During the week of April 21st, 2020, the Chester County Archives staff featured some “staff picks” on their Facebook page
. They wanted these posts to spark some curiosity and encourage its audience to explore different records or a new collection. They also hoped their picks would shed a little light on the team behind all the work on Facebook, on the website, and in the reading room.
Assistant Archivist John
Joining the Chester County Archives in 2018, Assistant Archivist John is the newest member of the team. He's been researching and writing about the local history of Chester County since his first year as a West Chester University history major in 2012. What is John's favorite part about working in the Archives? He says it has to be sharing insight into the collections and local history with the public. John says it's a really cool feeling when he can help researchers identify who lived on their property centuries ago or help them learn about the lives of their ancestors.
Pick: Quarter Sessions Indictment Papers
John enjoys searching the Court of Quarter Sessions indictment papers because these criminal records help to humanize the past. John says many government records like deeds, taxes, estate files, licenses, etc. lack clear human emotion, but the criminal records show vulnerability. Sure, a lot of the names in these records are reoccurring “trouble makers,” but he thinks we can all empathize with the fact that we’re all human and we all make mistakes.
For example, John recalls researching Robert Lockhart who lived in East Caln Township during the late-1700s, and on the surface Lockhart seemed like the ideal eighteenth-century citizen. He owned a 500-acre estate, had big family, served as a captain during the Revolutionary War, enjoyed good relationships with many of his neighbors, and actively attended the local Presbyterian church. All these facets of Lockhart’s life were revealed by examining the obvious records like taxes, deeds, and estate papers. John was shocked when he dug a little deeper and entered Lockhart’s name in the Quarter Sessions Indictment Papers index. He discovered Lockhart was charged with fornication and bastardy as a younger man in his twenties—mind you this was only a few years after he inherited the 500-acre plantation from his father. Surely, Lockhart became the fodder for local gossip since he was young, inherited everything he owned, and now had a bastard child out of wedlock with his neighbor’s daughter. Perhaps this was a transformative moment in Lockhart who went on to be a leader in his local community.
This single criminal record challenged John’s understanding of Robert Lockhart, and he began asking different questions like: What happened to Elizabeth Littler, the woman who had his child? Lockhart went on to live a seemingly successful life, but what about her? How did Elizabeth Littler take care of this child as a young single woman? How did her family react? Did Lockhart support her and the child? There’s no way to fully understand a person based on a few archival records, but this example serves as a good reminder that people—both past and present—are complex. We might judge a person based on what we see on the surface, but that’s never the full story. We get to know people and their stories by peeling back the layers one source at a time.
May 1763 Quarter Sessions Docket entry for fornication case against Robert Lockhart.
For nearly 25 years, Cliff has been immersed in public record collections. Joining the Chester County Archives staff in 2002, he has worked to create greater access to our original records and more recently is working to increase digital access to our collections. The years spent indexing taxes, deeds, and court house records, has opened up our collections like never before, while giving our staff a greater understanding of the records themselves. This, he hopes, has allowed us to effectively help the researchers who have sought our advice and assistance throughout the years. (Of course this has left him poor company for casual dinner conversations.)
Pick: Poorhouse Records
One of the advantages of government records is that the poor and wealthy are equally represented. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leisure time (and the literacy required) to write letters and diaries was limited to a privileged few. But the tax collector couldn’t care less if you had 300 acres or a single cow, therefore both rich and poor appeared in the records. Perhaps the best examples in our collections for documenting the lives of the poor can be found in the poorhouse records.
Over the years, Cliff has devoted (too) many hours indexing the account books and pay orders. “Why?” you may ask. Why is knowing how much rye was purchased in January 1808 important? On the surface and taken separately, each entry may seem unimportant, but together they reconstruct the institution, the people, and the community as it was. The poorhouse was a living organism, connected not just to the building, but to the farms in the surrounding townships and the county more broadly. Not only can we learn what the residents ate, but we know which farms helped supply that food, which stores sold which doctors medicine to treat patients both in and out of the poorhouse. We know that some stewards bought inmates whiskey and cigars and which other stewards put a stop to it. When tax revenues fell short of expenses, we know stewards and superintendents used their own money to buy supplies, so the residents didn’t go without. All of this, plus little details about the individual residents in the poorhouse, make this a great but underutilized source.
As John rightly pointed yesterday, our records humanize the individual. The residents of the poorhouse, both inmates and workers, were people who lived full lives. They drank whiskey and cider, ate lots of bacon, pork, shad, and rye bread and occasionally enjoyed the entertainment provided by the stewards. Circumstances beyond their control may have brought them into the poorhouse, leaving them with no time to sit and write out their thoughts or pen a letter, but their lives are just as important to understand and to study as the wealthiest residents of the county.
Director of the Poor Minutes, June 1817.
Director of the Archives Laurie
Laurie started working at the Chester County Archives shortly before it opened to the public in August 1982. She learned much of what she knows about tax and court records from the incomparable Lucy Simler, the late economic historian who spearheaded the establishment of the Archives. Before she became Director in 2002, she spent most of her professional life on the pre-digital era Archives reference desk.
Pick: Orphans' Court Estate Records
Orphans’ Court (OC) estate records were the first records that Laurie worked on when she first started at the Archives way back in 1982, and she thinks more people would take a look at them if they had a different name. The name of the court came from English usage, but many of the court's functions did not necessarily involve orphans, especially not the way we understand the term today (“orphaned” used to mean “fatherless”). Laurie says you will be rewarded if you think of it as an estate court and always check for OC records anytime you’re doing genealogy or local history. The records can contain a wonderful and often surprising level of detail about people’s everyday lives including the names of family members, residences and marital status.
The guardianship account for Esther Pierce is a good example to highlight the wealth of information contained in these records. Minors could have a court-appointed guardian to oversee an inheritance, even if one or both parents were alive. Esther’s guardian was George Brinton. The account he filed to document his handling of Esther’s money was audited in 1833. From the record we learn that Esther had married Brinton Darlington Jr. and that she had given birth to two children; the first was born June 1, 1824 and the second “in the early part of the year 1828.”
Furthermore, if someone died owning real estate but never left a valid will, then the OC oversaw the sale or division of the land. Peter Handwork of West Nantmeal died without a will in 1880, and his family petitioned the OC to divide his real estate. From the petition, we learn that Peter left five children: Ross Handwork of Columbia Co., PA; Jonathan B. Handwork; Martha A. Hoffman, the wife of Calvin Hoffman; Sarah F. Dunn, the wife of John Dunn; and Harriet Hughes, the wife of John Hughes. Another signer of the petition was Henry S. Fox, who was serving as the guardian of Levi S., Emma, and Henry Hughes. The three were all underage grandchildren of Peter Handwork. They were not, however, the children of Harriet Hughes. They were the children of Esther Hughes, deceased, who was another daughter of Peter. According to the intestate laws, they stood to inherit the share of the estate that would have gone to their mother.
So Laurie’s here to remind you the next time you are looking at wills and administration files, don’t forget to look at Orphans’ Court, the oddly-named, underused, but valuable set of records.
1880 petition to divide real estate of Peter Handwork of West Nantmeal Township.