A Place in Time: Middlesex County, Virginia, 1650–1750
A Place in Time: Explicatus
The colonial period has been the proving ground in America for the new social history, which concentrates on the ordinary doings of ordinary people rather than on high culture and high politics. Unfortunately ordinary people, almost by definition, leave behind only faint traces of their existence. Until very recently most ordinary people could neither read nor write, and their lives have to be reconstituted from the way they appear in records kept by their not-so-ordinary contemporaries.
The starting point for the new history, both in Europe and America, has been the record of births, marriages, and deaths, which most literate societies preserve in one form or another. In colonial America surviving records of this kind—as of every other kind—are most abundant for New England. The men who founded and governed Massachusetts and Connecticut took themselves so seriously that they kept track of everything they did for the benefit of posterity and hoarded their papers so carefully that the whole history of the United States, recounted mainly by their descendants, has often appeared to be the history of New England writ large. The new social history, too, began here with the studies of various New England towns, where local records and family papers made possible not only the “reconstitution” of the families living at a particular time but also much of the network of relationships that bound them together in towns and counties.
New England records are sparse and sporadic by comparison with those available in France (where the new history began) and England, and the records of the other English colonies in America are even more fragmentary, especially in the South. The southern colonists were not preoccupied with their own historical significance and mostly did not bother even to make the records of births, marriages, and deaths that they required of themselves by law. Nor did they write accounts of what they were up to for the benefit of posterity, and if they wrote and received letters they did not squirrel them away for their descendants. What is more, from 1860 to 1864 they fought a devastating war on their own ground against their record-keeping brethren to the north.
Nowhere was the devastation of that war more damaging to historical documents that in Virginia, where virtually all the central records of the colony were lost in the burning of Richmond. Historians are left only with a number of local county records and stray family papers, and whatever can be gleaned from records preserved in England and from archaeological digs. On the basis of these bits and pieces, during the past ten or fifteen years the new social history has moved on Virginia. Entering by way of nearby Maryland, where the records are somewhat better, the historians have begun to piece together the contours of a society that contrasts dramatically not only with New England but with contemporary England as well. It has been an exacting if challenging process, requiring extrapolation from isolated bits of evidence to recover even such…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.