- Avoiding “Troubles of Every Kind”: Lessons for Archival Research
Dearest Friend of Mine,
I have just received your letter of the 12th of last september. Your loving lines, full of piety, are to my soul, . . . as the drops of beneficent dew which reanimates and fortifies it in this strange land in which I struggle without ceasing against a thousand troubles of every kindMother Magdalen hayden 10 December 18591
In 1853, a remarkable forty-four percent of females in school in the New Mexico Territory were attending the Academy of Light2 established by Mother Magdalen hayden and The Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross (later called Sisters of Loretto).3 While this enrollment figure would ebb and flow over the next thirty years, in large measure dependent on diseases and national unrest, one stunning fact remains: no other single organization affected the lives of women in the Territory, especially of the elite, in such great numbers.4 Indeed, Mary Straw Cook notes that Magdalen’s “recorded student account and cash books . . . read like a roll call of dominant historic New Mexico families of their time” (p. 13).5
My journey to find Magdalen (who was recently honored with a historical marker in the city of Santa Fe) and others like her who came to the West began in the fall of 2000 when I was enrolled in my first American women writer’s class. The professor, Sharon Harris, noted that much work remained in the area of recovery of early American women’s writing, especially in the South. It was two days later when I realized that what my professor and Julia Cherry Spruill—to whose seminal work my professor had referred me—meant by “South” was defined by pre-Civil War terms, which is perfectly logical as it was an early American women writer’s class to 1800.6 While I had read the graduate seminar course syllabus favorites Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, and Sarah Kemble Knight, I was struck by the detail of the everyday and genuine emotion contained mainly in letters and journal writings of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who lived in south Carolina for most of her life, and Lucinda Lee, who lived in Virginia.7 Yet, [End Page 141] such letter and journal writers tended to disappear from discussions of early America, even from discussions of an early American south that usually focuses on Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Being a native of the South sometimes forgotten in references (my family on the paternal side were recipients of a Spanish land grant in the eighteenth century in present-day Texas), I was interested in what other voices might be present. As is typical in graduate courses, we had an end-of-course seminar paper assigned, and I hoped to be able to find some original work in time for this paper.
I began my search for original manuscripts authored by women in the South (ideally Texas, since I was already here) with a basic and broad Google search using the common search strings one might imagine for such a topic. Then, I began searching in the university databases; in fact, I could likely write an amusing paper on the different search strings I used and the results I found. I was having no success finding any university, archive, public institution, or private one that held letters, diaries, or journals written by women in Texas before 1750. (“Um, I don’t think anyone was even here,” said one archivist.) I asked my professor, soon to be my dissertation director, about any guidebooks or reference works available for conducting archival work and was told, again, that there was work to be completed in this area as well, but that some kind of archival guidelines would be very helpful for scholars just beginning this kind of work.
Archival research is time-consuming and expensive. Yet, there is nothing quite as thrilling (Katharine Kittredge called it “magical” in an article published here)8 as holding a document that no one has seen in one hundred years, that has never been published, and that most certainly has never been written about. In...