a complex of additional AMNH buildings that were added at various times and currently spread over four city blocks. Back in 1887, though, it was surrounded only by empty or undeveloped lots, including one across the street on the southeast corner of 77th and Central Park West, where N-YHS now stands. Even with the photo in front of me, it’s hard to imagine that our building (constructed 1902-1908) was once the site of a modest farm and open fields.

dirttomb

View looking north from roof of original Barnard College Building at 120th Street and Broadway, 1897. Geographic File, PR 20.

 

Another view of the upper west side was taken a couple of years later (in 1897) from the roof of the original Barnard College building, at the southwest corner of 120th Street and Broadway. Grant’s Tomb, which had just been dedicated, is visible to the west, but the view looking north is still quite bucolic. Little did Julia Grant know, when she selected this site as the final resting place for her husband (and herself), that by the 1960s, the area would be not only developed but blighted. The former president’s tomb was covered with graffiti, littered with crack vials and empty bottles, and used as a bathroom facility and shelter for homeless people. Happily, the monument was restored in 1997, for its 100th anniversary, and the surrounding Morningside Heights neighborhood, though hardly rural, is no longer unsafe.

Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street, 1888.  Geographic File, PR 20.

Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street, 1888. Geographic File, PR 20.

Walking by 5th Avenue and 92nd Street today, you would never think “cow pasture” but in 1888 these cattle, shown on the southeast corner of the block, were its only residents. By 1924, however, this bovine field had been transformed into New York City’s most luxurious penthouse apartment. It was built for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriwether Post Hutton, who agreed to allow the George Fuller Construction Company to tear down the mansion she owned on the site and construct one of the grandest apartment buildings in New York City. Her reward was a 54-room (!) triplex penthouse apartment. The huge apartment, described by architectural historian Andrew Alpern as “certainly the largest and very possibly the most luxurious apartment ever created anywhere” was subsequently broken up into smaller units, but the building is still there and its 26 apartments remain among the most exclusive addresses in the city.

Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, 1866.  Geographic File, PR 20.

Fifth Avenue and 59th Street (current site of Plaza Hotel), 1866. Geographic File, PR 20.

 

This photograph of 5th Avenue and 59th Street, taken in 1866, is a particularly interesting illustration of the complex transition from rural to urban.  As is described in this fascinating post on CurbedNY, this area was still remote and undeveloped, dotted with ponds and streams, when Central Park opened in 1857. The Park’s skating pond (now the Lake), which opened to the public in the winter of 1858-59, kicked off a craze for skating with New Yorkers. Downtown ponds like the Collect Pond had long since been built over, so residents were lured uptown to skate, both in Central Park and on private ponds along Fifth Avenue. Two of the most popular were located across the street from one another at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, where the Plaza Hotel and Apple Store now stand. But as shown by this photo, the ponds soon fell victim to their own success: by the mid-1860s, their wealthy patrons began to build houses in the area, and as development inexorably pushed uptown, the ponds were paved over.

So what does all this have to do with Earth Day? The clock of course can’t be turned back, but as these pictures illustrate, the built environment is constantly evolving. It can be made sustainable, but we need to act now.

Now He Belongs to the Ages: 150 years after Lincoln’s Assasination

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

lincolnassassprint

Currier & Ives, “The Assassination of President Lincoln, April 14, 1865.” PR 52, Portrait File.

As is fitting for our most eloquent president, Lincoln’s death, and life, have inspired a torrent of writing. The memorializing began at the moment of Lincoln’s death, when his friend and Secretary of State, Edward Stanton, famously said, “Now he belongs to the ages” (or, as some others heard it, “Now he belongs to the angels”). Walt Whitman was inspired by Lincoln’s assassination to write two of his most famous poems: “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain! (1865-1866).  More recently, Doris Kearns Goodwin has continued Lincoln’s apotheosis with Team of Rivals (2006), a book that changed my admiration for Lincoln into unabashed hero-worship. As of 2012, the count of books about Lincoln was already at 15,000, and the pace has picked up considerably in the three sesquicentennial years since. Indeed, according to Paul Tetrault, Director of Ford’s Theater, more ink has been spilled about Lincoln than any other figure in world history, save for Jesus Christ.

