A Brief History: The “Quaker Project” of the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society
If George Fox, the moving force whose vision, energy, and leadership inspired and directed the religious movement that became known as the “Society of Friends,” had not required his followers to keep very specific records and minutes of their activities and built systems to enforce their faithful execution at the monthly meeting level, there would be no records to preserve and transcribe.
Likewise, if Donald Lines Jacobus, described by genealogist Milton Rubicam as “the man who more than any other single individual elevated genealogy to the high degree of scholarship it now occupies,” had not established the modern standards of sourcing and citation in genealogy that have been so widely followed, we might not have appreciated the great value of the Friends’ records to genealogical research.
Among the founding members of the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society (DHAS) in 2011 were families with long pedigrees connected with the Society of Friends, and especially the Dartmouth Monthly Meeting. One of the founders, Marcia Cornell Glynn, has been a long-time member of the Board of Directors and still remains an Honorary Member of the Board. She played a key role in educating the DHAS about the important role played by Dartmouth Friends in historically significant events in our area, in Massachusetts, and, actually, in the country at large. Her brother, Russell Cornell, lately deceased, was not only an active DHAS member but also a ‘weighty’ elder in the Dartmouth Monthly Meeting (DMM).
In July 2017, Glynn delivered an illustrated lecture to a substantial collection of Dartmouth history buffs and Friends, at the venerable Apponegansett meeting House in Russells Mills, a village within the town of Dartmouth. She noted that the original town of “Old Dartmouth” (to distinguish it from the present town) now includes a city and four towns: New Bedford, Dartmouth. Westport, Fairhaven, and Acushnet and that in colonial times the Religious Society of Friends was the predominate religious affiliation of its residents. Her lecture generated substantial interest and local discussion, especially within the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society.
Just a year after her talk, on July 22, 2018, Katherine Plant, a director of DHAS, spoke at the yearly meeting of the Dartmouth Monthly Meeting. Kathy was supported with slides and a PowerPoint presentation prepared by DHAS President, Robert E. Harding, and the lecture was video-taped by another director, Dan Socha, the group’s webmaster and technical leader. Anne Lopoulos, a leader of the Dartmouth Monthly Meeting, chaired the meeting and introduced Kathy. Several years prior, an unfortunate experience with another local museum and historical society had caused the Dartmouth Monthly Meeting to remove their collection of delicate record books from that museum’s custody for fear that frequent and unsupervised use by museum patrons entailed too much risk. Nevertheless, the Monthly Meeting was well aware of the need to find another way by which these fragile, environmentally sensitive records might be consulted. Participants in the meeting from both groups agreed that perhaps the DHAS might assist the Monthly Meeting by arranging for the records to be “digitized.” A digital record would eliminate the need for frequent handling. After a review of the concept by the Monthly Meeting, formal papers were drawn up granting the DHAS permission to undertake the project.
Two DHAS leaders had extensive professional experience and practical knowledge with information systems design and data processing in business. After extensive discussions within the Board of Directors, Dan Socha, assisted by Bob Harding, took the lead in creating a process to get the job done. Early in the process, DHAS received significant and much appreciated guidance from Jane Fletcher Fiske, a veteran transcriber of colonial records and respected genealogist. This timely input started the undertaking off on the right foot by developing fundamental guidelines for transcription that prevented many time-consuming errors.
Although the process created to digitize, transcribe, review, quality-check, and post material on the DHAS website was entirely a DHAS creation, it is a ‘generic system’ that could also be used for similar collections of historical records. Thus, the process was thoroughly documented to preserve it for future utilization. Like most complex information systems, this one is composed of several ‘sub-systems’, each one contributing to the final results. But for our purposes here the details are less important than the overall goal: digitizing original records and preparing computer-ready transcriptions, faithful to the original manuscripts.
DHAS director Dan Socha went quickly to work, collecting the record books from the DMM and beginning the tedious process of scanning and creating image files. Dan’s process was well described by local journalist Chloe Shelford writing in Dartmouth Week on December 25, 2018:
When he decided to digitize the archive, Socha began researching how the experts—libraries, universities, and the government—scanned large historical documents, and built his own version of what those organizations use. His camera is mounted to a contraption that can be moved both up and down and forward and back over a table lit with clamp lights. “These are my really high-end lights from Home Depot,” joked Socha. For larger documents, like maps, Socha will take photos of overlapping sections of the document and knit them together on his computer. All the photos are very high resolution (and very large files), which are transferred immediately to the computer. So Socha manually reduces the file size as much as possible without losing quality.
Simultaneously, Dan and Bob (with assistance from a growing cadre of project volunteers) set about designing and fitting together all of the subsystems needed to insure the faithful capture and transcription of the handwritten records into an accurate record that could be stored and searched via computers.
The Dartmouth Quaker records have a special value to genealogists and historians for specific reasons that can be briefly summarized as follows: (1) They are ‘primary’ sources, recorded at the time the events occurred by reliable clerks of the DMM, (2) Because of the Friends’ particular custom of patiently repeating issues and waiting for general acceptance by the whole meeting, some events are often repeated over multiple months (and sometimes in both the Women’s and the Men’s minutes); these repetitious entries provide multiple opportunities to insure the correct spelling of names and the details of most of the incidents chronicled. (3) All the minutes are dated, thus placing them accurately within a timeline, and (4) The Quaker requirement for ‘certificates of removal’ when individuals or families moved from the jurisdiction of one monthly meeting to another (whether for marriage, visiting, preaching, or permanent relocation) yield very detailed information about patterns of geographic migration, since they specify locations, people, and specific times.
After careful planning and systems design, recruitment of a team, the parceling out of various roles, and training participants, this very ambitious project, took off at a steady pace, and, one by one, various volumes of the DMM record books were processed to completion, which included posting the transcribed version on the DHAS website along with images of the original manuscripts. Each and every volunteer, as well as the various professional firms engaged, accomplished their tasks with careful coordination by Project Manager, Dan Socha.
While we at DHAS were, as a team, pulling on the oars with a steady rhythm and making remarkable progress, we encountered a tragedy that shook us to the core. Dan, our project leader and technical expert discovered that he had a serious, life threatening illness. Dan played so many key roles on the project team, and within DHAS more generally, that this sudden news faced us with several immediate problems that needed thoughtful attention. Dan and president Bob Harding had a brief time to make some hasty plans to cope with the inevitable, fast-approaching reality.
Fortunately among the many capable and talented volunteers on the project team, there was one in particular with a very high level of relevant experience and skill who volunteered to take over his key role as Project Manager: Andrea Marcovici. Andrea has done a wonderful job, and the project has not missed a beat in the transition. Likewise, many of the other roles that Dan performed have gradually been filled by other volunteers within the organization. This has been a testimony not only to our resilience, but also to our esteem and love for our friend Dan Socha, to whom we dedicate this work.
As they are completed, all of the transcribed DMM records are being made available to the public at: https://dartmouthhas.org/quaker-transcriptions.html. The DHAS has also established contractual arrangements with the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the New England Historic Genealogical Society to publish different subsets of the DMM Quaker Records Project. A fully searchable form of the eighteenth century records can be seen at www.colonialsociety.org/publications, and the removal records are available at https://www.americanancestors.org/search/databasesearch/2796/dartmouth-ma-quaker-records-1699-1920. As time permits, the DHAS intends to explore even more ways to distribute additional results in further publications.
Robert E. Harding, President
Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society