This post was written by John C. Winters, a New-York Historical Society Graduate Archival Research Fellow
Sometimes, the sources historians use are not all we believe them to be. Whether a primary source collection is incomplete, transcribed and edited heavily or simply consists of unreadable copies of the originals, historians need to be wary about where their sources come from.
This occurs even with such large and rich collections as the Beekman Family Papers at the N-YHS. To begin our story, enter the late Philip L. White.
White was a graduate student at Columbia University in the early 1950s when he was tasked with editing the Beekman Family Papers at the N-YHS. A historian with an interest in business, economic and international history, he painstakingly sifted through the thousands of documents that were for decades kept safe by the Beekman Family Association. Yet the papers were (and in some cases still are) a mostly unorganized collection occasionally punctuated by dense pockets of carefully managed business records. When White first encountered the collection, it consisted of about forty boxes of material that ranged from the late 17th to the early 20th century. Nevertheless he sifted through the chaos methodically, and while he did he created a 450-page summary that foregrounds the business interests of Beekman men through multiple generations. This summary is an impressive tour de force that engages with the family to an extent no one had before, and it contains immense detail about the business affairs of the family. But it is also riddled with value judgments on various topics like women’s issues and odd entries about “chicken coop stuff.” White’s prioritization of business above all else is quite clear, and this summary became the foundation for his future publications. A normal process, to be sure, but this is also where things take a bit of a turn.
But how did this start? Why did the publications start to replace a fairly large and not-invisible collection at the N-YHS? The collection’s poor initial organization may have been the root cause. Perhaps White was hesitant to specify box and folder numbers as the editing project grew during and after he left the N-YHS (though it is worth noting that his 450 page summary does indeed contain box and folder numbers. Where did these go?). Or perhaps he knew new housing for the material was needed, so he did not bother to include a box and folder designation that he thought would eventually have to change anyway. Perhaps it was White’s lack of citations and singular business focus that gave historians the impression that the collection was inaccessible or limited. Or maybe it was simply the convenience of easily accessible published volumes that shielded the actual collection from attention.
The sole use of White’s work among historians is a particularly tricky problem. Even White admitted that his work focuses on a few elite male members of the family, a focus that elides important Beekman women and men who also participated in business and local politics. So the scholarly reliance on White’s work, though in no way his “fault,” has only served to hide the variety and complexity of the archived collection.
To help remedy this problem and to give the collection a presence online, my colleague and I created a new finding aid. It blends White’s summary with the existing (though revised by us) finding aid with an eye toward contemporary topics and themes that uncover new (well- old, really…) people and places within the collection. The hope is that scholars will “rediscover” this collection and add to White’s work that excludes “all except the most prominent members of the family” (Beekmans, ix). His publications will forever be a part of any study of the Beekman family, New York businesses or elite city life, but the collection itself should no longer go overlooked.
William Powers, Jr., In Memoriam: Philip Lloyd White. http://www.utexas.edu/faculty/council/2009-2010/memorials/white.html
Philip L. White:
- The Beekmans of New York in Politics and Commerce, 1647-1877, New-York Historical Society, 1956.
- ed., The Beekman Mercantile Papers, 1746-1799, vols. I-III, New-York Historical Society, 1956.
- Beekmantown, New York: Forest Frontier to Farm Community, University of Texas Press, 1979.