“What’s the oldest thing in your collection?” asks a student during every high school research trip to the archives. It’s the question that weighs on a lot of historically minded people when they step into our space. The answer may be different today than it will be tomorrow. Don’t be mad that if you ask this question, my answer will always ride along with the caveat, TODAY, we believe the oldest item to be…
It was a Monday morning when I innocently geared up to create a Facebook post on the Macpherson House. I took the last swig of my lukewarm coffee and got to work. First task was to find photographs of the Macpherson house as it changed through time. Simple enough. Then my colleague Lisa says, “what about that box labelled ‘Macpherson House’ on shelf [BEEP], it has photographs.” That sounded promising. Lisa has been working on a collection inventory, a full review of the collection, and has an anecdotal knowledge of box placement I can only imagine.
The box comes out and the expected photographs are great examples of the Macpherson House as it changed through time. Perfect. Then it starts. Anyone who has done historical research or tried to watch just one Youtube video at a time knows exactly what happened next. I start down a rabbit hole, a phenomenon that happens regularly in our line of work. Jim Sova, one of our dedicated volunteers, has this problem every time he loads a newspaper microfilm reel onto the machine. Jim’s been digitally preparing our local papers to be keyword searchable. He says some days it takes longer than it should as he goes down the rabbit hole of social musings in the community news sections. His solution is listening to a podcast (specifically Malcolm Gladwell’s Revitionist History – an excellent podcast, by the way) while he works with the papers. It’s difficult to listen to Malcolm Gladwell and read about Mabel’s delightful trip to Kingston all at the same time.
Jim Sova listening to Revisionist History
I start sifting through the rest of the box. Records of the Macpherson/Fisher families start to spill out. Without Revitionist History playing in my ear, I went to the rabbit hole, jumped in, and hopped around in it for a while. The records include Allan Macpherson’s military order papers, a baptismal record, and what appears to be a draft of the original Napane [sic] Mills poster by Macpherson in 1819. Then I struck gold in that box. Today, I believe the oldest original item in our archives is a 1774 testificate of John and Mary Fisher. A testificate was required for travel between parishes in Scotland, a character reference if you will, used in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The Fisher’s brought it all the way to Canada and here it remains. John and Mary are the grandparents of Allan Macpherson’s wife, Mary Fisher. No, this original document was not created in our county but the Fisher/Macpherson families sure were vital to this area’s economic growth and success. Let’s not be too hard on the testificate’s Scottish heritage.
Hopping around the rabbit hole investigating the Fisher family for way too long led me to another fascinating item in our collection. Here’s the thing: until you have reason to compile all resources on a subject or family, you don’t always know what’s waiting in the boxes to be discovered. In this case, it was a rediscovery. There are folks out there familiar with these records, I’m sure, but when you’ve only been at an archives for four years, rediscovery happens all the time. I went beyond the archives walls (virtual walls) and found our museum holds a beautiful hand beaded and embroidered purse from 1804 with the name ‘Mary Fisher’ stitched on the front. Wow. Her grandparents’ 1774 testificate and now a purse Mary Fisher made and used in the early 1800s. There’s more about the Fisher family and purse from our curatorial team here.
I can with some measure of certainty say to the next person who asks, the oldest original document in our archival collection is a testificate from 1774. That feels good to say until I rediscover the next oldest thing. And the Macpherson House Facebook post was never completed. It’s a small price to pay for the trip down this particular rabbit hole because I definitely escaped into a gold mine.
For more information on the documents highlighted here, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.