Another View of History: Blueprints and Technical Drawings

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As we inventory the collection at the Portsmouth Historical Society, we come across another group of primary sources that give us a

view of historical places.  We have blueprints and technical drawings of Fort Butts, Muscle Shoal Bed Lighthouse, Portsmouth High School, Pearson Yacht building and the Glen Manor property.  We may discover more as we go through all the storage drawers.  What blueprints and technical drawings give us is another view – maybe an inside view – of what things used to look like.  They provide dimension and details that we would not get from a map or a photograph.  Looking at blueprints we start with the legend to ground us in what kind of information we can find.

Cemeteries as an Information Source



Family genealogists often contact the Portsmouth Historical Society about the location of family cemeteries in Portsmouth. In the days before the larger cemeteries became popular, many families would bury their dead on family plots on their own property. These historic cemeteries are being inventoried as part of Portsmouth’s Comprehensive Plan. Volunteers are needed for this work – contact town planner Gary Crosby if you would like to help in the effort.  Click on the following link for a pdf of the cemeteries map.  family-cemeteries-map-2

My husband and I volunteered to do the inventory for the Giles Slocum Cemetery which is opposite the Glen Farm barns. I chose this particular one because I know the stories behind many of the people buried there. In 1995 my students at Elmhurst were researching Glen Farm and I brought a group of student photographers up to the barn area. The students were interested in the ancient cemetery and many chose to take pictures of the old tombstones. This sparked my interest in researching the stories behind the names engraved on the tombstones.

slocum cem

Elmhurst Students at the Slocum Cemetery in 1995

Once you step inside that tree shaded historical cemetery you may notice that the gravestones tell the story of two families, the Cundalls and the Slocums. The Cundall burials range from 1810 to 1820 and they are on the westside of the plot and the head of the stones face west. Among those buried here is miller Joseph Cundall who lost his life in a Christmas Eve blizzard, his frozen body found only a few feet away from where he now rests forever. The headstones for the Slocum family are of an earlier time – 1703 to 1722. They lie in the northwest corner of the plot and the engravings face south.

You might think that the tombstones are primary sources because they date from the time of the person they memorialize. What is written on the stone represents what someone else thinks they know about the person who has died. In my own family, for example, we still do not know the year of my grandmother’s birth. She lied about her age for years and since she was born in a Canadian territory, we have had no luck in tracking down accurate records. A historian will look for other sources to confirm the information on the stones. I found confirmation of the Christmas Eve death of Joseph Cundall in Newport Mercury accounts of the miller’s death.

The inscriptions on tombstones provide valuable clues for genealogists and historians.

History Detective’s Guide: Oral History Interviews

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Elmhurst third graders interview the Camara sisters.

People are a wonderful source of information, but you have to prepare before you even begin to ask questions.

Before the Interview:

1. Research as much about the person or topic as you can. When my students interviewed an organic farmer, we had to know what was involved in organic farming. When we interviewed a stonemason, we researched how a stone wall was put together and what stones you might find in our walls.
2. Prepare a list of questions for the interview. You need not follow the list exactly because other questions may come up as you proceed with the questioning.
3. Put the simplest questions first and ask more complicated or thoughtful questions more toward the end.
4. Write questions that are “open ended” and can’t be answered by “yes” or “no.”
5. Don’t ask “two part” questions. Plan to ask one question first, listen for the answer and then follow up with the second question.
6. Interviews are better when you have sent the interviewee a list of your questions ahead of time. This gives them time to think about things and it takes away some of the fear that they will be asked a question that they might find uncomfortable. We have had some of our interviewees check with other family members for answers or bring photos to the interview.

