Centuries-old documents restored, put on display at library
In April, the Jamestown Historical Society received a grant in the amount of $600 from the Joseph O’Neill Ott Fund. The purpose of the grant was to preserve and protect a number of the 18th and 19th century documents that are in the JHS vault.
The society’s collection contains hundreds of documents dating from the American Revolution to the early 20th century. They have been stored by the society for 30 years. Prior to that, the documents were kept in the attic of the old town hall until the town transferred them to the society for safekeeping. The documents are currently housed in the climatecontrolled vault that the JHS leases in the basement of Town Hall.
“When they were kept in the old town hall, there was concern about temperature, humidity and that sort of thing,” said Sue Maden of the JHS.
Maden added that when the society received the documents, they had been folded and placed into envelopes. The documents were categorized at the time, and once the JHS moved into the space in Town Hall, they were unfolded and placed in acid-free folders and boxes.
“Fortunately the paper used in those days was much better quality than what we have today,” Maden said.
In 2007 an intern began to catalog the documents into a software system called Past Perfect. Only about 200 documents were cataloged in that way at the time, and those are accessible on the society’s website.
“We felt a responsibility for caring for these documents,” Maden said. “It’s not only cataloging them so that people know they’re available and storing them properly. We also thought that because of their age and condition, it would be good if they were professionally treated.”
The initial grant allowed the JHS to turn approximately 70 documents over to a company called Kofile, which specializes in preservation and protection of documents. The company is located in Essex, Vt. Kofile cleaned the documents and placed them in a protective material.
The 70 hand-written documents that were treated address three subjects. The official papers related to the Revolutionary War concern Captain Wallace of the British fleet. They also recount payments made to men in Jamestown to walk the shore at the West Passage at night so that they could see what the British fleet was doing. The documents also mention cruel and inhumane treatment by the British, and the quota of men who were required to represent Jamestown in the Continental Army.
Other documents have to do with apprentices and indentured servitude.
“It’s a form of slavery,” Maden said. “You had to work for someone for seven years or until you met your majority.”
The third subject is removals. The town did not want anyone here who it would have to support. People were questioned, and if they were unable to meet certain economic criteria, they were returned to where they came from.
“This is kind of shocking,” Maden said. “When you think about the welfare nets that we have for people today, they didn’t have them then.”
Maden said that the documents seem special not only because of the subjects and their age, but because they portray the way people were treated, and in some cases, mistreated.
“We make all kinds of assumptions about the way people were treated,” Maden said, “and sometimes they weren’t treated so well. The town was poor and they didn’t want people here who couldn’t take care of themselves.”
One document in particular captivated Rosemary Enright of the JHS. It’s a signed copy of a statement sent to the Newport Mercury on June 24, 1776. It declares the support of “the resistance and opposition in which the United American Colonies are now engaged against the fleet and armies of Great Britain.”
Said Enright, “It’s signed by most of the adult male Carrs on the island, as well as Tews, Weeden, Remington and Greenman, all familiar names in Colonial Jamestown.”
Since there were still a number of documents that needed protection, a second grant was submitted, this time to the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. The $2,000 grant that was awarded allowed the society to treat another 210 documents. Those documents are still being worked on by Kofi le.
Maden said that with the second grant, the society had the company scan the documents. “We didn’t do that with the first batch.”
Some of the documents that are currently being treated have not been cataloged. Maden said that the papers will be sorted when they’re restored. This batch of documents address a wide range of subjects including such things as a dog census.
Scans of five of the completed documents are now on display at the Jamestown Philomenian Library. There are still many documents in need of protection, at a cost of approximately $10 per document. The society is seeking additional funds from the public for the purpose of treating more documents. A donation form is available at the library.