Wednesday, August 5, 2020

New collection provides researchers with first-hand accounts of 19th century life in Arkansas and surrounding states

By Fatme Myuhtar-May, archival manager for Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives

“The lights have all gone out. Like breaking hopes, they glimmed [sic] one by one and faded into darkness. Tis a queer time to commence any Journal for the year.” This is how Elizabeth “Betty” Bolling Dandridge began her diary on the night of Jan. 1, 1855, in her family home in Pontotoc, Mississippi. For the next year, almost daily, she recorded her thoughts about nature and the weather, the romantic quivers of her heart, her daily routine, visits (both paid and received), sickness and death in the  family and community and everything else that 21-year old Dandridge found worthy of including in her diary more than 165 years ago.

While the physical diary resides in the “Town Square Post Office and Museum” in Pontotoc, under the auspices of the Pontotoc County Historical Society, a scanned copy and transcription of it are an integral part of the Brown-Orne Family Papers at the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives (NEARA), a branch of the Arkansas State Archives (ASA).

Letter from the Brown-Orne Family Papers, now
a part of the NEARA collection
The collection, comprising family letters, postcards, three family bibles and other materials, was donated to NEARA by Dandridge’s great-granddaughter, Zelia Orne Bell of Kansas City, Missouri. Betty’s Diary, as it came to be known, is an important precursor to the 475 letters that were exchanged between several generations of Orne-Brown family members, mostly women, from 1855 to 1954 and are now part of the collection.

Bell inherited the trove of letters and the diary from her mother, Mary Annie Brown Zulauf, and grandmother, Lizzie Cleveland Orne Brown, who was Dandridge’s daughter. Bell took exceptional care of preserving, chronologically organizing and transcribing everything.  

Bell grew up in Tipton, Missouri, a German-Swiss community, in an intergenerational family that included her parents, her mother’s two nephews and her maternal grandparents, the Browns, who came from Arkansas. On a farm in the same community lived the Zulaufs, her paternal side of the family, including grandparents – both Swiss immigrant to the United States – two aunts and an uncle.

In a book in which she transcribes the family letters and the diary, Bell shared that the documents survived because they were securely sequestered in “Grandmother Brown’s hat box, a canvas-covered wooden box measuring about 20-by-20-by-20 inches, which sat by grandmother’s chair and contained her personal treasures.”

“As grandmother’s possession,” Bell reminisced, “it was understood that no one would dare open the hat box and disturb the contents,” including Bell.

Postcard from the Brown-Orne
Family Papers, now a part
 of the NEARA collection
As Bell’s grandparents passed away and her parents became older, the household goods – including the content of the hat box – “were moved from place to place” between Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. At one point, as Bell recollects, “there appeared on my mother’s bookshelf a small book dated 1855, filled with hand-written pages in beautiful script. Naturally, I was going to inspect the contents.”

Upon reading the diary, she not only discovered the story of a young woman, but also recognized the names and places mentioned in it, which Bell had learned from her grandfather’s stories. “To my amazement, the diary was written by Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Bolling Dandridge, my great-grandmother, and I was able to establish the family’s early presence in Pontotoc, Mississippi.”  

There are missing pages in the diary, and Bell told us the story behind it, when she and her husband, Howard Bell, delivered the collection to NEARA one summer day in 2019. A local schoolteacher had a disagreement with the younger brother of Dandridge’s sweetheart in 1855. The sweetheart accosted the schoolteacher and beat him, resulting in the death of the teacher from either the beating or a heart attack. The sweetheart was then charged with murder, although he was not convicted of it. Thus, the pages documenting the event were removed from the diary and disappeared. Dandridge’s sweetheart later moved off and married someone else. These brief notes, taken by Lindsay Penn, a long-time NEARA associate, are preserved as part of the collection’s history.

As Bell learned about her family history, she also began to organize and transcribe the contents of “Grandma Brown’s” treasure box and other family documents into a book that she titled “My Dearest Child:” Voices from the Past. In it, she painstakingly transcribed the diary and more than 450 letters in a chronological order, inserting explanatory notes about the relationships between letter writers and recipients, as well as about persons and events mentioned in the documents. She donated a copy of this binder book to NEARA as well, and it is kept as part of the collection to aid researchers in making a fuller sense of the material and in appreciating the collection’s research value.

To date, the collection has been rehoused in archival boxes and folders, with some of the most fragile letters being enclosed in clear polyester sleeves for protection. That way, researchers can examine their contents without removing them from the protective sleeves. A finding aid for the collection is currently being finalized, and it will provide information about the content and chronological arrangement of the collection, alongside information about its provenance. The finding aid, a digital copy of Betty’s Diary and sample letters with transcription will be available for viewing on the website of the Arkansas State Archives in the near future. The collection will be valuable to historians, students of history and interested researchers who seek first-hand accounts of life – in the form of family letters, particularly through the eyes of women – in a region where four states border each other: Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi.