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.
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.
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.
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.