In January 2012, the historian Sydney Nathans visited the library to tell us about a remarkable manuscript collection that he thought might be the largest family collection still in private hands. It spanned two centuries, 9 or 10 generations, and more than half of the United States. It included scores of diaries and letters of highly articulate and introspective women and men who wrote well and often. They were abolitionists, suffragists, artists, and geologists; explorers, miners, missionaries, and politicians; some lived in Cambridge, and others went west and built cities; some questioned their religious faith, and others embraced it; women and children were killed by Indians, and young men died in the Civil War. Oh, and another thing, Nathans added: the family had worked with an archivist, and the collection was already well organized. Now Mary Wolf, who had gathered and cared for these papers for 20 years, and her daughter Linda Cowan, who shared her mother’s passion for the collection, were looking for an institutional home, somewhere accessible to researchers, for this rich trove of documents. Might we be interested? Yes! And thus began a conversation that resulted in the August arrival of the Ames Family Historical Collection at the library.
Nathans’s interest in Mary Walker, who escaped slavery in 1848 and fled to Milton, Massachusetts, seeking refuge with the Reverend Peter Lesley and his wife, Susan Lyman Lesley, led him to the collection. The Lesleys were abolitionists who protected and employed Walker and helped her recover her children from bondage. As he describes in his book To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker (Harvard University Press, 2011), Nathans had found a volume of the Lesleys’ letters edited by their daughter Mary Lesley Ames. Then he found that the Ames family had been prominent in Minnesota, that the originals of those letters and more had been stored in trunks in the family home in St. Paul, and that the Ames descendant Mary Lesley Wolf had inherited them and moved them to her home in Boulder, Colorado. She graciously invited Nathans to come use the collection.
The Lesleys and the Ameses are just two of the families whose stories are told in the contents of those trunks. This massive family saga begins with the Murray family in the 18th century and moves through time to include the Lyman and Robbins families and their progeny. These were eloquent women and men who corresponded with their kin and with the prominent personalities of their day and kept diaries in which they recorded the events of their era. Joseph Lyman and his wife, Anne Jean Robbins Lyman, of Cambridge, both corresponded with the brothers Ralph Waldo and Charles Chauncey Emerson and their educator cousin, George Barrell. Anne’s sister Catherine Robbins kept an extraordinary journal throughout the Civil War. The lively letters among Anne and Catherine and their sisters Eliza, Sarah, and Mary (who married a son of Paul Revere) discuss education, politics, literature, and travel.
The letters between the painter, sculptor, and photographer Margaret Lesley-Brown and her parents and sisters while she was studying art in Europe are detailed and evocative, and the letters between her and her husband, the sculptor Henry Kirke Bush-Brown, reveal the development of an American aesthetic. The papers of Elizabeth Ames Jackson (who lived to be 95) take the family into the 20th century, describing her civic work in St. Paul and her own and her relations’ experiences abroad during World War I and on the home front during World War II.
Wolf and Cowan liked the fact that sending the collections to the Schlesinger Library would be something of a homecoming for many of their relatives. They had lived in Cambridge; they had walked Brattle Street every day. Their papers would find not only a good home here, but also good company. Members of these families knew many of the women and men whose papers are already in the library, such as Ellis Gray, Louisa Loring, Lydia Maria Child, and Anne Ware Winsor.
Still, it was wrenching for Wolf and Cowan (and for Nathans, too, who came to say good-bye) to watch as the more than 300 color-coded boxes, whose contents they cherished and whose care had consumed them for years, were packed by library movers and loaded onto a truck. With dozens of prairie dogs watching—their town was next to the storage facility where the collection was stored—and the owner of the moving company himself at the wheel, the Ames Family Historical Collection set off on its three-day journey from Boulder to Cambridge.
Now the cartons have been opened in Cambridge; the boxes are all in order; the finding aid is being refined; and the collection will be open next year. The Schlesinger Library is and researchers here will be grateful to Wolf and Cowan—and to all their family members who recognized the value of their writings—for this generous gift to the future.