At the Interview:
1. Treat the interviewee with respect.
2. Introduce yourself and thank them for sharing with you. You might share why you are interested in the story of the person or this particular topic. When we interviewed the Camara sisters we told them that we were interested in knowing what it was like to grow up on Glen Farm.
3. Don’t try to take notes – record the interview in some way. You might use a tape recorder, video recorder or even use a notes function on a cell phone.
4. Test the recorder to make sure it is working. Once you know the recorder is working, give your full attention to the interviewee. Let the recorder run.
5. Speak slowly, clearly and loud enough to be heard. The tone of your voice will set the tone for the interviewee.
6. After you ask a question, stop…and wait for an answer, even if you have silence for a while. Interviewees sometimes need some time to get their thoughts together.
7. Don’t hurry them or cut them off or they will think that what they say isn’t important to you.
8. Reflect back on which questions gave you the most information.

History Detective: Guide to Historical Portsmouth Maps Online

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Glen area map 1885

French revolutionary war map

Land Grant Map Section A Map

Many wonderful historical maps of the Portsmouth area are available online.  This is a guide to how to location some of them.

One of the most valuable sets of maps for researching early Portsmouth are the West Land Grant maps. Most maps are considered “primary” or first hand sources, but this one is a little different. In 1932 historian Edward H. West tried to match the land deeds from 1638 to 1781 with where in Portsmouth that land would be. The West maps are an invaluable resource for families are trying to figure out where their ancestors lived in Portsmouth. The maps are Edward West’s attempt, but some family genealogists have found fault with the work. I still consider this a very valuable source. The original maps were color coded to when the land grants were given, but the colors have faded and it is difficult to see the coloring.

Land Grant Maps are being archived in the high resolution Portsmouth History Center Archives (http://www.portsmouthhistorycenterarchive.org). On the home page, put “maps” in the search box and it should bring you to a page with maps from the Portsmouth Free Public Library collection.

From Rhode Island Gen Web
There are some wonderful maps on the Rhode Island Gen Web site.

1893 Map of the Island of Rhode Island

Beers map 1870

I would recommend a visit to the Library of Congress site and search for “Rhode Island maps.”
Here I found some great maps dating from the Revolutionary War.

A German map from 1777: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3772r.ar101400/
A French Rev. War  1778: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3772r.ar101600/
Attacks upon rhode island August1778 https://www.loc.gov/item/gm71000685/

19th century maps of Portsmouth from the Library of Congress

Aquidneck Island Road Map 1849 Hammett- https://www.loc.gov/item/2012593354/
Aquidneck Island land owners map 1870 Ward- https://www.loc.gov/item/2012593354/ 1870 Dripps – https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593287/
1850 Walling – https://www.loc.gov/item/2013591358/

Brown University has Sanborn Insurance maps online. These maps show buildings and out buildings.
Island park Sanborn map: https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:212703/
Sanborn Portsmouth map 1921 https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:



History Detective: Working With Maps

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Version 2

1921 Insurance Map

Historical maps help us to visualize what Portsmouth was like in years past. When you start looking at a map, you need to take some time to look at a few elements of the map to get an accurate picture of what information it might supply.

Title — Can you find a title? This is very helpful in understanding why the map was created.

Date— A date can help you understand how the map fits into Portsmouth historical time periods.

Orientation — Can you find a compass rose or at least an error pointing North? Most map makers place North at the top of the map, but that is not always the case.

Scale — When you are dealing with a physical map, a scale of how many miles to the inch can be helpful. When you deal with a map online or printed in greater magnification, the scale information is not as helpful.

Legend — The legend is like a key to the symbols used by the map maker. It is very important to know what these symbols mean.

Author or Company creating map — Knowing who created the map gives us an idea of the bias of the map. Is the map created by a national publisher, a local company, or even drawn by a particular person. How much would they know about Portsmouth?

Questions for you to think about:
1. Why was the map created? Was it to illustrate battles fought, help firefighters know what structures are on properties, mark the landowners or show the roads in town…something else?
2. How does this map compare with maps created befor it or after it.?
3. What new information does this map provide? Does it mark the windmills, show the schools, show the changes in transportation?


Pictures of Old Portsmouth

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Vintage pictures of Portsmouth are a valuable resource. How can you find them? Efforts are being made to have more images available online.