But of the 1,691 items cataloged under “Abraham Lincoln” in the N-YHS library, the ones that speak most poignantly to me today are wordless.  Take, for example, these locks of Lincoln’s hair.

"From Robert T. Lincoln to Hon. G.V.Fox, Ass. Sec. Navy"

“From Robert T. Lincoln to Hon. G.V.Fox, Ass. Sec. Navy,” 1865. MS 439, Naval History Society Collection.

Removed after Lincoln’s death, the hair was sent by his son Robert to Gustavus Vasa Fox, who served as Lincoln’s assistant secretary of the Navy and enjoyed a close relationship with the president. Although viewed today as odd or even creepy, saving locks of a deceased loved one’s hair, and even wearing it as jewelry, was a common form of Victorian mourning. Outdated as the custom may be, its emotional impact is, for me, as strong as ever: holding these locks of Lincoln’s hair, thinking of Robert enclosing them in an envelope, one feels an intimate connection to the living man, and a powerful sense of loss and regret over his death.

Scrap of the coat Lincoln was wearing on the night of his assassination.

Scrap of the coat Lincoln was wearing on the night of his assassination.

In a similar vein, N-YHS also holds a small piece of the waistcoat Abraham Lincoln was wearing on the night of the assassination. It was sent to N-YHS on October 5, 1865, by Maunsell Bradhurst Field, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Lincoln Administration, who was present at Lincoln’s deathbed. Field’s accompanying letter identifies it as “a portion of a larger piece presented to me 24 hours after the [assassination] by Mr. Lincoln’s body-servant.” The remaining portions, Field writes, he gave to “history souvenir hunters.” However callously it may have been distributed, to touch this fabric now, imagining its removal from the dying President’s body, conjures up the drama and anguish of the assassination night more directly than even the most vivid written or visual account.

A less dramatic memento, but for me no less touching, is this piece of crepe I discovered just a few weeks ago, in the recently donated Ludington Family Papers.

crepe caption

crepe

“Piece of crape Charles wore after the assassination of Pres. Lincoln.” MS 2962, Ludington Family Papers.

Buried among a pile of letters and other documents, this material was folded around a business card and carefully wrapped in age-foxed paper, identifying the contents as a “piece of crape [the 19th century spelling of crepe] Charles wore after the assassination of President Lincoln.” Charles Ludington, partner in the dry-goods store Lathrop and Ludington (later Lathrop, Ludington & Co.), assisted in raising regiments and rendered other patriotic services to the Union during the Civil War. It was common for men to wear black armbands as a symbol of mourning in the Victorian era, as can be seen in a number of early photographs. But this carefully preserved example of the fabric itself evokes the grief of its wearer with an immediacy no image can match. It reminded me of saved scraps of flags and cards from the spontaneous memorials that sprang up after 9/11, which capture the mood that pervaded the city in the attack’s aftermath more vividly than any photograph.

lincoln obsequies

lincoln ghost 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charles Ludington also saved a program for the “Obsequies of Abraham Lincoln,” an oration given by George Bancroft in Union Square on April 25, 1865. Printed for the Citizens Committee, of which Ludington was a member, the program’s frontispiece is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which has bled through to the adjoining page, as if to illustrate Lincoln’s spirit leaving his body.

N-YHS holds many other rare and valuable records relating to Lincoln and his legacy, but these tangible mementos of his assassination recall his spirit, for me, “far above our poor power to add or detract.” As Doris Kearns Goodwin commented about the chair in which Lincoln was sitting when he was shot, which will be on the stage with her when she delivers a sesquicentennial address at the Ford Museum,”There’s an intimacy to it that catapults you back in time. And hopefully along with that, you’re not just thinking of the death but the life that made it worthwhile.”

