The following essay isn't what I turned in for the class. However, I found the background research for one archival item that I examined so startling and enlightening that I wanted to write it up for inclusion here anyway. And so we have...
A Puritan Maiden's Diary:
The Early American Primary Source that Wasn't
The Early American Primary Source that Wasn't
The primary source I had initially selected for the assignment is entitled “A Puritan Maiden's Diary.” One of the education departments at Eastern Illinois University, where I work as a librarian, has a web page that links out to several online archives whose contents were judged useful for teaching purposes. One of them is the website of the Library of Congress, which has a section entitled Pages from Her Story that contains the text of women’s historical diaries, letters, and memoirs.
Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, one of my favorite novels about the era. Both recount culture clashes in Puritan times from the viewpoint of an educated young woman.
When I read the text of the diary, hosted at the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project, I was fascinated by the illustrative details this unnamed girl recorded, as well as her eloquence. Here’s the first paragraph, dated December 5, 1675:
I am fifteen years old to-day, and while sitting with my stitchery in my hand, there came a man in all wet with the salt spray. He had just landed by the boat from Sandwich, which had difficulty landing because of the surf. I myself had been down to the shore and saw the great waves breaking, and the high tide running up as far as the hillocks of dead grass. The man, George, an Indian, brings word of much sickness in Boston, and great trouble with the Quakers and Baptists; that many of the children throughout the country be not baptized, and without that, religion comes to nothing. My mother has bid me this day put on a fresh kirtle and wimple, though it not be the Lord's day, and my Aunt Alice coming in did chide me and say that to pay attention to a birthday was putting myself with the world's people. It happens from this that my kirtle and wimple are no longer pleasing me, and what with this and the bad news from Boston my birthday has ended in sorrow. (Slicer, 1894, p. 20)
|King Philip, as interpreted by a later artist|
An excerpt from her words on the latter:
Through all my life I have never seen such an array of fashion and splendor as I have seen here in Boston. Silken hoods, scarlet petticoats, with silver lace, white sarconett plaited gowns, bone lace and silken scarfs. The men with periwigs, ruffles and ribbons. (p. 24)
The diary is presented by Adeline E. H. Slicer, a 19th-century historian, who wrote that she came across it in her travels. She published the contents in New England Magazine in September 1894. (Cornell University has the scanned images of Slicer’s article in their Making of America journal archive.) In her article, Slicer added her own editorial commentary and clarifications on what the girl wrote so her contemporaries would understand the historical background. To my mind, this “Puritan maiden’s diary” perfectly exemplified one of the themes Geraldine Brooks spoke about in her MOOC course lecture: that although customs change, human nature remains constant despite the passage of time.
I was also thrilled to see that Slicer, in her historical asides, mentioned the name of a colonial-era relative of mine, the Rev. James Keith of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who felt sorry for the son of King Philip, a young boy who would likely be enslaved after his father was killed. (Rev. Keith was married to the sister of my direct ancestor, Samuel Edson of Bridgewater.) A search that began at my university’s website eventually ended at a resource that cited a member – albeit a distant one – of my family. How’s that for synchronicity?
|The Rev. James Keith Parsonage, West Bridgewater, Mass. |
When I worked at Bridgewater State College, I drove by this house all the time.
So I began googling around for more information… and found, alas, just what I was looking for.
A message on a history discussion list from Brigham Young University’s Jenny Hale Pulsipher (2003) expressed her doubts about the diary, despite finding it in an online primary source database. “I am convinced that it is a 19th century invention,” Pulsipher wrote. “It is riddled with anachronisms, one of the most glaring of which is the diarist’s exact quotation of Benjamin Church’s description of Philip (Metacom) years before Church's account was written or published… [but] the few mentions of it that showed up on a general internet search seem to accept it as genuine.”
However, conclusive proof of the diary’s fabrication came from Mary Beth Norton, Professor of American History at Cornell – an award-winning scholar, incidentally, whose In the Devil’s Snare has the most persuasive argument I’ve read for the reasons behind the Salem witchcraft accusations. In an article for the Journal of Women’s History (1998), Norton demonstrates that the “so-called Puritan Maiden’s Diary” is unquestionably a fake written by Adeline Slicer herself.
|Little Compton, RI (formerly Saconet), the supposed residence of "Hetty Shepard"|
(and where her real-life uncle, Captain Benjamin Church, is buried)
What was presented to me as a primary source dating from the 1670s turned out to be a primary source of a different kind from the 1890s – and a very convincing piece of historical fiction at that! Works of historical fiction not only evoke the period they describe, but also the time at which they’re written, and, as Norton has uncovered (and others have suspected), this one betrayed many clues to its true late 19th-century origins.
In conclusion, although the class's archival assignment didn’t turn out at all as I intended, it was still an instructive and eye-opening exercise. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that researchers, historical fiction writers included, need to be skeptical of the historical sources they find. Rather than taking them at face value, we need to trust our gut if they seem suspicious and thoroughly investigate the circumstances behind their creation.
Note: The original version of this essay stated that Slicer didn't include the purported diarist's name. In fact, she does mention a "Hetty Shepard" in her final two paragraphs, but because the name was mentioned there in passing and nowhere else, I didn't immediately catch that she was referring to the supposed diarist there.
Norton, M. B. (1998). Getting to the source: Hetty Shepard, Dorothy Dudley, and other fictional colonial women I have come to know altogether too well. Journal of Women’s History, 10, 141-54. doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0311
Pulsipher, J. H. (2003, Oct. 14). “A Puritan Maiden's Diary” by Hety Shepard. Message posted to http://www.h-net.org/~ieahcweb/
Slicer, A. E. H. (1894). A Puritan maiden’s diary. The New England Magazine, 17, 20-25. Retrieved from http://digital.library.cornell.edu/n/newe/index.html