Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Horace Phillips

Three summers and a thousand years ago. So begins the 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King. I’ve always liked this line. Especially now, in the age of Covid-19, when the passage of time seems to be doing strange things – accelerating one day and standing still the next – it helps me think about how some things seem so recent and yet so long ago. Now, on the cusp of finishing my dissertation in history, I’ve also been thinking back on my very first research project.

Twenty-three summers and a thousand years ago. I was nine in the summer of 1997, and my mother had decided that it was time for my brother and me to understand how to do research at the library. I’ve been interested in the Civil War for as long as I can remember, but I can’t remember how we chose the research project. Our goal was to find a Civil War soldier who was buried in our town who had left a diary we could read.That was easier said than done in 1997 in Traverse City, Michigan. Most of what I remember about that summer is inspired by a binder of papers that I’ve carefully preserved. Missing from that archive is a particular booklet I can picture quite clearly. Or perhaps it was a photocopy in a file at the library. It listed Civil War diaries and letters in state archival collections. I can only imagine that this is where we first found Horace Phillip’s name, associated with a diary at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, and how we determined that he was from our town. We wrote away for a photocopy of the diary. It cost twenty cents a page. After postage and handling, the total came to $10.44. The Library mailed me a manilla envelope on August 21, 1997. And we wrote away for Horace’s pension records.


Meanwhile, based on my archive, I can see that we also consulted an array of books that I remember were held in the the Traverse City library’s “Nelson Room.” The room contained rare local history books and was a rather vaunted place to my mind as it was the exclusive domain of adults. You can see the library tags on the spines of books in my old photocopies. Michigan Men in the Civil WarMichigan in the War. I own some of those books now, but back then, before Amazon, and as a kid, the excitement of finding them on actual shelves was visceral. I also remember visiting the “town historians” in a book-filled office somewhere. I remember thinking that was the coolest job I could imagine. One of them even had a beard.


If I think about it, I can still feel the excitement of that summer of waiting. Knowing the forms you had completed were on their way to faraway libraries and not knowing when you would hear back or what you would get. Remember, this was still the age of the mail. Of photocopies and microfilm. Of taking photos and waiting with bated breath to get your roll of film developed and see what came out. We’ve lost so much of that world that it’s hard sometimes to even believe it was real, and to remember all the small joys that came with it.


Horace Phillips’s pension records arrived. I must have struggled to read the script. I had only learned cursive in third grade, the year before. Now, many years later, after having spent countless hours reading eighteenth- and nineteenth-century handwriting, I can fly through these documents. In 1997, it would have been a foreign language. So what do they tell us about Horace?


Horace Phillips was a short man, 5’ 4½”. He had black hair and hazel eyes. He was 26 when he enlisted in the 26th Michigan Infantry on August 12, 1862 (158 summers and a thousand years ago). When I was nine, 26 must have seemed like a lifetime away; it was a lifetime away. Now, at 32, I wonder what it would have been like to join the army six years ago. It was the second summer of the war, and the enthusiastic young men of Horace's Company A – farmers, lumbermen, and clerks from Traverse City – nicknamed themselves with pride, the “Lakeshore Tigers.”


However obscure in the story of the Civil War, the Lakeshore Tigers would become a fixture in my life. At its best, local history reminds us who we are and guides our way. We care about these stories because of where we are from. Sometimes, in serendipitous ways, they haunt us. As part of that summer of research, based on some ephemera in my old binder, my mother must have looked up Civil War reenacting. As I’ve written elsewhere, this was near the peak of that hobby but before it flourished online, and it was rather hard to figure out how to become a reenactor (at least in northern Michigan). And I really wanted to be a reenactor. But I had to wait a bit.


A few years later, by a stroke of luck, a Civil War reenacting unit formed in Traverse City, and I joined. Like most units, we named ourselves after a specific local company from the 1860s. The Lakeshore Tigers. Reenacting with this unit changed my life: it brought me into the orbit of the people that inspired me to go to college to study Civil War archaeology. As my network widened, it was reenactors who introduced me to eminent scholars and researchers, wrote my reference letters for grad school, and helped me get jobs. I have my job today in no small part because of conversations I had at reenactments.

