The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Lives of Two Irish Immigrants: The Holden Family Papers Rediscovered

Several months ago a researcher visited the library and requested a small collection entitled: Holden family bills and accounts, 1842-1861. When retrieving the one box that made up the collection, Assistant Reference Librarian Jeremy Dibbell found that all the manuscripts were folded into tight packets except for one folder containing eight documents. Since this type of storage and use of the manuscripts in their current folded state was not only a danger to the documents, but also a pain for the researcher, the collection was taken to Collection Services, where it could be  unfolded and rehoused in folders. As for the researcher, he was given the one folder that contained the unfolded documents and was told we would notify him when the rest of the collection was ready for viewing. We hope we'll see him again soon!

As the title of the collection implies, it was thought by the current staff that this collection was only made up of William and Bridget Lawler Holden's business records from their shoemaking shop in Lenox, Massachusetts with a few exceptions of personal wills and inventories of their estates. When Kendra Ciccone, one of our volunteers, began unfolding the documents she discovered that all was not as it seemed.

Kendra found that there was a citizenship record for William Holden written in 1842. The record states Holden's former citizenship in Carlo(w), Ireland, his new citizenship in America, and his trade (shoemaker). There were also deeds of land purchases made by Bridget Lawler Holden in Lenox, Mass and six personal letters to William and Bridget Lawler Holden from Bridget's family and friends of the family back in Ireland. These letters date from 1852-1855, in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine and they paint a pretty gloomy picture of the state of Ireland during these years as shown in a letter from Bridget's brother, John Lawler, written on 17 March 1855, asking again for Bridget to send money to help the family:

"...therefore I am going for to say and let you no that I tuck a farm of land and fulishly built and made great improvement - But all my money was all out and the times in the country got so bad that the farmer with 2 horses and 6 cows and like so in every other thing belonging to farmer - you wole see them in this apperence on this day on on this morning fallaun that same farmer wold be in Liverpoole this is what brook me and many others in this country"

Although the majority of the collection is still accounts and receipts for the Holdens' shoemaking business, there is now just enough personal information to make the Holden family story even more intriguing. This collection provides the briefest of glimpses into the life of an Irish immigrant family that is not always seen in the history books: a family that emigrated young and prior to the devastating famine, a family that had a trade upon arrival in the new country, a family that had the means to leave the city and strike out on their own, and a family in the later years that had the wife in charge of the finances.

Like many collections donated to the Society in its earlier years, very little paperwork exists to help determine when and where this collection came from. It is suspected that it came through the Sedgwick family as the majority of William Holden's estate was left to the children of William Ellery Sedgwick. As to the relationship between the Holden and Sedgwick families, very little is known, except that William Ellery Sedgwick was the executor of both William and Bridget's wills.

Since this discovery, we have updated the catalog description of these papers to truly represent the collection. The collection has been renamed the Holden family papers (catalog record) to represent both the personal and the business portions of the collection, and the new description highlights both the personal and business aspects of the collection. Finally, with all the unfolding, the papers now reside in two boxes rather than one.

permalink | Published: Friday, 19 November, 2010, 3:12 PM


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