Archival Fragments

Part of the challenge of researching Black history in the archives is confronting the colonialism and racism that exists in the archive. Many of the resources available to research, whether digital or physical archives, are created by or preserved by governmental authorities. The records reflect and give voice to those with power. There has been a scarcity in material within the archives to truly seek out the voices of Black individuals in Keene. Their lives are primarily visible to us through the lens of surveillance and institutional procedures. “Recovering” these histories becomes an opportunity to critically examine the absences, and also the presences, of Black lives in the archive. How can we read against the archival grain to uncover more about the complexities of historical memory? In what ways does the traditional archive affect our abilities to tell these histories?

As Maria Fuentes describes in her book, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, “it was the context and the manner in which enslaved women were silenced that provoked [her] focus on addressing this process of erasure and the violence of their physical, historical, and archival condition” (145). Fuentes uses her book to not only bring enslaved women to the foreground of her historical inquiries, but she also addresses the systemic colonial and racial violence that shapes the way they are remembered and treated through the archive (5). I hope that this collection will illuminate not only the individual stories of those in Keene in the 19th century, but also illuminate the challenges to working within the archive. The choices made not only by the historian, but the archivist, matter. I believe implementing reparative metadata is one method of seeking justice for those violated by white-supremacist archival and historical memory. 

As I had joined the project as an archival researcher in the summer of 2023, I worked with Professor Baumgartner and my fellow student researchers to continue to uncover more material related to the Black history of Keene. At the time, the majority of findings were logged in a spreadsheet made by Jenna Carroll and contributed to by other volunteers. The spreadsheet indexed various historical sources, and indexed the names of individuals found in the records. This was the starting point for much further research; we had a name, or at least known of an individual through different Census and vital records, and what could we find from that? 

In the late 18th and early 19th century censuses, it is typical for only the names of heads of household to have been recorded. Everyone else simply becomes a number, typically only identified by either age, gender, and race. At times, we don’t even know their names. By focusing our attention on these individuals, what can we learn about the historical moment in which they lived, and also the legacy of that moment today? 

In 1820, a girl, under the age of 14, was enslaved by Daniel Bradford. In 1830, two people, a boy and a girl, both between the ages of 16 and 24, lived in the household of Daniel Bradford. They’re both listed as “Free Colored Persons.” Additionally, the private account against the estate of Daniel Bradford lists for the months of March, April, and May of 1838 that there was “cash to servant girl” with the sums of $1.00, $4.50 and $6.75 respectively. It is possible the girl is the same person in all three of these records. Currently, these “fragments” and “archival mentions” as Fuentes describes are all we have of this young girl living in Keene in the early 19th century. If she is the same person in all the records—which could be likely—we can begin to think about the impact of coming of age while also, perhaps, becoming free. We can think about even if free, the incompleteness of her trace in the archive by being referred to as “servant girl,”—the process of erasure even more powerful that it obscures someone repeatedly. Between Henry Hemmenway, who is the subject of an 1834 ran away advertisement posted by Daniel Bradford, and the girl who is paid multiple times by Bradford in 1838, we can begin to think deeper about adverse historical relationships of labor. Hemmenway is an indented servant, meaning he likely was contractually bound to labor for Daniel Bradford. How do conditions of labor change, or persist, through emancipation? These are questions to further investigate. 

These different records speak to the history of the events they record, but even more importantly and evidently, the racialized systems that dominate and dictate their creation. As I begin the process of identifying individuals for searchability in the site through different fields of metadata, I think of the girl in these census and probate records, and the ways in which people are violated by the archive. I have attempted to center her, and others, in fields such as the title. I hope through these exhibit posts, an effort can be made towards visibility of their histories and transparency of the violent archive. I encourage us to understand the observational constraints of these archival fragments, but to also contemplate more open interpretations of said historical material. 


To learn more about Escaped Ads in New Hampshire, check out researcher Laurel Schlegel's site on Escaped Ads New Hampshire, 1800-1815. 



Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. doi:10.9783/9780812293005.

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