Horace Phillips’s war was a different experience, of course. I don’t know much about his personal journey, but I do know that the 26th Michigan served on guard details and skirmishes in Virginia, assisted in quelling the New York City “draft riots” of 1863, and entered the spring of 1864 as part of the Army of the Potomac and the new, cataclysmic campaign to end the war in Virginia. On June 3, 1864, at the Battle Totopotomy Creek, part of the General Ulysses’s S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, Horace Phillips lost the fourth toe of his left foot to a musket ball. He spent the rest of the war in hospitals, finally ending up at Mower Hospital in Philadelphia, not all that far from where I work today.


After the war, Horace moved around a bit. He farmed. He got married (to a Mary Antoinette). He had a son, named after his father, who went by Archie. He joined the Grand Army of the Republic, suffered from his war wound and the diseases of old soldiers: rheumatism, kidney failure, spinal issues. He died in October of 1915, as the world's next great war was just beginning. 


One of the things I remember about that summer of 1997 was the difficulty of locating Horace’s grave. Though he was listed in the rolls of the largest cemetery in Traverse City, Oakwood, even after consulting with the office and groundskeeper we were unable to locate his grave. Now, of course, you could confirm that with findagrave.com. Finally – and I don’t know exactly how – we found him buried in a small cemetery in the forgotten crossroads of Yuba, north of the city. He has a simple, government-issued headstone. I’ve visited him there a few times over the years.


But what of his diary, the whole point of this research project? That’s where things got strangely more complicated. Reading the photocopies that arrived that faraway August today, I realize right away that it’s not the diary of the Horace Phillips I was after. This diary, though dating to 1863, is from a 17-year-old who went off from Ypsilanti, Michigan, to visit the army camps and ended up spending a few months as an assistant to a sutler, a vendor who sold things to the soldiers. But in 1997, I struggled to read the writing. I believed this must be the same man. After all, how many Horace Phillips from Michigan could there have been in the Civil War, anyway? I took notes, trying to puzzle out the differences. I never quite solved it. But I saved it, and all my notes. The first of my research files. Now my research files are mostly online, somewhere in the cloud. But there’s still nothing quite like holding things in your hands.

Some things I learned about research that summer are now quaint. Paper interlibrary loan slips. Microfilm. Waiting months for results. Our research world now moves at dizzying, digital speeds. Just this past month, I secured permission to use an image from an archive in Estonia in a matter of hours. Before the internet, I might not have ever known the image existed, much less been able to make contact or communicate with the archivists who care for it.


But so much of what I learned about research that summer is still with me. The detective work. The attention to detail. Even the frustration when your sources don’t align. Most of all, I still feel the sheer joy of being a historian. Of imagining what life was like once-upon-a-time, and of finding what bits of it might survive to help us imagine it better.


Horace Phillips – both of them, in fact – changed my life. But it was my mom who inspired this project. Her handwriting is on the pages in my old binder. She was the one who drove us around and showed us how exciting it was to discover things. These many years later, living half a country away and when I often shirk my duty and only talk to my parents every couple of weeks, I sometimes struggle to tell them how much they mean to me. They gave me the tools to craft a life doing something I love. Thanks, mom.


Monday, May 4, 2020

Winter Quarters: What Did Civil War Soldiers’ Huts Look Like Inside?

Like a lot of people right now, I’m sweeping around the dumpster of unfinished projects and loose ends. This blog is one way I’ve been keeping up with research that is disconnected (or at least adjacent) to my job and dissertation, and this post is one example of what still lurks in my research files. I’m lucky to be in a position to go through those files and do some writing amid everything else that is going on.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in Civil War soldiers, and for a while now I’ve been collecting references and images to their domestic lives. Years ago, I wrote a post here about what Union soldiers carried in their pockets. For months each winter during the War, many soldiers settled into log huts in massive encampments. If you’re a Revolutionary War fan, think Valley Forge but on steroids. These huts took all different forms, and there’s no shortage of images and descriptions of how they looked on the outside. There are some great studies about how soldiers built them and of what remains of them, including by eminent archaeologists. It’s sometimes harder to figure out what they looked like inside. I’ve seen a handful of soldiers’ letters (most notably at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan) where the authors sketched the interiors of their huts, and I’ll share a few other images here. Along with written records, these sources help us answer questions about the lived experience of these domestic spaces. How did they look inside? Were they decorated with mementos of loved ones or wartime trophies? How did it feel to call them home?

