History in Small Details

When considering the Early State Records collection, one might focus primarily on numerous series of session laws, constitutions, executive orders and correspondence, as well as a host of other official documents.  However, sometimes history can be found in private laws and personal matters, even when the documents do not involve important events or figures.   Nevertheless, these seemingly insignificant entries can provide a wealth of specific information to a genealogist searching for a family lineage, and more general historical background for a researcher. 

A good example of private matters can be found in The Laws of Maryland at Large, compiled by Francis Bacon, and printed in 1765 (LLMC #35097).  The apparatus of administrative government was non-existent in early colonial times; thus private laws served that function.   In the Index to Private, Parochial, and Town Laws, “Naturalization” listed the numerous men and their children naturalized in Maryland, which provided them with the benefits of citizenship, including land ownership. 

So, who were these new citizens? For the price of a private act, immigrants were welcome.  For example, on October 30, 1727, Francis Rudolph Bodieu, a chirugeon (surgeon) in Kent County, and Daniel Maynadier, a clerk in Talbot County, and their respective children, became citizens.  (LLMC #35097, 1727, ch.12, p.372).   Imagine a descendant locating this genealogical find.  Not only were full names given, but occupation and location.  What a great discovery and useful clues for those heirs of these new citizens.  A more comprehensive act was found in The Act to Naturalize Jacob Arents and his three children (LLMC #35474).  This three page manuscript noted the individuals’ names, original allegiance to the German Emperor, and membership in the Protestant religion.   Moreover, this grant of citizenship stated that New Jersey’s encouragement of new citizens was based on its interest that the “increase of People is a Means of Advancing the Wealth and Strength of any Government.”

Citizenship was not the only way to grow a country and provide insight into the smaller but significant details of colonial and early state life as seen by the marriage permits at LLMC #35214 and #24895.  These 1774 authorization forms to allow ministers to marry Joseph Wyatt and Marriam Lunt, and Abner Harris and Mary Smith, respectively, were individually signed by New Hampshire Governor John Wentworth.  Beyond providing the names of both husband and wife, including her often elusive maiden name, the document also indicated the emphasis of religion’s role in governance, as the purpose of this form was to allow a minister to administer the rite of marriage.   

And of course, marriage and love can also be linked, even in these early times.  In LLMC #35405, a December 20, 1783 John Van Winkle sent an affectionate letter to his wife in Rhode Island as he traveled out of town.  After writing of his safe arrival, he assured her that “neither distance or time will lessen his esteem and sincere regards.”  After more such sentiments, he signed his letter as her “affectionate and truly loving husband, until death.”  While a researcher may never know their ultimate fate, or his wife’s given name, the letter does reflect that love matches existed even in the 1700s. 

Interest in family lineage also historically existed, even when the parties were neither rich nor famous.   For example, a Portsmouth record listed the children of Christopher Shearman and Ann Shearman, (LLMC #35419), while #35417 provided the location and names of family buried in the Samson Sherman (Shearman) plot.  Finally, an April 7, 1800 copy from Portsmouth records listed the children from the marriage of William (?) Coggeshall and his wife (#35418).  All of these were found in the Library of Congress; and while purely speculating, the proximity of the documents on the original microfiche reel might suggest a familial connection between the two last names. 

Genealogists are not the only group of researchers to enjoy these unique documents.  For example, the Company of the Redwood Library’s 1764 catalog of books (LLMC #35312), located in Newport, Rhode Island, listed books bought for 500 pounds sterling in London, as well as its donated books.  Given that the Redwood Library and Athenaeum is still in existence as a subscription library, these details would provide valuable information to both the library archivists and other researchers regarding what volumes were considered desirable and necessary for its collection.

So plumb the images in the Early State Records collection for these small gems which may provide that “eureka” moments of discovery to a variety of researchers.  After all, everyone knows about the Declaration of Independence; how many of us knew John Van Winkle so loved his wife?

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1028 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents, such as the broadsides, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law