Working from Home to Transcribe History

Be sure to check out the PHMC Events Calendar for online events at Trails of History sites. The Trailheads Rec Room pages to the right of your screen have wide array of puzzles, activities, videos, and collections highlights - all available 24/7.

Today we have a guest post from Faith Denny, who recently took on a remote transcription project as a volunteer. Faith lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband Joshua and their cat, Colby. She works in journalism and is studying to earn a master's in library and information science, with a concentration in archives management. Faith worked with Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums curator Rachel Yerger, who has written several posts about curatorial work for Trailheads (most recently in April and May).


This year, we have certainly had to overcome new challenges by not being able to safely meet or congregate in person as much as we would like. However, it has also provided us with some new opportunities to connect virtually. Thanks to the internet, I was able to be connected with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and Rachel Yerger, a curator with the Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums in Harrisburg, for a virtual volunteer opportunity, though I live about two hours away outside Philadelphia.

Framed 18th-century document - rectangular shape, written on vellum in iron gall ink
Gilpin Land Indenture (BB85.1.35, view 1)

My work consisted of transcribing a land indenture from 1730 associated with Brandywine Battlefield Park. I was very new to transcription, especially for a document from this long ago. Rachel sent me two photographs of the indenture, of its front and back. A land indenture is similar to a deed, and this one in particular had to do with the Gilpin family. My technique was to have the photo open on one side of my computer screen, with a Word document open on the other side and I would write down whatever I saw as I saw it. The definition on the photographs was incredible, allowing me to zoom in to my heart’s content.

This project was very interesting and kept me on my toes. I had to remind myself not to change the spelling (and to watch out for autocorrect), even if the word looked incorrect or odd to my eyes. For example, the author of the indenture spelled the state’s name Pensilvania. Hickory was spelled like Hickery. There were also different terms used, such as perches, which is a form of measurement.

Inset of document - handwritten in iron gall ink, showing transfer from Joseph Gilpin Sr to Joseph Gilpin Jr
Detail of document (BB85.1.35, view 2)

Though ideally you would want to see documents like this in person with a nice magnifying glass, it is truly amazing that something like this can be done virtually. I was able to work on it at any time, from the comfort of my own home. I look forward to doing more and to learning more about the Gilpin family and that time period in American history.

Stone house showing L-shaped rear section, multiple chimneys and a bake-oven are visible
Rear view of Gideon Gilpin House at Brandywine Battlefield Park (via Facebook)

[Editor's note: the document Faith Denny transcribed (transcript) involved a transfer of property from Joseph (Sr) and Hannah Gilpin to their son Joseph Gilpin Jr. In 1745, Joseph Jr constructed the stone portion of the house shown above (the kitchen section to the left in the photo was added in 1782). Joseph Jr's son Gideon took custody of the home in 1764 (learn more about Gideon Gilpin's experiences during the Battle of Brandywine and its aftermath).

Living Our Lives Online


Tree showing fall colors with bright blue sky and a brownstone wall behind
The latest in our fall foliage series - this one from Cornwall Iron Furnace (via Facebook)

So fall is here, the weather is cooling, and COVID-19 cases are rising. The sites on PHMC's Trails of History are continuing to create new programs and events that you can access from home. If you are looking for things to do, please be sure to check out the calendar of events on the PHMC website. A new feature, it includes information from all of our Trails of History sites, conveniently in one place. The Trailheads Rec Room pages (to the right of your screen) show samples of online offerings available whenever you want them.

Rectangular wooden base with metal pieces attached used to send telegraph signals
Learn more about this telegraph key during STEAM on the Rails (photo via Facebook)

On Tuesday, I got to check out two of the sessions for the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania's STEAM on the Rails program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). One was a demonstration of steam power by the museum's Chris O'Brien, the other was an introduction to abstract art with a hands-on activity. It was fascinating to see how different students engaged with the two sessions. If you know a student in grades K through 6 who might be interested, there are still two more Tuesdays (meaning eight more individual sessions) left in the program. On Oct. 20, museum staff will demonstrate railroad telegraphy. There will be another art activity, demonstration of a coal-fired pizza oven by Eckley Miners' Village (tentative), and a visit with blacksmith Frank Gillespie. On Oct. 27, staff from Drake Well Museum and Cornwall Iron Furnace will connect oil and iron history with railroading and steam power. Sessions are by donation, but you must register to get the Zoom link. Visit Eventbrite for more details.

Black and white photo of street scene around 1865 with dirt street and two story buildings lining either side. People are standing in front of building to the right and a man sits on a horse on the left side of the street
Holmden Street in Pithole, PA, ca. 1865-77 (photo via Facebook)

On October 21 (7-8 pm), staff from Drake Well Museum and Park will present an online event to determine the "Pithole Person of the Year." They'll introduce a range of characters from the oil boomtown and then ask the audience to vote on their person of the year. The event is free (donations are welcome) and attendance is limited (tickets via Network for Good). Registrants will receive a Zoom invitation. I look forward to seeing some of you there.

Two-story wooden sided medieval style building with roof dormers. A curved path runs from the building to the front of the photo through a green lawn and there is a wooden fence with flowers planted along it.
The Sisters' House (Saron) at Ephrata Cloister (photo via Facebook)

The folks at Ephrata Cloister have launched another virtual exhibit, this one focused on the roots of Ephrata's distinctive building styles. Singular, and of Ancient Style: The Architecture of Historic Ephrata Cloister takes its title from a description by William Bromwell in 1854: "The buildings are singular, and of ancient style of architecture, all the outside wall being covered with shingles." Earlier this year, staff created an online exhibit titled Hidden Knowledge at Ephrata, exploring the complex religious traditions and theological elements that informed Ephrata's worldview.