John D. Billings devoted most of a chapter to “Life in Log Huts” in his iconic memoir, Hardtack and Coffee. It’s the most detailed and lengthy description of huts as domestic spaces that I've seen, and it’s worth reading in its entirety. Billings tells us about fireplaces, bunks, hardtack-box tables, sardine-tin lanterns, and table settings. “A hardtack box,” he wrote, “nailed end upwards against the logs with its cover on leather hinges serving as a door, and having suitable shelves inserted, made a very passable dish-closet.” (1)

From Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, 75.

In Union veteran C.W. Bardeen’s 1910 memoir, A Little Fifer’s War Diary, he remembered that “In the absence of candles we imitated the old Roman lamp, by filling a sardine box with grease of some kind, and igniting a rag floating in it.” (2)

Confederate John Casler remembered that in late 1863, “We went to work in earnest and put in a nice log shanty, covered it with clapboards, went to an old barn near by and got some planks for a floor and bunks, built a stick chimney, and were prepared to live in high style.” (3)

Union soldier David McNeilly Steuffer’s sketch of his hut in December, 1863, from here, credited to Pearce Collection, Navarro College.

Harry Kiefer, a drummer boy with the 150th Pennsylvania, remembered: “The last cabin we built – it was down in front of Petersburg – was a model of comfort and convenience: ten feet long by six feeet wife and five high, made of clean pine logs straight as an arrow, and covered with shelter tents; a chimney at one end, and a comfortable bunk at the other; the inside walls covered with clean oat-bags, and the gable ends papers with pictures cut from illustrated newspapers; a mantelpiece, a table, a stool; and we were putting down a floor of pine boards, too, one day toward the close of winter, when the surgeon came by, and looking in, said, - “No time to drive nails now, boys; we have orders to move!” But Andy said, - “Pound away, Harry, pound away; we’ll see how it looks, anyhow, before we go!” (4)

Sketches of winter quarters by Union veteran Charles C. Perkins, published in Bardeen, A Little Fifer's War Diary, 146.

Confederate Barry Benson wrote of his winter quarters in 1862-63 had “a floor laid of poles laid close together and raised a foot or so off the ground… Our bed was of broomstraw, which I always preferred to wheat straw, as not breaking up so badly.” (5)


These images are of an unsigned and undated sketch sold several years ago at Freeman’s Auction (Philadelphia) which I believe show the winter quarters of a group of Civil War officers.

But, of course, winters came to an end and campaign season – and life in tents – began each spring. Union veteran Abner Small remembered what this meant for the little homes soldiers had built. “This doomed all our furniture, the tables and chairs and desks made out of barrels and boxes, all our handy aids to housekeeping, and all the things the men had fashioned to while away the time.” (6) 

Life in log huts, after all, no matter how homey, was temporary.

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(1)   John D. Billings, Hardtack and Coffee (Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky and Konecky, reprint of 1887 first edition), 76.
(2)   C. W. Bardeen, A Little Fifer’s War Diary (Syracuse, NY: C. W. Bardeen, 1910), 199.
(3)   John O. Casler, Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade (Dayton, OH: Morningside Bookshop, 1971), 195.
(4)   Harry M. Kiefer, The Recollections of a Drummer Boy (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 55.
(5)   Berry Benson, Berry Benson’s Civil War Book (Athens, GA, and London; The University of Georgia Press, 2007), 34.
(6)   Abner R. Small, The Road to Richmond (Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1959), 77.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Obadiah Mead's Belted Jacket, Part Two

What drew me to Obadiah Mead’s jacket was an image of it that appeared in a New York Times article about an exhibition at the Greenwich Historical Society. I’ve been studying common men’s clothing from the 18th and 19th centuries for years, even though very few actual garments survive (most were used up and thrown out). When I saw the article, I could tell even from the small photo that Mead’s jacket was right up my alley. Jackets were common working garments but people rarely preserved them for posterity. And striped linen was common in working clothing while unusual in finer men’s garments. In these qualities, Mead’s jacket echoes what you see in some visual sources and a handful of surviving objects, like the jacket supposedly worn in 1778 by Revolutionary War soldier Colonel Joseph Noyes.

