Technology has been a boon to historians. What a joy to conduct research without leaving the house. You can now read
ancient tomes on line using Google books, read mini-biographies at Wikipedia, and look at panoramic maps on the Library of
Congress web site.
Of course, nothing beats going to museums to view artifacts and immerse yourself in objects from long ago. And if you’re going to conduct a walking tour, you must go out into the field to visit buildings, interview neighbors, and get a sense of the place. And then there’s a problem with inaccuracies, such as “He died at age 53 in 1876,” when the math doesn’t add up to 53, but 43.
Still, the information available through the Internet can enrich our understanding of the past, and bring us details that would take us ages to find by combing through old records, if indeed we had access and knew where to look.
Recently when I was preparing for a Cheney Mansion walking tour, a fellow historian mentioned that Ward Cheney (1813-1876)
was involved in the Spiritualism movement, popular at several periods during the nineteenth century. This would be
fascinating information to include in an October event, when we’re thinking about the various spirits out and about around
Spiritualism was a new-age-type movement, which held that the living could communicate with the dead, often with the help of a medium, sometimes at a séance. In an age when loved ones died tragically young, desperate parents wanted to believe that they could communicate again with their dear departed children.
Kate Fox (1838–1892), a young medium from New York, stayed with the Cheneys in the mid-1800s. There’s a framed conté-crayon portrait of her on a wall at the Homestead, drawn by Ward Cheney’s brother, Seth.
You can find a biography of Kate Fox at Wikipedia.com, the popular Internet site similar to an encyclopedia. (You can also read the 1891 book “Catalogue of the Engraved and Lithographed Work of John Cheney and Seth Wells Cheney,” written by Seth’s wife, author Ednah Dow Cheney, at http://books.google.com/books.)
Kate Fox was famous for interpreting table rappings as messages to the living from the dead. During her dramatic life, Kate Fox attracted notable people from “the higher social circles,” including William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, and Horace Greeley. She and her sister, Margaret, also a medium, traveled extensively, and unfortunately both the young girls began to drink wine, a “pernicious habit” that may have led to Kate’s alcoholism. In later life, she told the press that she had invented the messages from the dead to make money. However she had earned a substantial payment for making the confession to the newspaper, and she later recanted it.
Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886) also visited the Cheneys – he was not only a medium, but could levitate, and there were many of the rich and famous in America and Europe who invited him to stay with them. Per Wikipedia: “Home's breakthrough came in August 1852, in South Manchester, Connecticut, at the house of Ward Cheney, a successful silk manufacturer. Home was seen to levitate twice and then rise to up to the ceiling, with louder rappings and knocking than ever before, more aggressive table movements and the sounds of a ship at sea in a storm, although persons present said that the room was badly lit so as to see the spirit lights.”
Ward and his wife had lost a child, and this may have led to the Cheneys’ connection with spiritualism, and the hope of talking to the youngster.
In Google books, researchers can read Appleton's “Cyclopædia of American Biography” to find out more about Ward Cheney,
a member of the Cheney generation that founded the famous silk mills. This 1888 book, by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske,
says that Ward Cheney is “known in business circles as a generous and progressive man…who frequently aided young men
beginning mercantile life.” Ward had early on worked in Providence, Rhode Island, in dry goods, then in Burlington, New
Jersey in silk manufacturing, and came back to Manchester to work with his brothers, of whom, the Cyclopædia says,
“...their relations with their workmen afforded a rare instance of cordiality and affection.”
The brothers “established the model manufacturing village of South Manchester, with cottage homes, a spacious and architecturally elegant hall and theatre, where dramatic and other entertainments are given gratis and religious exercises are held on Sundays, a school, a library and reading room, boarding-houses and pleasure-grounds.”
The book of course is referring to Cheney Hall, and the many worker houses that the Cheneys built. Several other Cheney biographies are contained in the Cyclopædia.
Old maps available on line show that the Cheney family’s houses were originally quite close to Hartford Road, rather
than spread across the Great Lawn, as we see them today. In a wonderful 1850 map online at
http://magic.lib.uconn.edu (look for historical town maps) the names of property
owners are listed next to the houses, rather than the names of streets, so you can see where the Cheneys owned property.
On line at the Library of Congress, you can find rich panoramic maps from 1880 and 1914. Go to http://memory.loc.gov and in the search box, type Panoramic Map South Manchester.
The government provides information on patents, which you can find through www.google.com/patents and by typing a
subject into the search box. In the case of a Cheney mansion walking tour, I might want to show participants some Cheney
fabric. So I typed in Cheney Design for Fabric, and found hundreds of patents, dating from 1881 to 1939. The images of the
designs are lovely. Many were invented outside of the silk mills, and assigned to Cheney Brothers. I was surprised at the
number of female designers.
For census data, go to www.us-census.org/states/connecticut and you can find data, some of it transcribed, and all of it fascinating. For example, the 1790 census does contain data on Timothy Cheney, the grandfather of the silk-magnate Cheney Brothers, but it spells the last name with two e’s, which is how the family pronounces the name, but not how the family spells the name. The 1790 census also tells how many slaves the family owns. The Pitkin family, but not the Cheneys, did own slaves. If you’re looking for pre-1823 data, remember that we were part of East Hartford.
You can read old Hartford Courant editions on line. Go to the Manchester library web site
Library and select
iConn Databases, and follow the prompts. You’ll need to put in your library account number, which is printed on
When you enter the iConn database, pick Link to Individual Resources, then pick Historical Hartford Courant, then click on the multiple databases button to choose individual newspapers and periodicals. Click continue, and then enter the subject and dates.
For example, you can read the June 1874 obituary of Charles Cheney, Ward’s brother, which contains a summary of the history of the mills, as well as numerous compliments about the deceased: “He set an example to business men of an unfeverish pursuit of his calling, and of a happy spirit which made the most of this beautiful world. As to his integrity and high character, his devoted friendships, his quick sympathy with all who suffered, his modesty, his love of all virtues, these are proverbial ... Such men are the best pillars of society; their memory is one of its best treasures.” Newspapers don’t write such laudatory news obituaries any more, although families can purchase newspaper space for lengthy obituaries that they write themselves.
Just remember that newspapers have been known to make mistakes and it’s best to double-check information before relying on it. In fact, any online resources can contain errors, a frustration somewhat balanced by convenience, but troublesome nonetheless.
Check in this Manchester Historical Society web site for easy overviews of history and listings of our events.
Just as in library research, you can get lost in Internet research. You can come upon interesting tidbits and lose sight
of your goal. The next thing you know it’s four hours later! But it’s not wasted time – the research on those tidbits may
come in handy some time.
By the way, if you don’t have a computer at home, the Manchester libraries not only have computers, they have helpful staff who can untangle you if you lose your way in the patents and panoramic maps. Happy researching!
Below is a group of images referenced in the text above. Click each icon to see an enlarged view of the
picture, along with explanatory information.