Category: Historical Period

Genealogy and Puzzle Solving

Guest Post by Sofie Koonce, PAS Intern

Studying history often becomes an exercise in puzzle solving. 

One of my internship tasks has been transcribing letters to and from members of the Spooner family. The majority of the ones that I looked at were written by Esther S. Spooner (1835-1892) to her parents, Ephraim and Mary Elizabeth Spooner. The letters mention her brother, James Walter Spooner, and his wife, Sophronia “Frona” Smith, as well as their daughter, Maud, and sons, Walter and James. 

Beyond the immediate family, I found myself faced with a cast of unfamiliar characters from the extended Spooner family. It was important that I learned who these people were so that I could better understand the dynamics between them. In order to do that, I turned to genealogy.

The Antiquarian Society has a genealogy of the Spooner family that helped me immensely in untangling the web of names mentioned in various letters. However, repetition of names within the family was not uncommon, so I had to rely on context clues to figure out which person by that name was being referred to. These clues were often things like titles—Aunt, Uncle, Cousin—or indications of a person’s age. Sometimes combinations of names were helpful as well. For example, if Esther Spooner referred to a Hannah and Charles together, it was generally safe to assume that she meant her Aunt Hannah (Bartlett) Spooner, whose son was named Charles W. Spooner. 

As I went through the letters, I found a couple written in 1871 that confused me. In them, Esther Spooner referred to a man named George. From the context provided in the letters, I inferred that George was her husband, but the genealogy I had told me that Esther Spooner married a Horace S. Shepard. 

I turned to Ancestry to see if I could confirm Esther’s marriage to either Horace Shepard or the unknown George. A record of marriage revealed that Esther Spooner married a George Sawyer in 1862. So who was Horace Shepard? Right there, on the same document, I found that Horace married a Hannah B. Spooner. The two couples were married on the same date (August 9, 1862) in the same place (Sharon Springs, NY).

Massachusetts Vital Records, 1840–1911. New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts. Accessed via Massachusetts, U.S., Marriage Records, 1840-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013.

I now understood how Esther’s husband could have easily been incorrectly identified as Horace B. Shepard by a genealogist who mixed up the two Spooner brides. I concluded that Esther and Hannah must be cousins. However, in the Spooner family genealogy I could not find a Hannah B. Spooner who would have been 23 in 1862. Although her parents are named on the marriage record, I could not match them to anyone listed in the genealogy either. Back to Ancestry!

Eventually PAS Executive Director Anne Mason successfully identified Hannah as the granddaughter of Bourne and Hannah (Bartlett) Spooner of Plymouth. Bourne, the founder of the Plymouth Cordage Company, was the brother of Esther’s mother, Mary. Hannah was the eldest child of Bourne’s son, William, and his first wife, Lucy (Gibbs) Spooner. Lucy died when Hannah was only a toddler and she was raised by her grandparents. Eventually her father moved to Michigan and remarried, but Hannah remained in Plymouth. She and Esther were first cousins once removed. Although members of a different generation of their family, they were only four years apart in age. The story of their double wedding is a fascinating one that we are saving for a future post!

While the family genealogy was a helpful resource, nothing beats primary sources—though even those can be misleading sometimes! 

I’m a very visual person, so I found that transferring the information from the genealogy into a family tree helped me to understand the connections. Laying everything out in one place made it much easier to see how relationships worked within the family. Below is just one part of the sprawling Spooner family tree, with the names and dates that I’ve been able to correct or add so far.

Genealogical research is one way I’ve been getting to know the Spooner family. Reading their words to each other and learning the natures of their relationships has brought them to life. One of my favorite parts of studying history is the reminders that people from the past were just as human as we are today, and those reminders are a key part of the puzzle that we solve to gain a more complete understanding of history.

Sofie Koonce is a junior at Smith College in Northampton, MA, where she is a Classics major with a concentration in Book Studies. The Book Studies concentration program encourages students to delve into the world of the written and printed word and explore careers that involve working with manuscripts and printed materials. Sofie is back in her hometown of Plymouth interning with the Antiquarian Society remotely during the winter term. Post graduation, she plans to pursue a graduate degree in Library and Data Science. 