Detail of "Saint Monday in the Afternoon," (etching, 1770s), from the British Museum

Joseph Noyes jacket, photo and credit to Rhode Island Historical Society here

But you'll notice that Mead's jacket looks a little different than these. Most importantly, it stops at the waist in a "straight-cut" style, without the skirts (what we might call tails) or other garments, including the two above. People used a lot of terms for garments like Mead’s in the eighteenth century: jacket, waistcoat with sleeves, and so on. “Roundabout” and “monkey jacket” appeared slightly later as terms for similar jackets, in the 1790s and 1810s, respectively. As an outer garment and without skirts extending below the waist, I consider Mead’s garment a jacket. But that doesn’t mean that someone wouldn’t have called it a waistcoat with sleeves in the 18th century (and that same person might have called Noyes's waistcoat with sleeves a jacket). Look out for a forthcoming article I’ve coauthored with Matthew Brenckle on working men’s jackets that discusses other examples of these garments that survive around the world.

And so, I found myself on the day after the 2016 election, in the midst of a pre-planned research trip, doing nothing more civically engaged than counting stitches in a ragged, 240-year old jacket. It seemed rather ridiculous at the time (maybe it still does), but Mead’s jacket is nonetheless a fascinating object. Like Mead’s personal history, the jacket itself continues to foil me. I can’t make firm conclusions about parts of it, but I thought I’d share a few images and some commentary here before getting to the most interesting part of the garment: the remnants of its belt.

Mead’s jacket matches what we know about garments of the 1770s. It is hand-sewn, pieced for economy’s sake, and made from at least two different striped linens.

The jacket had twelve buttons down its front, though non survive. It is entirely unlined, though it has an extra layer, called a facing, to reinforce the buttons and buttonholes.

The jacket has sleeves with several patches (one probably original, as it matches a piece of striped linen on the inner facing, and another that I think may be a later attempt to patch the lower sleeve) and cuffs that fold up.

The jacket’s collar is “false,” meaning it’s a sewn strip of fabric (or, rather, several small pieces sewn together to form a strip) that’s sewn right onto the jacket body. Collars like this gestured towards fashionable styles (functional, separate collars) but also reinforced the neckline, which would be worn out faster than other parts of the jacket.

The jacket has only one pocket, constructed as a “welt” on the lower right side. I’ve seen evidence for jackets made with only one functional pocket, but usually they have two welts to give the illusion of symmetry.

By far the most interesting part of the jacket – and perhaps its most significant contribution to our understanding of the material culture of this period – is the remnant of a waist belt. You can see the two signs in these images: a reinforcement patch and two button scars (attachment points) on the right-hand side seam next to the pocket bag and the barest remnant of a sewn-down end on the left-hand side.

It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of belted waistcoats. But for the handful of people in the world who care about this stuff, this is pretty significant. There is no other known example of a man's belted waistcoat or jacket that still exists. Portraits of the 1770s and 1780s show military men and even the occasional civilian wearing these peculiar waistcoats, usually “straight cut” – without skirts (tails) – that feature separate fabric belts (belts also appear in documentary descriptions of garments and on at least one woman's riding habit waistcoat). Here are a few examples (1):

Captain John Purves and His Wife, Eliza Anne Pritchard by Henry Benbridge, 1775-1777, Winterthur

Joseph Bloomfield by Charles Willson Peale, 1775-1777, private collection

Delaware currency, 1777, with figure on left wearing a belted waistcoat matching New Castle County militia regulations, from here

Detail, "The German Recruiting Serjeant," (engraving, 1775), from Brown University Library (thanks to Matthew Skic for bringing this to my attention!)

Detail, Soldiers in Uniform" by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, 1781, Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library

 An example of a runaway ad mentioning a "belted striped cotton jacket," from the Connecticut Gazette and the Universal Intelligencer (New London), Jul 27, 1781

And thanks to the scholarship of and research of Neal Hurst, Philip Katcher (2), James L. Kochan (3), and Matthew Skic, we know a quite a bit about the documentary history of these garments. They’ve traced many references to belted waistcoats in military orders, deserter descriptions, and artwork. One longstanding mystery has been how these belts were attached. Perhaps as a separate piece tied behind (as one period document suggests) or buttoned on both ends to the side seams, as suggested by the belt studied by Matthew Skic? Perhaps sewn down on one side, wrapped across the front, and buttoned on the other? The Mead jacket gives us our first glimpse at the latter style, with the remnants of a narrow belt sewn down on the left and two closely spaced buttons to secure it on the right side.