If you enjoyed the photos in John Pierce’s book Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth, you will enjoy viewing the images online.  The John T. Pierce, Sr., Historical Collection was put online by the Portsmouth Free Public Library in 2007.   Materials for this site were donated to the Library by retired Portsmouth Police Chief Pierce,  and the site was funded by a grant from BankNewport. To view the collection, visit http://portsmouthlibrary.wordpress.com/ 

The Portsmouth Historical Society is beginning to digitize their collection of photos.  Wonderful images of Reginald Vanderbilt’s Sandy Point Farm and the Vanderbilt’s Oakland Farm are available through the Portsmouth History Center website:  http://portsmouthhistorycenter.org   This digital archive is a project funded by the proceeds left from Portsmouth’s 375th celebration. From the home page you have access to the Pierce Collection and the Digital Archives. Photos are not the only resources available.   The Digital Archives provides access to documents, diaries, church records, etc. from the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society.

The Portsmouth Historical Society has a few hundred photos that need to be recorded and photographed so they can be added to an online collection.  Volunteers are needed so that these photos can come out of storage and be available online.  Many items are starting to fade and we need to digitize them just to preserve them.  Check out the Portsmouth Historical Society website, portsmouthhistorical.org to see how you can volunteer.







History Detective’s Guide: Picturing the Past

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Corn husking on Glen Farm

Sarah Eddy photograph of Portsmouth children.

A vintage photograph is an excellent primary source. It is a snapshot of a moment in past time. How do you get the most information from a photograph?  You have to spend time with the photo and carefully look at the details.

Steps in Analyzing a Historical Photograph

  1.  Study the photograph for at least two minutes to get an overall view. Think about why the photographer took this image. Does it record an event? Is it a professional portrait? Is it a postcard meant to show off interesting landscapes and buildings in town?
    In your mind, divide the photo into four quarters.
  2. Look at each quarter separately. Use a magnifying glass if it helps you to enlarge and note the details of the picture.
  3. If there are people in the photo? What can you tell about them. How old are they? What can you tell from the clothes they are wearing?
  4. If this is a photo of an event, what is happening?
  5. When and where was the photo taken?
    a. Are there clues about the location? Does the landscape or buildings look familiar? What do you see in the background?
    b. What year or decade was it taken? Can you tell from the signs, vehicles or even the presence of electric wires.
    c. What season is it? Is there snow on the ground, leaves on the trees?  Are people dressed for warm or cold weather?
    d. What time of day is it? Can you tell by shadows or lighting?
  6. Use a magnifying glass to find the objects that are in the photo. Are there tools, signs, buildings, vehicles?
  7. What questions does the photograph raise? Can you think of other sources that could help answer those questions.  Would a map help? How about a city directory?



History Detective’s Guide: Basic Transcription

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Transcribing Revolutionary War era documents was one of my first volunteer activities for the Portsmouth Historical Society. At that time I was working with the original documents in my hands. Today I usually work from a digital image of the document and that makes it easier. On my computer I can enlarge the image of the document and that helps me to decipher what the text is. Because we can make digital images, transcribing documents is something people can do on there own at home. One of our best transcribers works from Georgia! She enjoys this work because she is a genealogist and she sometimes comes across the names of her Portsmouth ancestors as she works. We have hundreds documents from the 1600s and 1700s digitized (we have jpgs of them) and we are working at preparing more documents from the 1700s and 1800s ready to be photographed.

The more I transcribe, the better I get at deciphering the script. It is a skill that comes with practice. Here are a few tips that may help you if you work with transcription.

Glance over the whole document before you try to transcribe. Is it a will, a bill, a court case, a death inventory or another type of written work? The type of document gives us clues to what kind of words you will encounter. If it is a property inventory you are going to see household goods. The bill for construction of Southermost School is going to have building supplies. Legal documents may have special phrases used in the law. Some of the questions we ask are who wrote this, when did they write it, and why did they write it? Thinking of these questions ahead of time actually helps me to transcribe more easily.