Walt Whitman, Brotherhood, and the American Civil War

This post was written by Jonah Estess, Digital Project Intern in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.

Walt Whitman. New York Historical Society Collections.

Walt Whitman. New York Historical Society Collections.

In the N-YHS collections are three letters addressed from Walt Whitman to the parents of Erastus E. Haskell, Samuel and Rosalinda Haskell. He writes to them about their son’s condition at a military hospital in Washington D.C. Walt had been a volunteer nurse at area hospitals, and had grown fond of caring for the sick and wounded soldiers. He took a particular interest in Erastus, who had contracted typhoid fever while stationed at a nearby Union encampment. The content of his letters, in addition to that in a fourth one co-authored by Joel M. Jansen (born Janson) and Erastus himself, conveys brotherly spirit in more ways than one. Walt’s voyage to find his supposedly wounded brother, his care of Erastus, and the bond between Erastus and Joel, both musicians, serve as examples of the endurance of togetherness at a time when such sentiment faced nearly insurmountable battles in warfare and illness.

Like others, Walt likely would have skimmed the casualty lists published in the newspapers, hoping that he wouldn’t run across a familiar name. In December of 1862, Walt left Brooklyn for Washington D.C. on a search for his brother George, a Union Army soldier who may have been wounded. He believed that the name “G. W. Whitmore,” which had appeared in the New York Tribune, was strikingly similar to that of his brother, George Washington Whitman. To put an end to his own incessant worry (and presumably his mother’s as well), Walt ventured to the Union capital. At that time, most people lacked the means to make such a journey. Walt, who from 1846-1848 was the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, made the trip not simply because he could, but because he was unwilling to wait for a third-party to confirm that his brother was being cared for.

April 5, 1863. Joel and Erastus write to Erastus’s father about their life and well-being white stationed at Camp Casey.       Page 3 of 4.

April 5, 1863. Joel and Erastus write to Erastus’s father about their life and well-being white stationed at Camp Casey.       Page 3 of 4. New York Historical Society Collections.

April 5, 1863. Joel and Erastus write to Erastus’s father about their life and well-being white stationed at Camp Casey.       Page 1 of 4

April 5, 1863. Joel and Erastus write to Erastus’s father about their life and well-being white stationed at Camp Casey.       Page 1 of 4. New York Historical Society Collections.

Twenty-one year old Erastus Haskell of the 141st New York Volunteer Infantry had taken ill with typhoid fever and was sent to Armory Square Hospital in Washington D.C. He, a carpenter from Connecticut, and Joel M. Jansen, a 19-year-old farmer from Tompkins, New York, had both volunteered in Elmira, New York in 1862. Erastus was placed into Company K, while Joel was put into Company C. They were each designated a fife player, musician being a rank equivalent to private. The 141st Infantry Regiment fought in nearly 20 battles and skirmishes, during many of which fife music would have inspired patriotic unity among their fellow infantrymen; as bullets flew and blood spilled, they and their fifes were responsible for keeping pace and restraining soldiers’ nerves on the battlefield. Shortly before Erastus fell sick, Joel wrote a letter to Erastus’s father in New York. He writes a little of Erastus’s well-being, but primarily about their unusually comfortable stay at Camp Casey. His letter finishes half of the way down one page. With paper being so precious and scarce a resource, Joel offered the rest of the page and the length of another to Erastus’s pen. Erastus accepted his offer, and wrote to reassure his family of his safety while off duty. This simple, everyday act of sharing paper, though today taken for granted, also symbolized the bond which had developed between the two young men. While it is unclear whether they knew of each other before the war, their appointments to the rank of musician would have brought them closer together. That Joel and Erastus wrote this letter together indicates some degree of brotherly sentiment shared between the two soldiers.

July 27, 1863. Walt Whitman informs Erastus Haskell’s parents that their son has typhoid fever, and of the care that he has given their son.   Page 1 of 4. New York Historical Society Collections.

