Tag Archives: Children’s Welfare

How to tame an opossum…and other childhood preoccupations through the Barnard children’s letters

In 1876, Sanford Curtis asked John Hall Barnard about his career plans, depicting the options of a naval officer aboard a ship or a man sitting in an office. His own plans took the shape of a detailed farm scene with animals and a hoe, a rake, and a pitchfork.

Processing collections according to updated archival standards gives RBML archivists the opportunity to discover anew our collections. In this post, Processing Archivist Celeste Brewer offers us insights into the practice of children writing letters during the Civil War-era. Historians typically foreground the writings and papers of “Great Men,” but as Celeste notes, paying attention to children’s words and ideas helps us see nuances in interpersonal relationships of the past.

With summer vacation here for most school-aged U.S. children, perhaps Willy Fred, Porter and John will inspire you to get your kids to put pen to paper instead of eyes-to-screen. 

“We have bows and arrows and we shoot the pigs away from the gate,” seven-year-old Willy Fred Barnard announced to his father on October 4, 1854.  This news opened the earliest in a group of letters written by children between 1854 and 1878, which can be found in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s newly processed Barnard Family Papers collection.

William Frederick Barnard (1848-1863) and his older brother, Augustus Porter Barnard (1847-1911), wrote letters to their father, John Gross Barnard (1815-1882) as soon as they were able.  These letters are unusual for several reasons.  First, that they exist at all; the Barnard children came from a wealthy family that valued education highly.  (Their uncle, Frederick A. P. Barnard, would become president of Columbia College in 1864.)  Willy Fred and Porter were privileged to be educated by private tutors from approximately the age of six.

The first letter from Willy Fred Barnard to his father, John Gross Barnard, about a visit with family at Niagara, New York.

Even the minority of young children living in the mid-nineteenth century who could both read and write—and had access to writing tools more permanent than a piece of chalk and a slate—had little reason to write letters to their parents until they were old enough to go away to school.  However, Willy Fred and Porter’s father was an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Their mother had died in 1853.  The boys lived in rural Maryland with their aunt and uncle, Sophia and William F. Brand.

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Researching Poor Children and Society: The New York Juvenile Asylum Records

Catherine Carson Ricciardi

Since the New York Juvenile Asylum (NYJA) records were processed two years ago, the RBML has received many inquiries.  In handling these queries, I’ve become quite familiar with this collection and its wealth of information.

While many inquiries come from genealogists, the records also provide primary source material for historians interested in social institutions and the backgrounds and living conditions of orphaned children.

The NYJA was founded in 1851 to house, educate, reform, and find placement for poor, runaway, and homeless children in New York City. Some children came from families undergoing hardship, and were able to return home after a time. Many children, however, were ultimately placed in apprenticeships and sent west on “orphan trains”. The NYJA, in turn, kept a permanent agent in Illinois to arrange for their placement.

The case of a child can be traced through several types of records. To illustrate, information on new arrivals is found in the registers of the House of Reception, which includes basic data on the child’s age, reason for commitment, family, education level, health, and place of birth.  For example, a record for Martin Malone, who arrived in 1860, is shown here:

Martin, like many children, was ultimately apprenticed to a farmer in Illinois. The agent’s record includes his date of placement, age, and employer. In another record, case notes detail his difficulties in Illinois:

The records can also be used to look at several cases grouped by time or in some cases, by place. The agent’s record lists groups of children that were placed together in the same area, while the case notes are arranged in a roughly chronological order by the date of the child’s initial placement. This page from the agent’s record has basic notes on a group that was placed in Sterling, Whiteside County, Illinois, in December 1863:

Placement did not mark the end of their relationships with NYJA, as the institution made efforts to track these children, sometimes arranging new placements, until they reached adulthood. The surviving records include an agent’s register (1862-1868) and case notes (1854-1906) that may detail the case of an individual child for several years. Although the related correspondence has been lost, these records still provide a wealth of information about the experiences of these children.

In all, researching genealogy requests in the NYJA records has helped me to become more familiar with the records and the possibilities for research. The collection also provides an interesting glimpse into the lives of poor and orphaned children, and their difficulties, in the latter half of the 19th century.