Saturday, May 16, 2015

Serendipity and Why I love Footnotes

I am currently reading a nonfiction book called Soldier Engraver Forger: Richard Brunton's Life on the Fringe in America's New Republic by Deborah M. Child. The timing is coincidentally perfect. I just finished an historical fiction book called The Schoolmaster's Daughter by John Smolens. Both books focus on the American Revolution and start with the siege of Boston. They also both feature a British soldier who has deserted the British Army.

I love to read fiction because it's fun and enjoyable but it's even better to follow it up with a nonfiction book that gives me a sense of what it was really like during the same time period.

As a side note, I should mention, though perhaps obvious, that it's always beneficial to read multiple books on the same topic. You get different perspectives from different authors and they each have their own focus. This provides for a much broader and deeper understanding of an historical event. (On that note, if anyone can recommend any books, fiction or nonfiction, that take place during the siege of Boston I would greatly appreciate it. I would love to read more on the subject.)

Soldier Engraver Forger takes a look at the life of Richard Brunton, a British Solider who did not leave an abundant trail of records for future researchers to find. Author Deborah Child recreates his story through examples of materials culture (such as engravings, bookplates, portraits, etc) and by placing Brunton in historical context by taking a deep look at the social history of the times.

There is much to love about this book (which I will report in greater detail in a review when I'm done) but the thing that is endlessly pleasing me at the moment is the footnotes. As genealogists, we are all a bit enamored with footnotes. We may hate to write them but we sure to do love to find them.

Let me give you two examples from the book:

"Again, in 1771, Milne advertised Gordon as a runaway indentured servant, this time traveling with a wife, Mary, whom he described as "much addicted to drink and a great liar." (pages 31-32, footnote 69)  The quote itself is just wonderful and colorful and transports us back into the lives of  Revolutionary Era Americans. The footnote reveals that this comes from an article in the Pennsylvania Gazette. A good reminder that we should always be doing newspaper research even in the colonial time period.

The second quote immediately follows that last sentence - "In July 1773, Gordon, his wife, and their son James arrived in Boston from Philadelphia. (page 32, footnote 70) That may not look like much of an interesting sentence but I couldn't help wondering "how does the author know Gordon arrived then in Boston?" Thanks to the footnote I was able to find out.

It turns out that this very slight bit of information comes from a book (via one of the co-authors) called Robert Love's Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston by Cornelia H. Dayton and Sharon V. Salinger (2014, UPenn Press). I have long had an interest in the Warning Out Records of early New England. I have also never heard of this book before. I'm a little disappointed that this book was published and didn't hit my radar but I'm absolutely delighted to have found out about it in the footnotes of Soldier Engraver Forger.

That is the wonderful, magical aspect of footnotes. They will lead you to further essential resources that will help with your research. Do you ever ask yourself, when reading a book, "how does the author know that?" I do it all the time and love it when a footnote will answer the question.

The book also has a number of references to articles by Don Hagist in the online publication the Journal of the American Revolution as well as articles from JL Bell's blog Boston 1775. That's a good reminder that there are some tremendous historical resources available no further than our keyboard and the internet.

If you'd like to read some more of my thoughts footnotes, particularly as they relate to genealogical research, you can see a previous blog post The #1 Things that Impacted My Research in 2010.

1 comment:

  1. American Ancestors had a great write up about the Robert Love book a few issues back. I recall it because it mentioned his encounter with Acadians after they were allowed to go home and stopped in Boston on the way.