11 July 2017

Founding Era of DC as Seen Through the Eyes (and Papers) of Women

Founding Era of DC as Seen Through the Eyes (and Papers) of Women

The Library of Congress recently put online two collections that will interest not just historians and also genealogists. First person perspective both through intentional writings and in the documents one leaves behind just really enrich our research as we learn more about the people, places and dynamics of a locale where our ancestors may have lived.

As stated in the blog post about Margaret Bayard Smith’s Papers …

For anyone interested in the founding era in Washington, D.C., the writings of Margaret Bayard Smith (1778–1844) and Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton (ca. 1775–1865) and are essential sources. Both lived their entire adult lives in the capital city and, as members of the city’s elite, were friends with one another and important political figures of the era. Their proximity to power made them unusual, but their writings also illustrate what it was like to be a woman in the early republic…

Beyond revealing her emotions and private life, the papers are rich with details of the politics of the early national era. Readers can get a further taste of the richness of Smith’s writing in her 1809 accounts of James Madison’s inauguration (original and published transcription) and her visit to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello (original and published transcription). Those looking for political references will find the most in the correspondence with her sisters, Maria Bayard Boyd and Jane Bayard Kirkpatrick. Discussions of religion and slavery are found throughout the papers. The eight reels of microfilm now online are helpfully broken down by date, correspondent’s name or both in the finding aid.

As stated in the blog post about Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton …

Thornton came from much more humble origins than Smith. She was born around 1775 to Ann Brodeau, who emigrated to Philadelphia from England that year to establish a school. The identity of her father is a mystery. He may have been English clergyman William Dodd, who was hanged for forgery two years later. At only 15, she married 31-year-old William Thornton, an architect from the British West Indian island of Tortola. He helped plan the capital city, designed the United States Capitol and served as head of the Patent Office.

The couple came to Washington in 1792, before the city was built, and, like the Smiths, became fixtures of the Washington elite. While William Thornton is better known, and a volume of his writings has been published—the Manuscript Division also has a large collection of his papers—Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton’s writings are an important source of information about daily life in Washington.


What most surprised you about these women as documented in their papers?

What was your favorite find? 

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