 

Shortly after arriving, Walt learned that his brother had indeed been wounded, but his injuries were minor, merely a flesh wound to the cheek. Prior to his trip, Walt had received his brother’s letters, which detail the severity of soldiers’ wounds and the hardships of life between skirmishes and battles. The sight of wounded and sick men disturbed Walt, and he began spending considerable amounts of time in the northern capital caring for them. But something about Erastus resonated with Walt. Though Erastus seemed disinterested in sharing too many of his thoughts with Walt, Brooklyn’s poet became invested in the boy’s emotional and physical health. On July 27, 1863, he wrote to Erastus’s parents, “I enclose you an envelope to send your letter to Erastus-put a stamp on it & write soon. I suppose you know he has been sick a great deal since he has been in the service.” Walt sat for hours, sometime late into the night beside Erastus’s bed, keeping an otherwise alone and dying young soldier company. Erastus E. Haskell died on August 2, 1863, of typhoid. In a letter to Erastus’s father dated August 10 of that year, Walt writes further about caring for Erastus:

“I used to sit by the side of his bed pretty silent, as that seemed most agreeable to him, & I felt it so too-he was generally opprest for breath, & with the heat, & I would fan him-occasionally he would want a drink.”

August 10, 1863. Walt describes Erastus’s behavior and condition at the end of his life. Reflecting on the young man’s life and loyalty, Walt writes, “He is one of the thousands of our unknown American young men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss about them dying, so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones of this land, giving themselves up, aye even their young & precious lives, in their country’s cause.” Page 1 of 4. New York Historical Society Collections.

At the time, some believed Walt to be homosexual, and the matter has been investigated by scholars since. Walt writes in his first letter of July 27, “I am merely a friend.” In spite of the persistent rumors of Walt’s sexual orientation and the deeply caring sentiment conveyed through his letters about Erastus, this statement should be taken at face value. Whether Walt was gay or not is of no concern here, because his sole intention was to care for the “poor boy.” No matter what Walt felt for Erastus, he did care for Erastus and for the many soldiers Walt assisted in their hour of need.

This collection of letters was digitized in 1998 as part of the N-YHS Library’s first digital project, “Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society,” for the Library of Congress American Memory website. The Library of Congress is currently restructuring the American Memory site, and has retired collections digitized by other institutions. In assembling the data necessary for the New York Historical Society to republish the letters online, I have become particularly attached to these letters. The thoughtfulness of the content is thoroughly engaging, bringing to the attention of scholars and schoolchildren the bonds cultivated between strangers during the Civil War. In some sense, these letters show how the war brought people together, in spite of the divisions that incited the conflict, divisions that threatened to divide a country.

To access the fully digitized collection of these letters, please visit  http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16694coll47/id/200

To access all other fully digitized collections within the Civil War Treasures project, please visit  http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16694coll47

“We Are All Americans:” Grant, Lee, and Ely Parker at Appomattox Court House

This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

Robert E. Lee wore a puzzled look as he examined the officer’s dark features, then recovered enough to extend his hand and remark, “I am glad to see one real American here.” On that April 9 afternoon, 150 years ago, at the McLean House in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, General Lee was greeting Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian who was serving as General Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary. Parker replied with dignity, “We are all Americans.”

Surrender at Appomattox Courthouse,, W.H. Stelle & Co., 1885; PR 068 Wars

Surrender at Appomattox Court House, (Ely Parker is depicted seated at table in rear), W.H. Stelle & Co., 1885; PR 068 Wars

After Lee and Grant’s preliminary and unusually pleasant conversation, Grant reached out to write out the surrender terms for the Army of Northern Virginia. This would effectively end four years of America’s bloodiest war.  Parker provided the writing materials, a “manifold book” with its new-fangled yellow sheets of copy paper; one can see one of the three copies here bearing Grant’s writing and Parker’s emendations.

