Saturday, July 24, 2010

A box of old documents

Believe it or not, I'm not dead or given up...just haven't had much to say as of late.  I'm now a member of the Lowell Historical Society, and if you're on Facebook, we have a new fanpage @

Also, yes, it's Folk Festival weekend, it's a nice day, and I'm hiding out at home.  Been busy with various non-Lowell-related things lately and am using today to catch up.

Anyhow, my dad recently caught up on my blog and read the post on Claypit Brook Cemetery.  It reminded him of a box of old documents he had, some from Moses Colburn, who is buried at Claypit.  The documents had been found by his father in the rafters of their two-family home on Ralph St (by Armory Park in the Highlands).  The story is that the documents - and some Victorian readers found with them - belonged to the previous occupant, a schoolteacher named Hortense Lamere.  They were placed in a box that had been handmade by a relative of my grandmother's for her, and have remained there ever since.

I haven't really gone over all of them carefully since they are so old and fragile, but they are mostly legal documents, particularly real-estate, dating from the 1760s to the 1910s.  More than anything, they appear to be a collection of documents belonging to Gertrude's father, Anson, who was active in Lowell in the decades framing the Civil War.  Some documents are from personal loans he gave, or property bought and sold (one where he buys a horse and a harness, one where he buys supplies for a candy store), some are for bonds - that could not be paid back - in still poor Pulaski County, Illinois.  The store deeds appear to be for a shop on Merrimack Street in Kearney Square.  According to the city directory, he was located here during the Civil War.  Shortly before, he had been in legal trouble for selling beer there.

Many of these documents were from real-estate transactions he made, and I was able to scan a few in.  This one is a plan of the intersection of Stevens St and Princeton Blvd, where he had apparently bought and sold an entire city block.  Included was the 1850s handwritten deed for the transaction (back side).  As for where he actually lived, it appears that they owned at least one home on Walnut St in Back Central.  And he may have still been alive in the 1890s when his name is found on a city map (courtesy of Center for Lowell History) here.  His name, perhaps more importantly, in these documents is attached to a house in Centralville.  Listed here off of 12th St as belonging to his Estate.

What's interesting about the Centralville home is the Colburn connection.  There is a deed [back side] (I think it's actually a mortgage discharge?) from 1761 granting land in future Centralville (so it would seem based on being on the east bank of Beaver Brook) from Moses to Jacob Colburn.  According to a town vital records document I found, this wasn't a father-to-son transaction, but perhaps between different branches of the family?  My guess is Mr. Lamere had these as a paper trail of ownership for his property?  Interestingly, it looks like it took years for the document to be notarized, and even longer for it to be recorded at Cambridge.  Apparently things moved a little slower 250 years ago.  There was only one other pre-revolution document in the batch, and it is a 1773 land purchase by Jacob Colburn of some land in "Allcock's Neck" which is somewhere in Dracut.  The descriptions of where that is in relationship to barns, etc is long-useless.  These documents are still interesting because they are older than the Declaration of Independence.

As a final note, when I was scanning these, the woman who helped me remarked that children are starting to not even be taught cursive anymore.  As a Catholic school student, this idea is absurd to me - I almost never print (but then again, how often do I freehand write anything anymore?).  Of course, there is the question of "who will be able to read these documents?" in the future.  This isn't entirely unprecedented, as documents in English more than a few hundred years old (early 15th c. Canterbury Tales manuscript) are largely illegible to us - and it isn't just the changes in language and spelling (which aren't likely to stop happening).  Roman handwriting looks like nothing more than scribbles, even if the capitals on their monuments are entirely legible to us today.

What perhaps worries me more is that while I am writing this in an electronic format, it's being read electronically, and is heavily based on electronic resources I found, largely through Google and all for free - who is going to preserve electronic media for future generations?  Somebody will be smart enough to figure out the various binary encodings in the future if that knowledge is lost...I'm not worried about that.  I'm worried about what is the life-expectancy of digital media, and who is going to determine what, of all the media we have due to the data explosion of the Information Age, should be archived for future generations?  Even the best-kept 200 year old hard drive found in an attic is likely to be unusable at that time, and I'd hazard it might not even still contain data.