The other mystery of belted waistcoats is – quite frankly – WTF is the point of a belt anyway? All of the explanations have counterarguments.

Perhaps it's a form of truss to support the abdomen of soldiers? Then why would elite officers under less strain wear them as well? Were they just matching the fashion of soldiers in general?

Perhaps it allows a straight-cut waistcoat (which would have required less fabric than a regular one and would be more economical for clothing many soldiers) but also spans the potential gap between the bottom of the waistcoat and the top of the breeches. But then why not just make the waistcoat longer in the first place?

Perhaps it is to tighten the waist of the garment, cinching it in. Then why not cut the waistcoat differently in the first place (no other men’s garments in this period are cinched in this way)? It would have made a garment bunch oddly to be done this way.

Unfortunately, without its complete belt, the Mead jacket only offers us tentative answers. It could be a sort of truss, but the belt was so narrow as to offer relatively little abdominal support. Similarly, because it is so narrow, the belt doesn’t seem to have extended below the waistline of the jacket, so it wouldn’t have covered any gaps. And the cut of the jacket doesn’t suggest that the belt would have been needed to cinch it in.

My final conclusion is that the Mead jacket (and other belted waistcoats) had a belt for one major reason we haven’t really discussed: fashion. Apparently people thought belts on waistcoats and jackets looked good, including ones like Mead’s that might have done absolutely nothing functional.

And the vagaries of fashion, after all, are still why we wear a lot of the strange things we do. We may not know how exactly Obadiah Mead died or why he was wearing a rather unusual jacket, but we do know that, in his time, he had some fashion sense. 

Update: Listen to Neal Hurst, Matt Skic, and me talk about waistcoats with belts in this video from April 13, 2020.

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Thanks to the Greenwich Historical Society and the University of Delaware for supporting the research behind these blog posts. I am very grateful for the technical insights of James L. Kochan, Matthew Skic, Neal Hurst, and Keith Minsinger; the gracious hosting of the Perry-Englund family; and for most everything else to Nicole Belolan. 

(1) Two other examples, not shown here, are the portraits of Major General Jabez Huntington, by John Trumbull, at the Connecticut State Library, and of Lieutenant John Harleston, Jr., by Charles Willson Peale, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

(2) P.R.N. Katcher, "The Belted Waistcoat," The Brigade Dispatch: Journal of the Brigade of the American Revolution IX, no. 1 (Jan/Feb. 1972), 1-2. 

(3) James L. Kochan, "The Belted Waistcoat," The Military Collector and Historian 33, no. 4 (Winter 1981), 178-179.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Obadiah Mead's Belted Jacket, Part One

In 2016, I had the chance to examine a remarkable garment in the collection of the Greenwich (Connecticut) Historical Society. This striped linen jacket survives with a provenance that it was worn by a man named Obadiah Mead on the day he was killed by British soldiers who raided Greenwich during the Revolutionary War.

Obadiah Mead's jacket, photo by Paul Mutino/the Greenwich Historical Society.

I'll get into the construction and other details of the garment itself in Part Two of this post, but first let's discuss the jacket's provenance and what we actually know about Obadiah Mead. Despite being from a relatively prominent family of the time, he's an elusive figure. Like many early Americans, especially those who died young, he left very little documentation behind. He lived in Greenwich during the violence of the Revolutionary War, his jacket is in the fashion of the 1770s and features apparent bullet holes and bloodstains, and he was dead and gone by the time his father died in 1783. But if he was indeed killed by British or Loyalist raiders, there is no smoking gun besides the material evidence of his jacket. What do we know about the man who wore it?

Obadiah’s father, Benjamin Mead, Jr., was a prominent Greenwich resident and part of the expansive and old Connecticut Mead family. Born in 1729, Benjamin married Mary M. Reynolds in 1751 and together they had five children, including Obadiah in 1759 (1). Obadiah’s schooling began in May of 1769, according to his father’s account book (2). From the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Mead supported the Revolutionary cause, helping to fund the erection of a cannon battery in Greenwich and the equipping and supply of local troops (3).

