When we want to learn something about history, we turn to the text books, or in this day and age, we go to Google and type in the topic we’re interested in. It’s fascinating to hear what the books and articles have to say, but more often than not, it’s what the people from his- tory themselves have to say that is the most captivating. “How is that possible?” you might ask. After all, the historical people of interest may be long dead, and are therefore no longer speaking out loud. However, they do speak, and what they have to say is right there for historians (or anyone who has the time and patience) to read.
I’m talking about primary source documents. Primary sources are documents that were created or written by or about the subject which you are researching. They are letters, essays, newspaper articles, account books, diaries, wills and so forth. These documents are a window into the past, and sometimes into the minds of their creators. They can tell us so many things about who made or wrote them and the time they lived in and are invaluable when it comes to quality historical research.
Unfortunately primary sources can often be few and far between, and sometimes entirely nonexistent. For example, the United States census of 1890 was completely destroyed by a fire in the building that was housing the documents. Now genealogists are left trying to put the pieces together and fill in the missing spaces when researching their family history.
Lucky for us, the Winslow family and those who knew them left quite a bit of primary source material that helps us learn about who they were, what they did, and what was important to them. John Winslow, (1703-1774), kept a diary and letters, many of which are preserved by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Pilgrim Hall Museum. In a series of letters written between Winslow and Governor William Shirley, it becomes evident to the reader just how much military power John Winslow had. In a letter written in March of 1755, Governor Shirley invested significant military authority in John Winslow:
“I do hereby authorise, and im- power John Winslow Esqr. to beat his Drum any where within this Province, for enlisting Voluntiers for his Majts. Service in a Regiment to be forthwith raised, for the Service and Defence of His Majest. Colonies in North America, and to be Commanded by his Excelly. William Shirley Esqr. and the Coll. with the other officers of the Regiments within this Province, are hereby Commanded not to glve the sd. Jon. Winslow any Obstructions, or Molustations herein; but on the Contrary to afford him all necessary Encouragement, and assistance, for which this a sufficient Warrant.”
Primary source documents relating to military and government, although very telling, are typically easily attainable. Private documents, though, often are not. However when they are available they can give us unparalleled details into the lives of our forefathers.
One such type of document is the will, which most people who owned property would have made later in their lives and in which the person typically named who they wanted to in- herit their property. After the person died, the execu- tors of the estate usually conducted an inventory of the deceased belongings which gives historians excellent clues about the financial and socio-economic status of those in the household.
The will of Isaac Winslow, written in 1736, lists specific material belongings that were important to him. Winslow wrote: “I Give to my Son John Winslow my Seel Ring. I Give to my Son Edward all my other Rings & my Sword or Rapiers: Also, I Give to my Sons all my armes & wareing apparrel to be Equally Divided Between them “. In the inventory conducted of Isaac Winslow’s estate (including the current Winslow House), it is clear that he was a man of means with “looking glasses”, “Armes” and “Servants” being listed. It is also evident that he operated a working farm, with “Cattle” “Plows, Hoes, Chains, Yokes, Horse Gears” and “Dung Forks” also listed.
Women are sometimes underrepresented in primary source documents especially in the earlier periods. However, Sarah Wensley Winslow, wife of Isaac Winslow, left a will when she died in 1756 that gives us great insight into her life . Among her belongings were a “feather bed”, a “Velvet Cloak”, a “Velvet Handkerchief”, a “Silk Handker- chief” a “Gold necklass & locket”, a “pr Gold buttons” and a “pr Gold Earrings.” One can only assume that with so much gold jewelry and velvet clothing Sarah Winslow was living quite a comfortable life at Careswell!
Although the Winslows can no longer speak to us out loud, their voices are certainly not silent. Walking through the Winslow House gives us a way to step back in time, but primary source documents—letters, wills and diaries—gives the Winslows a voice and allows them to tell their stories.
Executive Director, Historic 1699 Winslow House and Cultural Center
A special thanks to board member Cynthia Krusell who has spent a significant amount of time with the Winslow Family’s primary source documents and who has done a remarkable job at bringing their history to life.
Thanks also to Karin Goldstein, Curator at Plimoth Plantation, who has made these records available to me.