Category: Women’s History

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)


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.”


Celebrate the 19th Amendment Centennial: Spring 2020 Events

The 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women’s right to vote, was ratified in 1920. As an organization founded by women, the Antiquarian Society is proud to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this landmark legislation.

Presented by the Plymouth Area League of Women Voters & Plymouth Public Library
Film Showing: Iron Jawed Angels
Friday, March 6, 1 pm
Fehlow Room, Main Library, 132 South Street
This 2004 film tells the story of a group of passionate and dynamic young women, led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who put their lives on the line to fight for the right to vote. Discussion to follow; light refreshments will be served. Free.
Reenactment: Susan B. Anthony
Saturday, March 14, 2 pm Canceled due to public health concerns
Fehlow Room, Main Library, 132 South Street
Meet reformer and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) in this engaging performance that brings history to life. Co-sponsored with Cape Cod Bank. Light refreshments will be served. Free.
Book Discussion: The Woman’s Hour
Saturday, March 21, 11 am Canceled due to public health concerns
Board Room, Main Library, 132 South Street
In The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote Elaine Weiss recounts the battle over ratification of the 19th Amendment and the final push in Tennessee. Light brunch fare served. Copies of the book are available one month in advance. Free.
For more information on these events, please contact Jennifer Jones, Assistant Library Director, 508-830-4250 ext. 230,

Plymouth 400 Opening Ceremony Procession
Postponed from Friday, April 24 to Friday, June 26 (details here)
March with the Antiquarian Society in the parade that will kick off Plymouth 400’s first Signature Event of 2020. Dress as early 20th-century suffragists to commemorate the 19th Amendment centennial. Marchers will gather at Stephens Field at 8:30am, step off at 10:30 am, and march from Lincoln Street to Memorial Hall.  For more information or to enlist as a marcher, please contact Executive Director Anne Mason at or 508-746-0012.

Suffrage Sing-Along
Wednesday, May 6, 7 pm
Fehlow Room, Main Library, 132 South Street
Music united and rallied the women who campaigned for the right to vote. PAS Executive Director Dr. Anne Mason will teach the songs of the women’s suffrage movement and provide historical context. Song sheets will be provided so that everyone can lift their voices together – no musical expertise required! Free. This event is part of ArtWeek – a unique annual celebration of arts, culture and creativity.