J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Other Dubious Documents about Revolutionary Women

Over the past several days, I’ve been sharing the judgment of a group of researchers about the letter attributed to Deborah Champion of Connecticut in 1775 or 1776. We concluded, as others have less loudly before us, that this text was composed and revised in the late 1800s or early 1900s. The letter was probably inspired by the Champion family’s tradition about Deborah undertaking rides for her father, first published in 1891. That might have been an accurate memory, but there’s no reliable evidence to back it up.

Did author of the letter intend for people to take it as a genuine historic document? There are examples of American women in late nineteenth century composing fictional historic diaries or letters about Revolutionary figures, apparently not expecting them to be treated as authentic. Isabella James composed a “letter from Lydia Biddle” during the siege of Boston that the Boston Daily Advertiser published in 1875. Mary Williams Greeley wrote the “Diary of Dorothy Dudley” published by the Ladies’ Centennial Committee of Cambridge in 1876. Both women were reportedly surprised when readers took their fictions as authentic. But by then the damage had been done: for decades authors have been rediscovering those publications and citing them as genuine.

That sort of story might have been part of the genesis of the Deborah Champion letter: composed by one of her descendants as a fictional recreation of the family traditions about her, and then taken by other descendants to be real. I suspect that a lot of myths about the Revolution started as inspiring fables for children about their ancestors, not meant to be repeated or taken as fact. But those children grew up into adults who believed those stories were both accurate and of national importance, and put them into the public record.

In the case of Deborah Champion, however, we have not just the tradition put into print in 1891 but a document said to support that tradition. And that document was changed at least once, possibly to remove obvious anachronisms and holes. Each revision was presented to readers as an accurate transcription of an authentic document. So there was some knowing chicanery along the way.

Again, there are precedents for that. In 1900 Helen Evertson Smith published Colonial Days and Ways, as Gathered from Family Papers, presenting it as a series of accurate transcriptions of historical documents from her family. In particular, the book quoted letters and a diary it said were written by Juliana Smith during the Revolutionary War. Juliana Smith is a documented person, and her home and family were real.

Helen Evertson Smith did inherit and collect historical documents; her papers are now at the New-York Historical Society. But her book fictionalized those documents in both details and language, where she didn’t simply make up texts. Ives Goddard discussed the problems with relying on Colonial Days and Ways in a 2005 paper (P.D.F. download). The In the Words of Women blog lists it among “Dubious Sources” on women during the Revolution. Nevertheless, the book continues to be reprinted and cited as a historical source.

Of course, there are also plenty of precedents for fables, falsehoods, and fake documents about men in the Revolutionary War. These examples stand out because they were created by women about other women when there were relatively few historical sources and limited educational and professional opportunities for that half of the population.

COMING UP: The question of motive—for telling the story, and for retelling it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this terrific series of blogs. One could hear the air deflating from the Champion balloon from the very start...

Being a student of NY AWI history, I was delighted several years ago to stumble upon the diary of Lydia Minturn Post, a woman who lived through the British occupation of Long Island during the Revolution. It was many, many months before I eventually discovered is was a source not to be trusted (it is, I see, also mentioned as such on the "Words of Women" blog).

As by your article it appears many such "sources" are now known to exist, and yet are still being used, it would be a great service to scholarship if an authoritative list of them was available on-line so that writers won't continue to perpetuate the myths, errors and falsehoods for the rest of eternity.

Does such a list exist? Does such a site exist? If not, perhaps some well-known and respected blogger would care to take up the challenge. Or, the editors of some online American Revolution Journal, perhaps...

R. Doctorow

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting suggestion. A web archive might be economically feasible. But it would need a platform authoritative enough for new researchers to find it and trust it.