Lines should break in the exact same place as on the original. That will make it much easier to move from original to transcription because they will literally “line up” the same.

Type the words exactly as you see them. Keep the original spelling, even if you would consider it wrong. Punctuation, capitalizations (or lack of them) should be like the original. Include everything – cross outs, words added, what is in the margins.

Take your time. Transcribing is puzzle solving and you won’t get all of it at one time. Keep coming back to it. It is often helpful if at least two people are working together on a transcription.

Write down what you can easily decipher first. If you find something you can’t read, leave a space for it and continue on. Go ahead, make a guess. If you are making a guess, put it in brackets with a [?] . Keep saving your work as you go along. You can go back to it and fill in words you missed earlier. Maybe someone later can determine what word belongs in that spot. I look at the words I can decipher as examples of how letters are written by this author.

Sound out the words that are puzzling. Sometimes the odd spellings can confuse us, but trying to sound out the syllables aloud gives us more of an idea of what the word is. Once I have a letter for letter copy, I often try to write it again in modern English.

A cautionary story about dating documents
At the Portsmouth Historical Society we have an early copy of one of the first Portsmouth documents. It is about rights to the hay on Hog Island and transcribing it sent me on quite a journey. When I transcribe I usually find myself using secondary sources to look up people and items mentioned in the document. A list of the signers of the Portsmouth Compact provided me with candidates for signers of this document because both documents originated within a few months of each other.
One of the first puzzles concerned the date of the document – the 20th of the 6th month of 1638. At first it sounds like it would be June of 1638. But the right to the hay was given to William Brenton and he wasn’t in Portsmouth in June of 1638. Until 1752, Americans used the Julian Calendar (named after Julius Caesar). The year began in March, so the first month was March and the sixth month would be August. Using numbers instead of names like March, April, May etc. was especially common in Quaker records. There are records of William Brenton being in Portsmouth by August of 1630. There are still mysteries about this document. I know that it is a “true copy” of the original document, but I am not sure if the “Clarke” signing it just means “clerk” or if an actual “Clarke” had made the copy.

transcriptions – hog island – 111.15


Hog Island Hay Document

! meatting myse
met again ^ on the 20 of the 6th mo:1638 upon publick notice
Will Coddington Judg Mr. Will Hutchinson Mr. Clarke
Mr. Wilbor
Mr. Sanford
Mr. Freeborn
Phillip Shearman Rich Carder
Randall Holden Edward Hutchinson, Will Dyer —–
It is ordered yt ye remainder of the hay which is yet —-on Hogg Island shall be granted to Mr. Brenton to mow this year for he neiey aty —— a trew coppy taken out of the 2/3 page of the Chapp Book of the first sotkmg at Portsmouth.
___ ___ ___ ye Clarke —re —-ro


My attempt at modern English
! meeting house
Met again v on the 20th of the 6th month; 1638 upon public notice
Will Coddington, Judge
Mr. Will Hutchinson
Mr. Clarke
Mr. Wilbore
Mr. Sanford
Mr. Freeborn
Phillip Shearman
Rich Carder
Randall Holden
Edward Hutchinson
Will Dyer
William Coddington, William Hutchinson, Jr. [husband of Anne Hutchinson], John Clarke, Samuel Wilbore, John Sanford, William Freeborne, Phillip Shearman, Richard Carder, Randall Holden, Edward Hutchinson,William Dyer.
It is ordered that the remainder of the hay which is yet — on Hog Island shall be granted to Mr. Brenton to mow this year his—–
This is a true Copy ———- taken out of the 2/3 pages of the Chapp Book of the first — at Portsmouth
The Clerk _________________________________________




A History Detective’s Guide: Primary Sources

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SJE glass Br Fer004

A vintage photo gives us an eyewitness view of Bristol Ferry circa 1900.