Decoding 19th-Century Handwriting

Guest Post by Sofie Koonce, PAS Intern

One of my internship projects is transcribing the Russell family journal. This manuscript was for many years misidentified as the journal of just one person: Catherine Elliott Russell (1840-1916). A closer look reveals that it was kept by multiple members of the Russell family, who would take turns making entries. The Russells lived at 32 Court Street in the beautiful “Russell Manor” and were a wealthy, well educated, and very social family. The Russells began this journal in February of 1863 and continued it through February of 1864. There are also a few entries at the end from 1904, when the journal was rediscovered by one of the surviving family members.

Transcribing a family journal can be a little more complicated than transcribing a letter, especially when the journal’s several authors don’t make a habit of signing off their entries. It becomes even more confusing when authors refer to themselves by name instead of in the first person, which means I can’t assume they didn’t write the entry if they’re mentioned in it. As a part of the transcription process, I’ve been attempting to figure out which family members wrote what. A lot of this comes down to handwriting analysis. There are essentially two steps: 1. parsing out different handwritings and 2. matching those handwritings to people. 

Some family members have distinct handwriting, which makes it much easier to identify their entries. Other family members have handwriting that appears the same at a glance (and sometimes at more than a glance…) which is significantly trickier. In those cases, I have to look at little quirks that characterize each person’s handwriting. 

In the picture above, the entries for Sunday, April 26 and Monday, April 27, 1863 were written by two different people, Catherine Elliott Russell and her sister, Anna Russell (1835-1900). When placed directly next to each other like this, it’s easier to see that they’re different, but they are similar enough to be confusing. I had to look closely.

One of the things that really helped me was how the sisters wrote the dates. Catherine typically underlined the “th” after the date once or twice. Anna would underline the “th” and then draw two dots underneath it, as seen here. The difference is slight, but consistent. Also, Catherine draws the tails of lowercase letters (y, g, j) curving to the right, while Anna more traditionally loops them. 

There are a few entries initialed by Catherine and Anna that can serve as a guide for decoding their handwriting. On the entries from Saturday, April 18th and Sunday, April 19th (pictured below) I noticed that the sisters have distinct ways of writing capital Rs and Bs. Catherine writes a downstroke, then lifts her pen to make the rest of the letter. Anna loops the downstroke into the rest of the letter, creating a noticeably different result.

These small differences were particularly helpful when the handwriting samples weren’t adjacent. Most often, I was using Catherine’s distinctive tails to pick out her handwriting. It is not surprising that the sisters might have similar handwriting, but being able to pick up on their unique quirks is key to telling them apart!

How did the journal become part of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society’s archival collection? In 1871 Catherine married William Hedge (1840-1919), the youngest son of Thomas and Lydia Hedge, owners of what is now the Hedge House Museum. Catherine inherited the Russell family home at 32 Court Street after her father’s death in 1875. It was here that she and William raised their three children (daughter Lucia and twins William and Henry). Possibly the journal remained in the house until it was given to the Society by Russell/Hedge family descendants. The Society’s collections include many objects and manuscripts collected by Catherine, who was interested in saving records of Plymouth’s past, especially those produced or used by women: needlework samplers, clothing, and recipes.

Sofie Koonce is a junior at Smith College in Northampton, MA, where she is a Classics major with a concentration in Book Studies. The Book Studies concentration program encourages students to delve into the world of the written and printed word and explore careers that involve working with manuscripts and printed materials. Sofie is back in her hometown of Plymouth interning with the Antiquarian Society remotely during the winter term. Post graduation, she plans to pursue a graduate degree in Library and Data Science. 

Plymouth & Women’s Suffrage: Tea Toast

Part 1 of a special series to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment

The campaign for women’s suffrage began in earnest after the Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. Plymouth abolitionist Zilpha Harlow (1818-1891) attended the first national Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, MA in 1850. Also in attendance was Nathaniel Bourne Spooner of Plymouth. The couple married in 1851 and worked diligently for the anti-slavery cause over the next decade.