Obadiah, meanwhile, felt the same political leanings and served at least two stints in the state militia, including in Captain Mathew Mead’s Company of the Eleventh Regiment in August and September 1776 and between October 1776 and January 1777 under the same captain in the Ninth Regiment (4). He was still alive on May 2, 1779, when he delivered a load of provisions for troops to Horseneck, outside of Greenwich (5). By that time, he was apparently engaged to Charity Mead, a distant cousin, at a younger age than was common among Connecticut families (6).

It was a dangerous time to live in Greenwich. Residents called it a “frontier situation” between British and Revolutionary forces (7). In 1778, Benjamin Mead’s horses, cows, and oxen were stolen in two nighttime separate raids, presumably by a “Tory Party," (8) In October of 1779, John and Amos Mead wrote to the state Assembly to report the “frequent Incursions of the Enemy in to the said town, they have made great ravages upon the good Citizens there, in plundering many of their Houses, Burning some of their Buildings, Captivating many of the Inhabitants who have been long confined in their Goals, where several are to this time languishing under the mercyless hand of tyranny,” (9). Notably, however, they did not mention any deaths. Such incursions continued for the rest of the war. Benjamin Mead’s taxes were abated for several years during the war in compensation for his losses. He owned and lost more than most people in Greenwich; his abated taxes were among the highest in the town and a 1783 inspection noted that he had lost at least £100 worth of property since 1779 (10). And, at some point during the War, he lost his only son. 

We still don’t know how. Although many of the Mead family’s papers survive, including Benjamin Jr.’s account book and personal papers, Connecticut state records, legal documents, and family correspondence, none of the ones I've discovered describe or even note Obadiah’s death (11). It is possible that such a record exists in another collection or archive, perhaps even in Great Britain, but I haven't found it. 

In fact, the earliest direct description of Obadiah’s death appeared frustratingly late, in an 1895 newspaper article:

“…a raid was made upon this place. The son, Obadiah, hid himself in a neighbor's barn, standing just south of the southeast orchard. Some one of the Tory neighbors, knowing the fact, informed the red-coats who surrounded the barn, threatening to set fire to it and to smoke him out. To escape their clutches, he ran from the barn across the orchard to jump down the rocks to "Dyspepsia Lane." He was followed, however, by the soldiers. Obadiah, seeing the impossibility of escaping, surrendered. He was then at once shot, the ball passing through his left arm and entering his side, killing him instantly. The coat he wore, showing the bullet holes, which has been so carefully preserved all these years, was inspected by all the company present.” (12)

The story was largely repeated, sometimes with more dramatic flair, in later accounts of Mead’s death (13). An undated late nineteenth or early twentieth-century genealogical document in the Mead family papers at the Connecticut Historical Society includes quotation marks suggesting it was copied from another document and reads: “Obadiah Mead, son of Benjamin Mead departed this life the 26 day of June in the year 1780. In the contest between the United States and Great Britain, aged 21 years and one month" (14). The last account related to Obadiah in his father’s account book is in regards to settling an old debt on October 17, 1783 (15). Obadiah does not appear in his father’s will, likely prepared that same year (16). His burial site was forgotten by the time the story was recorded in the nineteenth century and there is no mention of his life or death in various state-wide archival catalogs maintained by the Connecticut State Library (17).

And so, all that remained of Obadiah Mead after a century was a peculiar linen jacket, torn and bloodied, preserved as a relic of one family’s Revolutionary sacrifice. What can that jacket tell us about the Revolutionary War? Find out in Part Two!

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Thanks to the Greenwich Historical Society and the University of Delaware for supporting the research behind these blog posts. I am very grateful for the technical insights of James L. Kochan, Matthew Skic, Neal Hurst, and Keith Minsinger; the gracious hosting of the Perry-Englund family; and for most everything else to Nicole Belolan. 

(1) Spencer P. Mead, History and Genealogy of the Mead Family of Fairfield County, Connecticut, Western New York, Western Vermont, and Western Pennsylvania, from A.D. 1180 to 1900 (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1901), 389.

(2) Account Book of Benjamin Mead Jr., 1765-1779, Mss 641, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, MA.

(3) Ibid. See also Letter, Benjamin Mead Jr. to “Sir,” February 14, 1780, Document 72b, Volume 30 Part II/Reel 150, Connecticut Archives, Revolutionary War, 1763-1789.