67544_TermsSurrenderAppomattox_Grant_p267544_TermsSurrenderAppomattox_Grant_p1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terms of Surrender, April 9, 1865, manifold impression in the hand of Ulysses S. Grant, with revisions by Ely S. Parker; BV Grant, U.S.

Lee studied the document, noting that the generous terms allowing the Confederate officers to keep their horses and side arms would “do much toward conciliating our people.” When time came for a clean copy to be made, Grant’s adjutant, Colonel Theodore S. Bowers, a one-time journalist, was too shaken by the magnitude of the occasion to complete the assignment. The task thus fell to Parker, who, with his legal training, had the composure to write out the terms on letterhead paper for Lee’s official approval. Parker kept one of the earlier yellow manifold copies for himself. He held proudly onto it all his life, placed it in a wood frame case, and had Ulysses Grant attest to its authenticity—in the attached text at the top margin—15  years later.  The framed document came later to the New-York Historical Society through the donation of the New York Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.

E. S. Parker, engraved by  R. O’Brien from a photograph by Napoleon Sarony; PR 052 Box 105 , engraver, , photographer

E. S. Parker, engraved by R. O’Brien from a photograph by Napoleon Sarony; PR 052 Box 105

The copy of the surrender letter was not, however, Ely Parker’s most prized possession.  That honor belonged to the seven-inch silver medal presented by President George Washington to his Great, Great Uncle Red Jacket in 1792. Parker both inherited the medal and rescued it from sale to a museum, and thence wore it frequently. Born in 1828 and named Ha-sa-no-an-da, Ely Samuel Parker was the son of a War of 1812 veteran who had fought for the United States. Raised on the Tonawanda Reservation near Buffalo, Parker impressed others with his curiosity, intellect, and facility with languages. He pronounced his “white” name “Eelee” and took on the additional name Do-ne-ho-ga-wa on becoming a sachem in 1851. By then Parker had served as a teenaged interpreter and diplomat for his tribe in Albany and Washington, met with Presidents and statesmen, studied law and engineering. Not admitted to the New York bar because, as a tribal member, he was not a U.S. citizen, he pursued his career in civil engineering. Work as a U.S. government engineer took Parker to Galena, Illinois, where, in 1860, he met Ulysses Grant, a Mexican War veteran with a West Point education struggling to make do as a civilian.

Despite his being an active Freemason, engineer, and militia officer, prejudice at every level stymied Parker’s application for an officer’s commission in the Civil War. In Parker’s recollection, Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward, a fellow New Yorker, told him that “the struggle in which I wished to assist, was an affair between white men and one in which the Indian was not called on to act. The fight must be made and settled by the white men alone.”  It was the intervention, two years later, of Grant and other Galena officers that sent him to Vicksburg, Mississippi, days after its successful capture, to join Grant’s staff; a year later he was formally appointed as Grant’s secretary with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Robert Weir, Sagoyewatha, or "Red Jacket" (ca. 1758-1830) 1828 Oil on canvas Gift of Winthrop Chanler 1893.1

Robert W. Weir, Sagoyewatha, or “Red Jacket” (ca. 1758-1830), (with presidential medal), 1828, Oil on canvas, Gift of Winthrop Chanler; 1893.1

After remaining at Grant’s side throughout the drama at Appomattox in 1865, Parker accompanied the General with his staff to Washington.

According to Parker’s account in news reports, he arrived in time to meet with President Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, show him the Red Jacket medal, and demonstrate all that it meant to him. Abraham Lincoln continued with his plans to end that day at Ford’s Theater.

Parker was a natural choice as President Grant’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs and was, in fact, the first Native American to hold that position. In that tenure, Parker was not reluctant to use the Army, but he and Grant attempted to avoid the major Indian Wars that characterized the period. A Congressional investigation, from which he was cleared of charges of fraud, ended Parker’s service in 1871.