After the Civil War, the Spooners shifted their focus to the expansion of women’s rights, often hosting lectures and other gatherings in Plymouth. In November 1870 Margaret W. Campbell (1827-1908) led a two-week speaking tour of Plymouth County for the American Woman Suffrage Association. Born in Maine, Campbell was one of the most popular public speakers on suffrage and campaigned across the nation. She reported in The Woman’s Journal, “We had a very good meeting in Plymouth, although not a large one, for the conservative element is strong there.”

On November 24, 1873 Plymouth’s Woman Suffrage Political Club was formed. Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone, co-founders of the American Woman Suffrage Association, attended the assembly held in Davis Hall on Main Street with an audience of about 500. The Club began meeting regularly in the home of Zilpha H. and Nathaniel B. Spooner on North Street.

An unsigned toast in the Plymouth Antiquarian Society’s archival collection envisions an extension of the liberty won in the American Revolution “When women in power, alive to the hour,/Shall crown their hearts’ faith at the polls.” The toast is undated, but was probably printed around 1873. (The author proclaims “a century’s past o’er the sea/Which they filled with defiance”, an allusion to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.) It is likely that the toast was used at an early gathering of the Woman Suffrage Political Club in Plymouth.

Tea Toast

We pour a libation, before the whole nation,
Of tea, sparkling tea, joyous tea,
Our fathers unfrighted, their efforts united,
And so we are free, we are free!
We thank their brave resistance,
To writs of forced assistance;
Their struggles true and loyal
Against a despot royal;
And now that a century’s past o’er the sea
Which they filed with defiance, we’re free.

A cup more refreshing, more potent in blessing,
Shall Liberty give to all souls;
When women in power, alive to the hour,
Shall crown their hearts’ faith at the polls.
The day of weak aspirants,
And cruel, cunning tyrants
Is past, a state of freeman
Claims equal men and women.
God calls us, who guided our sires o’er the sea,
Let the mothers of freeman be free!

(PAS Archival Collection 2009.5.11)


About our Costumes

Part 5 in a special series on the Pilgrim Breakfast

Since the 1930s guests have been charmed by the costumed volunteers serving food, singing, and demonstrating crafts at the Pilgrim Breakfast. We continue to wear 17th-century style costumes – even though they can be quite uncomfortable on a hot summer day!

The first Antiquarians diligently researched and recreated period clothing, seeking to understand its impact on everyday activities. They made costumes to wear at the Harlow Old Fort House, undoubtedly following the lead of Rose T. Briggs, who designed the costumes for the first Pilgrim Progress held in the summer of 1921 for Plymouth’s tercentenary (a tradition that also continues today). The 19th-century image of Pilgrims in all-black ensembles with large buckles on their hats gradually gave way to more historically accurate representations.

The costumes we use today have been passed down by many generations of Antiquarians – which means we have an assortment of styles to choose from. Most pieces were made for the Pilgrim Breakfast by our members, although there are a few ready-made items. Instead of the wool and linen used by 17th-century colonists, our costumes are mostly made of cotton. We also use modern conveniences like zippers.

Our goal is to add a festive element to our event, not to perfectly recreate 17th-century styles. Girls and women wear a skirt and bodice, apron, coif (cap), and kerchief. Boys and men wear breeches and a shirt. We always recommend leather shoes if our volunteers have them, but our priority is that everyone be equipped with comfortable and safe footwear for a busy morning running across the yard.

The costumes aren’t marked with modern sizes, which makes dressing a crew of over 20+ volunteers a unique challenge. The annual fitting before the big day provides a special opportunity to note the passage of time as our youngest volunteers outgrow the previous year’s costume. They return year after year, ascending the ranks from tussie mussie sellers to muffin distributors to assistant servers and (finally!) senior servers, fully responsible for serving the guests at one or two tables. We think the Pilgrim Breakfast’s future is ensured; we’re grateful for the many young history lovers who view it as an essential part of their summers.

Interested in creating your own Pilgrim costume for Plymouth’s 400th anniversary? Learn more from local reenactors and material culture experts: New Plimmoth GardSociety of Mayflower Descendants and Plimoth Plantation.