(4) Henry P. Johnston, ed., The Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service During the War of the Revolution, 1775-1783 (Hartford, CT: The Adjutant General’s Office, 1889), 457 and 487.

(5) Document 416, Volume 25/Reel 145, Connecticut Archives, Revolutionary War, 1763-1789.

(6) Mead, History and Genealogy, 389. For a recent study of two men who grew up in Connecticut at the same time as Obadiah Mead, see Virginia DeJohn Anderson, The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), including commentary on marriages, 23-31.

(7) Letter, John Mead and Amos Mead to the Assembly, October 27, 1779, Document 267, Volume 15/Reel 135, and Committee Report, May 12, 1780, Document 266, Volume 18/Reel 138, Connecticut Archives, Revolutionary War, 1763-1789. For more on the relations of opposing sides in this region, see Judith L. Van Buskirk, Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

(8) Account Book of Benjamin Mead Jr., 1765-1779, Mss 641, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, MA.

(9) Letter, John Mead and Amos Mead to the Assembly, October 27, 1779, Document 267, Volume 15/Reel 135, Connecticut Archives, Revolutionary War, 1763-1789.

(10) Report, December 27, 1783, Document 19, Volume 36, Part I/Reel 156, Connecticut Archives, Revolutionary War, 1763-1789. See also reports of tax abatements throughout this document set: Report, December 24, 1779, Document 271c, Volume 15/Reel 135; Report, May 12, 1780, Document 266, Volume 18/Reel 138; Report, October 6, 1780, Document 80, Volume 19/Reel 139; Report, October 2, 1782, Document 274g, Volume 24/Reel 144.

(11) As part of this research, I visited the collections of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (Boston, MA), the Connecticut Historical Society (Hartford), and the Connecticut State Library (Hartford). I am also grateful to the Greenwich (Connecticut) Historical Society for allowing me access to their collections files on Mead’s jacket, which directed me to several of the secondary sources cited here.

(12) “A History of the Hyde Branch Read by One of the Descendants,” Greenwich Graphic, October 26, 1895. A typographical error of a period in place of a comma after “however” has been silently corrected here.

(13) See, for example, Commemorative Biographical Record of Fairfield County, Connecticut (Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1899), 361; Mead, History and Genealogy, 60–61; Spencer P. Mead, Ye Historie of Ye Town of Greenwich (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1911), 147.

(14) For this and other records of this branch of the Mead family, see Mead Family Papers, 1764-1897, MS 79427, and Benjamin and Obadiah Mead papers, 1751-1877, MS 63965, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford.

(15) Account Book of Benjamin Mead Jr., 1765-1779, Mss 641, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, MA.

(16) The copy of Mead’s will in the Connecticut State Library Archives is somewhat problematic because it is dated (on its exterior) 1786 and 1788, though he died in 1783 according to Spencer, History, 389. See Mead collection of Greenwich items including bonds, deeds and estate papers relating to the Mead family, 1755-1858, Connecticut State Library, Hartford.

(17) Mead, History and Genealogy, 61. There are no entries for this particular Obadiah Mead in the following card catalogs maintained by the Connecticut State Library: Barbour Collection Town Vital Records, Church Records Index, Family Bible Records, Newspaper Death Notices, Newspaper Marriage Notices, Probate Estate Papers, and Veterans’ Death Records.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Oh, Well

A couple months ago, I took an unusual path out of work after dark and passed by an excavation pit in the middle of one of Old City Philadelphia’s original street blocks. I’m always curious about what such digging is turning up, but it took a while to figure out exactly where I was. Beginning in the 1680s, William Penn and other planners envisioned an city built on an orderly grid pattern. They mostly got it, especially when you compare Philadelphia’s street plan to those of other cities, like Boston, the developed more organically into spiderwebs instead of grids. But early in the Philadelphia's history people subdivided their property and cut alleyways in between the main streets. These alleys came and went over time, to the extent that whole websites and articles (like this one, this one, and this one) are now devoted to puzzling out their names and which ones still exist. My personal favorite is Little Boy's Court, purportedly the only street with extant 18th-century cobble- and pebblestone paving (and also adjoining the site where developers partially destroyed an 18th-century burying ground in 2017 before archaeologists began salvage operations and study of the human remains).

