1 An American Archive: Preface

The Family Papers of Charles & Mary Truesdell
Edited by John Diestler
Lafayette, California
jdiestler©2012 All Rights Reserved

I teach digital art and various design classes that use the computer as a tool to generate work. I began my career by retraining design professionals who didn’t have experience with computers or software. It’s often hard to convince individuals to embrace a technology especially if they can’t see any practical use for it in their personal lives. “Okay, maybe I write letters, so learning how to e-mail is okay, but don’t expect me to start programming.” I get that type of statement all the time. In my class we use the most popular photo manipulation program that is available, but some people just didn’t see how they would use it in their day to day lives.

My solution was to introduce a module on scanning; teaching people how to scan and repair old family photos and documents. Almost every family has a family archivist, the one relative who has somehow collected most of the original black & white photographs of Grandma and Great-grandpa. If you learn how to carefully scan the images and make the necessary repairs, then the family archive can be burned onto CDs, and everyone can have a copy. It was a tremendous success; I’ve trained hundreds of family black sheep who suddenly became family heroes. Grandma had already died once and she was facing a second extinction because the only photograph of her was fading away. Once the image was scanned, its life was restored, and generations to come will know the smile that attracted Grandpa, the same smile that became the genesis of an entire family.

It’s not hard to see why this was a rewarding way to show how technology can actually be useful and important. After years of doing this, I thought I had seen it all: tintypes, carte de vistas, old brownie photos, and a few documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses. Then about six years ago, Hal, one of my older retired students, brought in something that was framed and under glass. It appeared to be a handwritten document, which was very badly damaged. He asked me if it was something appropriate to scan. I answered that it would be and out of curiosity I looked more closely at the document. The first thing that I noticed was that it was an odd size, not the standard 8.5 by 11: it appeared to be an almost square 14 by 15 inches. The first word was written in a rather large fine script, “Indenture.” The only reference to “indenture” that I knew was some vague memory of indentured servants in the early years of the British colonies in America. Scanning the document quickly for a date I found 1761, signed in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Oh, hmm, yes, I think this qualifies as a scannable moment.

I asked the student where did he find it? Was it in his family? What else did he know about it? He responded that he knew nothing about it; that he had picked it up at a neighbourhood curb along with a bunch of other stuff. What stuff? “Oh, photos, letters, diaries, a bunch of stuff, about four boxes full.” What happened was that Hal was walking his dog in his neighbourhood when he saw an older woman hauling a box to the curb. When he got closer he saw that the box contained quite a few letters, old letters, still in the envelopes, envelopes with stamps. Hal collected stamps, so he politely asked if he could go through the box to look at the stamps. She said that it was fine; anyway it’s just going to the landfill, so take what you want. Then she disappeared only to return with another full box. After four trips to the curb it became clear to her that it would be easier if Hal just took the boxes home and then discarded everything after he had collected the stamps. Hal agreed. The only thing he did was to find a few stamps and retrieve the one old hand written document with the large word “Indenture.” He barely looked at the rest of the documents. Hal then promptly put them in his attic for thr next fifteen years.

I couldn’t take time during the class to investigate much further, but during the break I read the document and discovered that it was a legal contract drawn up to lease 500 acres of farmland between Colonel Philip Ludlow Lee and one John Augustine Washington. A little internet research provided the information that Col. Lee was of the famous Lee family of Virginia, and John Augustine Washington may have been George Washington’s younger brother. It appeared as if I was holding a piece of history in my hands.

I immediately asked if he had any more documents. Hal wasn’t sure, he thought he remembered some diaries that appeared old. Over the next several weeks Hal bought more and more items to the class. I was fascinated and curious as to how all these things were related. There were seventeen annual diaries written by a Charles Truesdell, letters by Charles to his wife Mary and letters by Mary to Charles, addressed to the “end of the railroad.” Charles was apparently an engineer and travelled a lot. There were receipts for clothes, chicken dinners, cigars, and coal. Charles saved everything, maybe for tax purposes, or maybe he was just a collector.

Eventually Hal got tired of bringing in one or two items at a time and he simply brought all four boxes to class. Hal had saved them from the landfill but he knew he wasn’t going to do much with the documents. He knew that I was interested in the story and so he passed the archives to me. I’ve had these archives for six years. I’ve catalogued the items, placed them in archival envelopes, scanned the photos, and have even started transcribing the letters. At my last count, there are over 1500 personal letters. There’s still a lot of work to do.

John Diestler
Lafayette, CA
March, 2012

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