A Gallery of Antiquarian Costumes through the Years


Cooking Tips from Rose T. Briggs

Part 4 in a special series on the Pilgrim Breakfast

No series on Pilgrim Breakfast traditions would be complete without a few cooking tips from Rose T. Briggs. (We mentioned her in our first post and you can see a photograph of her in our third post.)

Rose Thornton Briggs, daughter of George R. and Helen Taber Briggs, was born in Plymouth on May 26, 1893, in what is now the Mayflower Society House on North Street.  She lived most of her life at Indian Brook, her parents’ home in Manomet, where her father had built many acres of cranberry bogs. Her mother helped found the Plymouth Antiquarian Society in 1919 and served as its President (1927-29). Rose was Assistant to the Directors and later Curator of the Antiquarian Society (1932-73). She was also active in the Pilgrim Society, serving as its first Director. She was considered a national authority on 17th-century Pilgrim life and an expert in historic clothing. She worked tirelessly to understand the past and to preserve Plymouth’s history. On September 23, 1981, Rose T. Briggs died and was buried at Vine Hills Cemetery in Plymouth. In his eulogy at her memorial service, the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes stated, “She labored night and day for the Pilgrims and was one of them in spirit and in fact.  She illuminated a time and a place far removed from us by her skillful and creative scholarship, and, in doing so, she added much light and joy to our own time.”

For sixty years Rose Briggs played a major role in shaping the interpretation of colonial life at the Harlow House. Her influence extended to the techniques used for preparing food at the Pilgrim Breakfast. Many thanks to local historian James W. Baker for sharing the following clipping from around 1957. The newspaper is unknown, but the title says it all: “Fireplace Cooking is Test of Real Culinary ‘Know How’”. The author, Margaret Clark, describes a lesson on making fishcakes from Rose.

Miss Rose T. Briggs of Plymouth is an expert on preparing meals in Pilgrim style, so we asked her for helpful suggestions after we went to the Pilgrim breakfast at the Harlow Old Fort House, Plymouth, and had eaten heartily of the fishcakes she cooks so perfectly in the ancient fireplace.

“Use a kettle well smudged from previous fires,” Miss Briggs recommended. “It is all right to scour the inside but leave the outside sooty, then it won’t smoke when you hang it over the fire.

“Before immersing the fishcakes in the hot cooking oil, I put them in this antique skimmer, so I won’t lose them in the depths of the kettle while they are cooking.

“Fireplaces are dark except where the fire is and it is impossible to see in cooking pots even if you sit down on a chunk of wood the right height, or a stool. We had to improvise a modern fry basket from our old skimmer. Cooks of the period may have used skimmers this way, too, though I haven’t yet found any drawing to authenticate our fry-basket skimmer as has been the case with some of our other improvisations.

“Fireplace cooking has made us realize how sensible the Pilgrim women were to wear caps. When you hang pots on hooks inside a fireplace your topknot goes inside the sooty interior as well as your hangs. If you don’t have a cap on, your hair would look like a hearth broom in no time.”


Memories of the Pilgrim Breakfast

Part 3 in a special series on the Pilgrim Breakfast

Lifelong Plymouthean and historian James W. Baker shared the following memories of the Pilgrim Breakfasts he attended in the 1950s-60s. His mother, Jane Cooper Baker (1908-1998), was a descendant of Sgt. William Harlow and an active Antiquarian. 

Recollections inevitably fade and commingle after 60 years, but I do have some surviving impressions. The breakfasts I attended from the early-1950s to about 1967 were not unlike those we have now, but details differ. The shaky card tables and venerable wooden folding chairs out under the great shady elm tree (now long gone) were arranged around the well box (ditto) and garden beds. Some guests were served in the house (not just when wet out) where fishcakes were on occasion fried in the fireplace. The rest of the operation was out of the old woodshed – I recall the excitement when the 1939 “kitchen” was modernized in 1967 – from which servers brought the baked beans, cornbread, “gems”, standard doughnuts and homemade relishes or ketchup in those very sturdy custard cups. Cranberry juice or water was served in rather small waxed paper “Dixie Cups” and of course, coffee. I do not remember any eggs, although they may have been served then. All of this for $1.25 – a tenth of today’s post-inflationary cost.

