2014-02-06 / News

Jamestown Historical Society News

By Rosemary Enright

The exhibit in the Jamestown Philomenian Library foyer that tells the story of Jamestown through documents and artifacts of the Weeden family has been a huge success. Many Jamestowners have enjoyed this look at their history, and Weeden descendants from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and other towns in Rhode Island have come to see it. The Weedens have brought with them documents and artifacts to add to the society’s collection.

Most exciting has been the response of younger Weedens. Kim Weeden, a professor of sociology at Cornell University whose great-great-great-grandparents Robert and Damaris Weeden had both been keepers of the Beavertail Light, and whose great-greatgrandfather Arnold had been keeper of the Conanicut Light at the North End, wrote asking for a copy of the Weeden genealogy. She had seen a photograph of it on the society’s website and wanted a better reproduction.

“When I showed my son the family tree earlier tonight,” she wrote, “he announced that it was ‘pretty cool’ and asked if he could incorporate it into a social studies project some day. That’s high praise from an 11-year-old.”

Curt Weeden, whose talk on Jan. 9 about his novel “Dutch Island” attracted more than 60 people, also wrote to us about his children and grandchildren’s reaction to the information in the exhibit. One of the younger grandchildren wanted to bring the family tree to school for “show-and-tell,” and Curt’s daughter is planning to find out what happened to the slaves who took the Weeden name during their period of servitude.

Most of the Weeden slaves were freed by Daniel Weeden Jr. in 1775 or by his father Daniel in his will in 1785. Manumission was not just the simple process of setting enslaved humans free. The pauperism laws of the time made the town of legal residence – in cases of manumission, the community where the former owner lived – responsible for providing for those who could not support themselves. Both Daniel Sr. and Jr. tried to give those who had served them help in moving from servitude to an independent life.

Daniel Sr.’s will read, “I give unto my three Negro men named Ben, Tom and Tobey & my Negro woman named Betty there (sic) freedom at my decease ... But if either or all of my Negros shall refuse to take their freedom my mind & will is that he, she or they so refusing shall be taken care of and supported by my executors hereafter named.”

Nothing is known about the men, but Betty had stayed with and cared for Daniel Sr., who was then close to 80 years old, when the British occupied Jamestown from 1776 to 1779. The rest of his family had fled to mainland or were occupied with the war, but Daniel refused to move.

Daniel Jr.’s manumission of the girl Violet, after stating, “I being willing to do to others as I would that others would do to me,” essentially transformed her status from slave to indentured servant for nine months until she was 18. He promised that she would be “educated in a manner suitable for an apprentice of her age, station and capability.”

The exhibit, curated by Holly Collins and Arlene Petit, will remain in the library foyer until Friday, Feb. 14.

Document conservation was the impetus behind the exhibit as it has been for several earlier displays. Some conservation requires professional technical skills beyond those of the society’s volunteers, including surface cleaning, mending of superficial tears, enclosing a document in a clear archive-quality folder, and creation of a digital image of the cleaned and mended archive. The digital images are attached to the document’s catalog record and made available through the society’s online catalog to anyone who is interested.

Conservation of each document costs about $11.

A grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities allowed the society to conserve 210 documents professionally in 2013. Donations generated so far by the Weeden exhibit will allow another 75 to be processed. All donations to help with this conservation effort are greatly appreciated.

School exhibit

The exhibit – “School Days: Then and Now” – was mounted in library exhibit case at the Lawn School in mid-January. In addition to photographs of the school buildings where island children have studied since the first stone schoolhouse was built near Mackerel Cove in 1831, the exhibit shows some of the teaching tools used over the years: a puzzle that teaches spelling by associating the names of animals with their pictures, a sampler that taught young girls both their stitches and letters, and a small slate for doing sums. Latin, arithmetic, reading and geography texts used in the Jamestown schools are also on display.

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