Filson Finds: the Bodley Family Papers

We are pleased to present a new section of the John Filson Blog: Filson Finds.

Every researcher has had that great moment when they come across the document they have been searching for, seemingly forever!  Or that moment when they suddenly realize that the thing they have been looking for has been right in front of them all along!

We thought that our researchers might like to share some of their finds with us and so we have asked some of our recent Filson Fellows to contribute to Filson Finds over the next few weeks.  We hope that if any of you reading the blog would like to contribute one of your Filson Finds that you will send it in to us as well!

Filson Finds: the Bodley Family Papers

By Edward J. Blum

So much depends on one little letter, or at least it seems to in the case of Sarah or Sara Bodley. During my research time at the Filson Historical Society, I spent hours poring over the Bodley Family Papers. It was a treasure trove of Civil War era information. The Bodleys wrote one another about business, politics, family, and religion. The letters were funny (like when one man wrote that he wanted to see Santa Anna “in a cage, as a show”). But the more time I spent with the Bodleys, the more I felt an undercurrent of sadness. And one letter seemed to tell the difference.

The file folders list her as “Sarah G. Bodley” but as I read her letters, it seemed like the “h” dropped out over time. Before the 1850s, Sarah had been Sarah. But in the early 1850s, her signature seemed only as Sara. By 27 February 1855, it was definitely only Sara. Was this the same person? Was Sara Bodley the same as Sarah Bodley? Was she simply being lazy with her penmanship? I’m not sure why, but this slight changed caught my attention.

Signature from undated letter (c. 1848-1849) from Sarah G. Bodley to her god-daughter, Ann Bodley. BODLEY FAMILY PAPERS, 1773-1939

Signature from undated letter (c. 1848-1849) from Sarah G. Bodley to her god-daughter, Ann Bodley. BODLEY FAMILY PAPERS, 1773-1939

Signature from February 27, 1855 letter from Sarah G. Bodley to her god-daughter, Ann Bodley. BODLEY FAMILY PAPERS BODLEY FAMILY PAPERS, 1773-1939

Signature from February 27, 1855 letter from Sarah G. Bodley to her god-daughter, Ann Bodley. BODLEY FAMILY PAPERS, 1773-1939

Maybe it was because I had become obsessed with little things. You see, only a few years earlier, I had become a father. All of a sudden, little hands, little mouths, and little murmurs became so meaningful. And then, when my son became sick at four months, it was little machines and technologies that kept him alive. Little tubes pumped food into his little belly. Little monitor nodes revealed how he was getting less and less oxygen to his blood. When he died at eight months, it was a little casket we bought. We called him our “little star” on his gravestone.

With my last moments at the Filson, I returned to the Bodley papers to try and discern why Sarah may have changed her name to Sara. Since the Bodleys were steeped in the Bible personally and since I knew as a historian that mid nineteenth century Americans were steeped in the Bible (heck, Abraham Lincoln had famously said that “both read the same Bible” of the Civil War), I considered the biblical background for such a change. In the biblical book of Genesis, there is a Sara who becomes Sarah. It was Abraham’s wife (or Abram, as he was first known). Although childless, God promised Sara and Abram children. As part of the interaction, God changed their names to Sarah and Abraham. Part of the promise of kingdom through children, they had these new names.

Sarah Bodley went in the reverse. She went from Sarah to Sara. And, sadly enough, she experienced what my family had: the death of a child. In the Bodleys case, however, it wasn’t just one child. They lost many. A family chart shows the deaths of several of her children. It is a grueling testimony to the realities of nineteenth-century life, when infant mortality rates were still high.

Chart showing family of Harry Bodley and Sarah Bodley. BODLEY FAMILY PAPERS, 1773-1939

Chart showing family of Harry Bodley and Sarah Bodley. BODLEY FAMILY PAPERS, 1773-1939

I sat quietly at the Special Collections table. I felt my pain and imagined hers. I guessed that Sarah Bodley altered her name to Sara as an homage to the loss of several of her children. If the biblical Sara received an “h” with children then this Sarah would lose an “h.” I thought maybe it was a way to honor her children. Maybe it was a way to subtly snub God. Sara Bodley did not indicate why she altered her signed name, and maybe it was all in my head. But for me, sitting with the collections, I felt bitter gratitude to think once again of little things, the things that make up so much life, the things that make life meaningful.

 

Edward J. Blum is a professor in the Department of History at San Diego State University. His most recent work is Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (LSU Press, 2015). He was a Ballard Breaux Visiting Fellow at the Filson Historical Society in the Spring of 2014.

Please send your own Filson Finds to LeeAnn Whites, Director of Research (lwhites@filsonhistorical.org)

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