My mother was involved at various levels, from chairman of the Breakfast committee to organizer of the “tussie-mussies” which involved scrounging in other people’s gardens such as Mrs. Cyrus (Edith) Jones’ down Howes Lane, for example, pinning the tiny bouquets and ribbons together and delivering them to their young distributors in pans of water. Still, it all blends together into a hazy idyllic summer scene from those far-off days to the tune of locusts and the smell of crushed lemon balm leaves.

Report of Jane Baker, chairman of the Harlow House committee, November 5, 1959

“We have made two innovations to our breakfasts [July & Sept]. One is to post the menu at the gate so that unsuspecting tourists may be forewarned as I have met those for whom baked beans and fish cakes were just too great a challenge to their digestions. We have also added cranberry juice to the menu and it has been poured by our president at a table just outside the Harlow House door and at the entrance of the garden…I would like to mention here that the July Breakfast was directly preceded by the holiday which made it impossible for Mrs. Dunham to make her usual arrangements for ordering the food. Mr. Dunham, who is supervisory cook at the County Farm offered to prepare the beans and fish cakes from their kitchens, a great courtesy and convenience.”

Curious about the “gems” Jim mentions above? We’re pleased to share this description and recipe from The Plimoth Colony Cook Book (originally published in 1957). This book is available to purchase in our online gift shop.

Gems for Breakfast
Gem pans were heavy cast-iron pans with rather shallow oblong divisions with rounded bottoms. A gem was rather like a small oblong popover. Sometimes they were made with rye flour instead of white flour. Gem pans were introduced to Plymouth kitchens about 100 years ago [ca. 1850s]. They may still be found in antique shops. Home tinkerers like to keep nails in them.

Plymouth Gems
2 cups flour
1 cup milk
1 cup water
pinch salt

Mix all ingredients, beat well; pour into well-heated greased gem pans, and bake in a hot oven (400 F.) about 20 minutes. Eat immediately. Popover pans may be used, if desired. Fill pans only about 2/3 full.

Pilgrim Breakfast Receipts

Part 2 in a special series on the Pilgrim Breakfast

In 1957 the Plymouth Antiquarian Society published The Plimoth Colony Cook Book. It featured “receipts” used in Plymouth from the colonial period to the end of the 19th century. Antiquarians Elizabeth St. John Bruce and Edith Stinson Jones collected the recipes, preserving culinary methods and traditions passed down in local families for generations. Their meticulous documentation and faithful recreation using period tools provided the foundation for cooking demonstrations at the Harlow House.

The first pages of the cookbook feature recipes served to guests at the Pilgrim Breakfast. Recognizing that not everyone had access to a brick oven, the Antiquarians modernized the recipes for this publication.

Interested in recreating the Pilgrim Breakfast at home? Download our recipe sheet here.

Harlow House Mulled Cider

3 quarts cider
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
ginger, if liked
¾ teaspoon cloves
1/3 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt

Add the spices and salt to the heated cider and simmer 10 to 15 minutes. Makes 24 punch cup servings.

Harlow House Doughnuts

often called “Wonders”
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon butter, melted
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt

Beat sugar, eggs, and milk together, add butter. Sift 3 cups flour with rest of ingredients, add to first mixture and stir until smooth. Add more flour, if necessary, to make a soft dough. Chill dough overnight. Roll out on floured board and cut with doughnut cutter. Fry in fat hot enough to brown a 1-inch cube of bread in 40 seconds (375 F.). As doughnuts rise to top, turn and brown on other side. Remove, drain on absorbent paper.

Harlow House Baked Beans

2 pounds pea beans
1 onion
2 teaspoons mustard
½ cup molasses
½ teaspoon salt
3/8 pound salt pork

Pick over, wash, and soak the beans overnight. In the morning, drain, rinse, and cover with cold water, bring to a boil and cook until the beans can be pierced with a pin. Drain, put in bean pot with an onion in the bottom. Add mustard, molasses, and salt. Scrape and score the pork and bury it in the beans so that only the top shows. Cover with water and bake in a slow oven (300 F.) about 6 hours, adding water as needed. Uncover the pot for the last hour to brown the pork. 6-8 servings.