After leaving government, and now married to a young Washington socialite, Parker made a Gilded-Age fortune, but lost much of it just as quickly in the Panic of 1873.  Thereafter, Parker would touch on history in still yet another way, in his last career as the head requisitions clerk for the New York City Police Department, a position held for nearly 20 years until his death in 1895. There at headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street, the “noble old fellow” was a favorite of a reporter on the police beat, Jacob Riis.

Jacob Riis. PR 84, Pach Brothers Photograph Collection

Jacob Riis, Pach Brothers Photograph Collection; PR 84

Later made famous for his exposure of conditions in the nearby tenements, Riis would recall that he was drawn to Parker’s encyclopedic knowledge and by Riis’s own childhood interest in James Fenimore Cooper’s tales of American Indians in his native Denmark: “They had something to do with my coming here, and at last I had for a friend one of their kin. I think he felt the bond of sympathy between us and prized it, for he showed me in many silent ways that he was fond of me. There was about him an infinite pathos, penned up there in his old age among the tenements of Mulberry Street on the pay of a second-rate clerk, that never ceased to appeal to me.”

Parker’s post-war recollections of Appomattox have helped in setting the countless depictions of the iconic scene in the McLean parlor. Here, in interview notes taken by artist James E. Kelly, Parker describes Grant’s informal dress and knee-high boots. With a laugh, he adds, “If you want to show General Grant as he really was—he had a cigar in his mouth.”

James E. Kelly Papers, Box 2

James E. Kelly Papers, Box 10

 

 

Celebrating Women’s History: Rebecca Lepkoff

To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are some images by pioneering street photographer Rebecca Lepkoff.

Mrs. Taylor, circa 1947-1948. PR 285, Rebecaa Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

Mrs. Taylor, circa 1947-1948. PR 285, Rebecaa Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

 

Lower East Side, 1940's. PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

Lower East Side, 1940s. PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

A quintessential New Yorker, Lepkoff gained international acclaim for her iconic images of the Lower East Side. She was born on August 4, 1916, in a Hester Street tenement. Like the majority of families living in the neighborhood at that time, her parents were Jewish immigrants, struggling to improve their circumstances. Lepkoff dreamed of becoming a dancer, and after graduating from City College she was hired to dance at the 1939 World’s Fair. With the money she earned, she bought her first camera, and began to shift her artistic vision to photography.

Hester Street, 1940's. PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

Hester Street, 1940s. PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

Hester Street, 1940's. PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

Hester Street, 1940s. PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

Lepkoff took advantage of free photography classes offered by the New Deal’s National Youth Administration, and later joined the Photo League. Founded in 1936 by photographers Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, the Photo League encouraged its members to document everyday life, a mission that Lepkoff gloriously fulfilled. Her photographs capture and make palpable a world that no longer exists. She focuses on the daily incidents of life that spilled out of too-small dwellings onto sidewalks and streets: mothers watching their babies, boys making fists, people shopping or sitting on stoops, neighbors chatting. Although indelibly stamped with the imprint of a vanished era, we recognize our own lives in Lepkoff’s images.  They have an authentic quality that makes you realize the past really happened.

Hester Street, 1940's. PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

Hester Street, 1940s. PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

 

Lower East Side, 1940's.  PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

Lower East Side, 1940s. PR 295, Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection.

Lepkoff was one of many women in the Photo League, which was “gender neutral at a time when women were not particularly visible outside the home,” says Catherine Evans, co-curator of a recent traveling exhibition about the League. About a third of the League’s members were women,  including many famous names such as Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and Ruth Orkin. Their work shares a commitment to documentary photography, but can hardly be characterized as “feminine.” As Evans noted, “if we were to cover up the wall labels in [the Photo League] exhibition, you’d be hard pressed to say ‘that was by a woman, that was by a man.'”

The vibrancy of Lepkoff ‘s photographs reflects her own vitality: she lived to be 98, continuing to photograph almost up until the day she died (August 17, 2014). Luckily, her legacy is preserved at N-YHS and other institutions and will continue to inspire women for many years to come.

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