Historians divide the resources they use into “primary” and “secondary” sources.   To put it briefly, primary sources were created at the time of an event by people who had first hand knowledge.    Secondary sources contain second hand information created after the event by people who were not there.  Most secondary sources are written by people who have used primary sources and then woven them into a book or report.  The books by Edward West, Jim Garman and John Pierce that I mentioned in the previous blog are examples of secondary sources.  I often use secondary sources to help me understand the primary sources I am investigating.

Primary sources are at the heart of new historical research.  There are skills involved in using these sources, but they are skills that are developed from practice.  I am an amateur history detective, but I can share some tips I have learned from my own journey to understand Portsmouth history.  This is the overall object of this series of blogs.

Here are some examples of some of the primary sources that are important to discovering new information about life in Portsmouth.  We need volunteers to explore these primary sources and record the information they give us.

  • Objects: Tools, military items, household goods, clothing, vehicles (like the Willowbrook hearse or the mail wagon in our Old Town Hall).  At the Portsmouth Historical Society we need help in identifying and researching the hundred of items in our collection.
  • Places that remain much the same: like Glen Farm barns, the Glen itself, historical buildings like the Quaker Meeting House.  Landscapes and buildings have a story to tell us.  Students visiting the Southermost School get a unique feeling for what it was like to go to school during colonial times.
  • Geographic records: vintage maps, school district maps, charts, even place names Common Fence Point or Freeborn Street tell us who lived where and how the land was utilized.
  • Visual records: drawings/paintings, photographs, blue prints.  We have hundreds of vintage photographs in our collection.  These are “snapshots” of a moment in time in Portsmouth.
  • Written records: letters, diaries, laws, vintage books, trial records, public meetings (Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth), newspaper accounts from the time, inscriptions on gravestones, ads.   We have a trove of scraps of documents that need sorting and transcription.
  • People: Oral history and interviews of people who are sharing their experience of an event of time.  We need to interview native Portsmouth residents who have a wealth of knowledge about our town.  My students at Elmhurst interviewed the Camara sisters about growing up on Glen Farm and the videos of these interviews has been a goldmine of information for us.

I love using primary sources because I am finding my own clues and not dealing with someone’s opinions of what happened.  You are discovering your own answers as you look at a picture, examine a map, read a newspaper article or handle an object from the past.  The primary sources often lead to questions that secondary sources can help me resolve.


A History Detective’s Guide to Portsmouth Research

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JIm Garman

Town Historian Jim Garman

One of the Portsmouth Historical Society docents asked me how I go about researching Portsmouth history.  I’m a retired librarian who has come to love researching local history.  It is in my nature to share my sources. This series of blog posts will be a reflection of my journey in becoming a Portsmouth history detective.  Portsmouth has a fascinating history and our community (especially through the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society) is blessed with a wealth of resources that need to be studied to give us all a fuller understanding of how our town has evolved.

I think of Portsmouth history as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.  In framing the picture we have benefitted from the works of historians past and present. Edward H. West gave us a general book, History of Portsmouth 1638 to 1936, but he also gave us the West Land Grant Maps and numerous articles that were published in the journal of the Rhode Island Historical Society.  John T. Pierce’s book  Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth Rhode Island provides interesting photos and articles on topics ranging from the Cornell murders to hurricanes.  Where Pierce covers a great many topic briefly, Jim Garman provides us with in-depth information. Some of his books, such as A History of Portsmouth, Rhode Island 1638-1978, are out of print.  Two of his more recent books, A History of the Gentlemen’s Farms of Portsmouth, RI, and Looking Back:  Historic Tales of Newport County  may still be available for sale.  All these works would be available at the Portsmouth Free Public Library.

There are many other books on topics in Portsmouth history and I will mention them later.  I suggest starting with West, Pierce and Garman because they have tackled a variety of events and people in our history.  If you want to learn about Portsmouth history as a general topic, start with the research these men have shared with us.  They give us a frame to the puzzle so that we can place our own puzzle pieces of information into the broader picture of the history of Portsmouth.