Harlow House Fish Cakes

4 cups potatoes, cut in 1-inch cubes
1 cup salt fish, picked and shredded
2 eggs, slightly beaten

Boil together potatoes and fish until potatoes are tender. Drain, mash, and beat in eggs. Drop by spoonfuls in hot fat, (390 F.) and fry for 1 minute. Drain on absorbent paper. 6-8 servings.

The Origins of a Plymouth Tradition

Part 1 in a special series on the Pilgrim Breakfast

The founders of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society sought to preserve not just the buildings and objects of the past, but also the traditions and skills of everyday domestic life. The Harlow Old Fort House, purchased in 1920, became their primary venue for practicing and teaching the household industries of colonial New England. A focus on open-hearth cooking led the Antiquarians to host food-related events for the public.

The earliest recorded Pilgrim Breakfast at the Harlow Old Fort House was in 1933. That year’s annual report on the Society’s activities included a very brief mention of this special event: “A delightful old fashioned Sunday morning breakfast was served at the Harlow House Oct 1st, after which the house was closed for the season.”

The Breakfast became a fixture in the Antiquarian Society’s annual calendar. By 1949 the Antiquarians established a schedule of holding two Breakfasts each year, on the Sundays closest to July 4th and Labor Day. PAS members prepared the meal, which costumed volunteers served to the public both inside and outside the historic house. The menu from the beginning featured fishcakes (or “fishballs”), baked beans, and cornbread.

Rose T. Briggs, who served as the Assistant to the Society’s Directors, used the Breakfast as an opportunity to showcase the traditional crafts that the Antiquarians demonstrated throughout the year at the Harlow House. Their innovative course for adults, “Household Arts of the 17th Century”, drew national attention. Held every July between 1935 and 1941, it featured hands-on lessons on preparing flax and wool, spinning, dyeing, weaving, candle making, and open-hearth cooking, supplemented by lectures on architecture, furniture, clothing, and by trips to other historic houses and museums.

The Pilgrim Breakfast was a family affair; the children of Antiquarian Society members were recruited at an early age to dress in costume, sell “tussie mussies” (small bouquets), and serve the guests. In the 1930s and 40s PAS member Souther Barnes and his siblings (Brooks, Mercy, Parker, and Philip Jr.) would help their mother, Mercie Hatch Barnes (1899-1992), cook inside the Harlow House. “I kept the fire going and she cooked the fishballs, which are like the fishcakes they serve today. She fried them by the spoonful in hot fat. That fire was so hot her face would be beet red,” Souther recalled in an interview with the Old Colony Memorial in 2019.

Visit Parting Ways


Historical Significance

Parting Ways Cemetery is the final resting place of four African-American Revolutionary War veterans: Prince Goodwin, Cato Howe, Quamony Quash, and Plato Turner. At least three and perhaps all four had been slaves before the war. Quamony Quash fought for American independence while still enslaved; he was not emancipated by Theophilus Cotton until 1781. Their graves are visible reminders of the New Guinea Settlement at Parting Ways (named for the fork in the road leading from Plymouth to either Plympton or Carver). In 1792 the Town of Plymouth granted approximately 94 acres to  the men for clearing the land. They created one of the earliest independent African-American communities in New England.


From Route 3, take exit 6 onto Samoset Street. Travel west for 1.5 miles. Turn right onto Route 80 East (Plympton Street). Travel 1.5 miles. Parting Ways is located on the right, just before the Kingston townline. There is a small parking area and a half-mile trail through the woods behind the gravesites.

Learn More

Long Road to Freedom: Online exploration of African-American history in Plymouth based on 2006 exhibit at Pilgrim Hall Museum, featuring digital copies of original documents with transcriptions

Parting Ways: Chapter from In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life  by Dr. James Deetz, who led an archaeological dig at Parting Ways in 1975 and 1976

Early African-American Settlement at “Parting Ways“, Plymouth: Blog post by historian Patrick Browne (PhD Candidate at Boston University)