Hands on history

KSC students 'touch' the mapping of New Hampshire

Sunday News Correspondent
April 13. 2013 8:56PM
Keene State College seniors -- Kyle Larrabee, Alanna Griffin-Bales, Laura Ruttle, Kevin McNair, and Michelle Davy -- work as interns to the history department transcribing an 18th century surveyor ledger that tells the story of how Southwestern New Hampshire in the Archives and Special Collections room in the college's Mason Library on Friday afternoon. (MEGHAN PIERCE/Union Leader Correspondent)

KEENE - From the best-seller "The Da Vinci Code" to the "National Treasure" movies, historians working with original primary source documents are depicted as being drawn into mysteries and adventures.

But now Rodney Obien, archivist at Keene State College's Wallace E. Mason Library, said he wants to demystify that work and give students more skills by using original documents.

"It's not always sexy like (the movies and books), but it's still thrilling and fun," he said.

For the next several Fridays, a group of students in an intern/independent study course are transcribing Joseph Blanchard's 18th century surveyor ledger as part of the history department's efforts to give history students more hands-on experience and skills in the field.

"It gives them experience that they can take to any job market," said Margaret Orelup, chairman of the Keene State College History Department. "Primary sources are where you can really learn to work through a question, look at different kinds of evidence and form your own interpretation."

The project provides students a close look at 18th century property ownership, as well as the border dispute between New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Orelup said.

In 1984, the college came into possession of the Blanchard ledger, which documents the story of how Southwestern New Hampshire was settled.

But because of its condition, it has had limited availability to the public, Obien said.

Through a modest Moose Plate Grant, the binding of the document is being restored and strengthened so that it may last another 200 to 300 years. The college plans to make it more available to the public under archive staff supervision.

As part of this project, the college also plans to digitize the ledger so that it can be viewed by the public online, Obien said.

Students are working with digital copies of the ledger while it is being restored, but they did get a chance to flip through the original, Obien said.

"The purpose of this internship and project is to give them some real world experience working with real historical documents. They do not always have an opportunity to work with primary source documents. That's kind of the big thing here at Keene State right now - bringing in these primary source documents and letting people see and touch them," Obien said.

"The hope is, paired with the digitized document, people will have this typed script, which will be helpful, particularly for people whose eyes aren't trained to 18th century script."

The interns, who range in age from 21 to 24, said 18th century cursive is so different (from modern cursive) that they had to study it first before diving into the old text.

Even after learning the antique cursive, there are abbreviations and different ways of spelling words that often stump the group.

"Reading Blanchard's diary and trying to figure out what the heck was he doing . and why he would abbreviate everything for nine or 10 pages then start to write everything out.

"You get to really know the person, and find history is not such an abstract thing," Obien said.

Alanna Griffin-Bales said Blanchard wasn't a consistent speller.

For example, he spelled Monadnock both Manadnack and Menadnock. Blanchard also had numerous ways of spelling Winnipesaukee.

"Westmoreland was Westmoreland, that was normal," said Kevin McNair.

McNair, a secondary education major specializing in history, said it is very enjoyable to work with the primary source documents, even through it can be frustrating to come across a page of text that seems to be indecipherable scribbling.

"You get this huge chunk that is just foreign. So you take a break and come back to it."

The ledger, started by Joseph Blanchard Sr. then was taken over by his son, Joseph Blanchard Jr., is a record of the granting of towns from the Merrimack River to the Connecticut River and as far north as Newfound Lake.

Blanchard was hired by the Masonian Proprietors, a group of wealthy Portsmouth merchants who bought the land grants from a descendant of John Mason, who originally held the title to the land.

The merchants, withBlanchard acting as their agent, granted land to people who agreed to settled towns, build roads, clear forests and farm. The settlers were also required to build a church and hire a minister.

These are living documents that are still of great interest to today's land surveyors, Obien said.

The ledger also contains records of the people who lived in the towns, how much land they held and even the size of their houses, so the ledger is also of interest to genealogists.

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