A Google street view of Little Boy's Court

The excavation I came across is at the corner of today’s Bank Street and Elbow Lane, in the block bounded by Second and Third Streets and Chestnut and Market Streets. If Google is any guide, there hasn’t been a structure there for some time. But by the looks of it, someone is digging a new foundation for a building. That’s the sort of digging in Philadelphia that usually disturbs archaeological remains. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, there’s no legal mandate or practical apparatus to enforce archaeological excavations on private sites (unless a federal permit is required). That means that most such excavations destroy archaeological remains without any documentation.

A Google map of the block in question. The lot is the blank gray rectangle above Bella Bridesmaids

I was particularly excited – or, perhaps, disheartened – to see a distinctive standing column of bricks on one edge of the excavation. Because it was empty, I knew it was a well shaft rather than a privy (privies – used as toilets – were gradually filled and remain so when uncovered today). Unfortunately, but the time I returned to photograph it in daylight two days later, it had already been removed by excavators. You could see a few artifacts scattered around the pit: mostly 20th-century bottles. But thanks to Matt Dunphy, I did secure a few images of the well and another view of the site before its destruction.

A view of the well against Elbow Lane. This view was taken facing south, standing on the narrow alley now called Bodine Street

Looking north from Elbow Lane (Bodine Street is on the left), you can also see a brick archway near the bottom of the excavation. This shot was taken standing almost directly above the well

I got curious about this lot’s history and the well’s potential origins. In the eighteenth century, the southern end of Bank Street was called White Horse Alley, and Elbow Lane was a more literal elbow: coming down from High (now Market) Street and making a ninety-degree westward turn in the middle of the block. Without going into too much detail (or, frankly, too much research on my part), it’s interesting to find a few traces of the lot in digitized sources and to speculate on who might have used the well.

Despite their apparent orderliness, it’s notoriously hard to puzzle out the history of Philadelphia houses for a couple reasons. Most importantly, addresses have changed, most notably when they were renumbered around 1856. This latter change involved the implementation of the "Philadelphia System," now common in many other places, in which each block of a given street is assigned to a set of 100 numbers. In other words, for example, houses stand in the 600 block. When you cross a major street, the next house numbers begin at 700 and 701, on either side.

Scharf and Westcott’s famous 1884 History of Philadelphia noted that there was a brewery on the corner of Elbow Lane and White Horse Alley as early as 1737. George Gray (namesake of gray’s ferry) operated the brewey beginning in 1752, and his widow Mary kept up the business after his death. 

I think that the brewery must have been on the southwest corner of the intersection, and that the structure on the lot I saw under excavation was the three-story brick house listed as being on the northwest corner in this 1791 advertisement:

From Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser, January 10, 1791

Shoemaker had been in the house since at least 1774, when he took out an insurance policy for the house from the Philadelphia Contributionship (whose digital archives are one of the great and overlooked gems of Philadelphia's historical sources). It was an impressive place for the alley. At the time, it was 14 ½ feet wide and 28 feet deep and included two rooms on its first and second floors, plastered walls, stairs, and a plastered garret (its third story). Behind the house stood a 10 foot by 10 foot one-story kitchen. Either the kitchen or, perhaps, the kitchen and the whole house were 7 years old in 1774.

Shoemaker's policy from the Philadelphia Contributionship

The only city directories published before Shoemaker’s death list an address for him on Second Street, and it’s hard for me to tell exactly which number was assigned to the Elbow Lane lot. That makes it difficult to determine who bought Shoemaker’s house in 1791 (though it would be rather easy with an in-person title search, I imagine). The 1795 city directory was the first to be organized by lot (rather than alphabetically), so it gives us a glimpse of the residents of Elbow Lane at the time:

Though I only viewed them from the street above and in these images, the bricks and the well itself on the Elbow Lane edge of the lot looked, to me, to date from some time in the 19th century rather than to the earlier periods of occupation noted above. Perhaps it was even meant to offer water to others besides the residents of the building, given its proximity to the street itself. 

Unfortunately, other than the images and cursory research here, there’s no longer a trace of this well or the other archaeological remains of the lot. Maybe someday I’ll do a bit more archival digging and see if I can come up with the later history of this lot. For now, we’ll leave the scene in 1791. And not for nothing, but that’s just in time to avoid one of Philadelphia’s first epidemics, the yellow fever outbreak of 1793. Sometimes it’s hard to escape the present, even in the past.