One Last Manuscript Collection: A Farewell from Shirley Schuette
To fill up the last few days of my time as an archival assistant for the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Research Services Division manager Brian Robertson gave me a handful of small collections, each consisting of just one letter from the Civil War era. Whether a collection is small or large, processing it requires researching the background and producing a finding aid that will introduce the collection to researchers.
One of the collections he gave me was named “Civil War letter from a woman named ‘Hannah.’” It was a four-page letter addressed to Hannah’s brother Charles and written at Little Rock, Ark., on July 10, 1864. My challenge was to come up with a finding aid that would provide enough information to help researchers see the value of this one brief letter. Who was Hannah? How did she end up in Little Rock? What was the broader story beyond her description of the difficulties of life in the city under Union occupation?
Although Hannah referred to several family members, only one included a surname. She mentioned the death of Joseph Small, a brother[-in-law] who had a daughter named Abby Brooks. Starting with that small piece of information and thanks to the wealth of information available on Ancestry.com and other databases at CALS and in publications available in the CALS Roberts Library research room, I was able to identify both Hannah and Charles and to piece together the family history.
As a result of my research, we changed the name of the collection to the Hannah Knight letter (BC.MSS.19.14). It turned out that both Hannah and her husband, John Knight, were natives of Newburyport, Massachusetts, where John had been a classmate of none other than Albert Pike. Shortly after their marriage in 1843, the couple headed west in search of a milder climate, ending up in Little Rock, where they became important in the community. As the letter shows, more than twenty years later, Hannah was maintaining contact with her Massachusetts family and hoping conditions after the war would allow her to see her father once again.
Knowing the broader story made the contents of the letter that much richer. The finding aid for the Hannah Knight letter is available here.
Doing the background research was my favorite part of each of the projects I undertook during my seventeen years with CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Being able to dig out the story of Hannah and Charles and make it available for patrons provided a very satisfying end to my time here. I will always be grateful for the many opportunities my years at CALS have provided. And thanks to the resources the library provides, I can keep on digging and researching, even in my retirement!
By Shirley Schuette, archival assistant at the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, who retired in August 2021