Thinking About History

Looking for online events? Visit the new calendar on the PHMC website to find info about Trails of History programs. For virtual offerings available 24/7, visit the Trailheads Rec Room pages (to the right of your screen).

Red flowers in garden with grass and small stone building in background
Rapp House Garden at Old Economy Village, October 2019 (photo AKF)

This has been a relatively quiet week for me (i.e. only one online meeting), and I've been able to catch up on and digest some of the sessions I watched (and some I missed) during the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) virtual conference. The theme of the conference was "What Kind of Ancestor Will You Be?" and sessions explored the work of museums and historic sites to better reflect and serve their communities. I've also had time to reflect on some of the work we're doing at PHMC to advance our Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) initatives and all the resource gathering I've worked on with my colleagues. There are many downsides to our sites and offices being closed, but an unexpected upside (for me anyway) has been the ability to have online conversations with staff across the agency and across the state. Bureaucratic lines have blurred somewhat, and I sense a stronger collective purpose around telling a more inclusive story of Pennsylvania. Will it be easy? No. Will we ever be finished? No, it's a journey. But I think (and hope) there's a new collaborative energy that can make a huge difference.

So as I basked in the chance to think this week, AASLH released the report of the first phase of their "Framing History with the American Public" project. Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the project has three major goals: "1) to identify the gaps between experts' and the public's understanding of what history is and why it's valuable to society; 2) to develop and test new communcation strategies for solving those challenges; and 3) to create and deploy tools and resources to train history professionals in all sectors of our field to communicate more effectively with the public." The report, "Communicating about History: Challenges, Opportunities, and Emerging Recommendations," is available online.
"The brief notably uncovers the implicit connections that exist between privilege, power, and historical knowledge in US public thinking. It shows how mainstream historical narratives are often considered the default, while narratives of historically oppressed peoples are seen as 'optional' for many in the US public; and how people in positions of privilege tend to use their comfort level to determine what to learn and what to ignore about past injustices and trauma." ("Communicating about History: Challenges, Opportunities and Emerging Recommendations," page 2)

That's not the only finding in the report, but I think it's one of the most challenging. It speaks to something deeply ingrained and forces us (whether we're practitioners or consumers of history) to confront our "comfort levels" as we may not have done before. (One definition of privilege is "the stuff you don't have to think about.") I don't have any blinding insights on this, but I'm letting it simmer.

A tree showing red leaves stands in the middle of a grassy area, there is a small stone building to the right
Fall color at Drake Well Museum and Park (photo via Facebook)

Honoring Indigenous History

In addition to the AASLH virtual conference, last week I also attended a webinar presented by the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) called "Elevating Indigenous Voices and Stories in Interpretation." The webinar featured interpreters and other staff from California State Parks, which has entered into an agreement with the Yurok Tribe that removes some of the barriers to the Yurok people's traditional uses of their ancestral lands. These lands include what is now Patrick's Point State Park (Trinidad, CA) and a reconstructed Yurok village that is interpreted to the public. The conversation was quite emotional at times and conveyed the power of people being able to tell their community's stories in their own way. I recommend this webinar to anyone interested in historic sites and the tremendous possibilities of historical interpretation; you can find it on NAI's Facebook page.
"You can't give people a voice. You can only silence yourself and let them speak." (Skip Lowry, CA State Parks interpreter at Sumeg Village and Yurok tribal member)

Closer to home, The State Museum of Pennsylvania's Virtual Workshops in Archaeology continue today and the next two Fridays, with online lectures around the theme "The Delaware Indians: Then and Now." Check The State Museum's Facebook page for details.

The Week Ahead

Large black steam locomotive with with people standing beside it
Photo courtesy Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania

On Tuesday, Oct. 13, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania starts a three-part virtual education series, "STEAM on the Rails" (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). This week's sessions feature Chris O'Brien (Railroad Museum) on steam locomotives (10-10:30 am); Liz Bleacher (Girl Scouts in the Heart of PA) with an art program (10:30-11 am); Jennifer Kreszswick from Operation Lifesaver talking about railroad safety (2-2:30 pm); and Josh Roth (PA Lumber Museum) explaining logging equipment and simple machine concepts (2:30-3 pm). Tickets are by donation, and you must register to get the Zoom link. More sessions follow on Oct. 20 and 27, featuring Railroad Museum staff and staff from Anthracite Heritage Museum/Eckley Miners' Village, Drake Well Museum and Park, and Cornwall Iron Furnace. For details and to register, visit the Eventbrite page for this program.

According to this week's Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) foliage report, the coming week has most of the state at peak or near-peak fall color.

With funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission (via PHMC), Eckley Miners' Village Associates are hiring a Project Manager/Fundraiser (one-year contract with possibility of renewal) to develop a sustainable new business model and management plan for the site. The person hired with work closely with PHMC staff, including the State Historic Preservation Office and Division of Architecture and Preservation. For a full project description and application instructions, visit Eckley's website. Deadline to apply is November 16, 2020 (contract begins January 1, 2021).

Canopy of trees showing fall colors over a gravel path through the woods
Photo via Bushy Run Battlefield Facebook page
Bushy Run Battlefield's popular Fall Tea will be mostly virtual this year. They are currently (through Oct. 24 or until sold out) accepting orders for their "Take Home Tea" package, which includes tea, baked goods, and a cup and saucer. Take Home Tea packages will be available for pick-up between 9 and 11 am on Nov. 7; there will be an online program for participants that afternoon. Visit the Facebook event for details.