It’s long been a challenge for those researching ancestors who may have been illiterate, poor, or marginalized to learn about their heritage. Institutions like the Litchfield Historical Society were founded and began collecting during the Colonial Revival, a time when there was tension over immigration and clashes between races, classes, and nationalities. Our founders were the descendants of wealthy white immigrants from Western Europe who wished to preserve their history by saving their ancestor’s decorative arts, artifacts, and papers, predominantly those of men.
While we continue working to make our collections more representative and inclusive of all the people who made Litchfield home, a lot of the town’s early history of women, minorities, and the natives displaced by the settlers was lost, or perhaps never documented at all.
Twenty-six slaves are listed in Litchfield’s 1790 census including Sylvia Stocker, one of two people enslaved by Isaac Baldwin, Sr. Like all other slaves, she is recorded by number, not by name. In 1805, when Sylvia was 33, Baldwin’s heirs petitioned the Town Selectmen for her freedom and received their approval. Sylvia lived to be 64, and her will is recorded in Litchfield’s town records. Remarkably, she left her small library to the Town Selectmen for use by the poor.
Maria Tallmadge was the daughter of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge and Mary Floyd Tallmadge. She was born in Litchfield in 1790 and attended the Litchfield Female Academy from 1802-1802. According to Emily Noyes Vanderpoel’s Chronicles of a Pioneer School, Tallmadge “took a prominent part in the school theatricals.” Virgil Maxcy was from Attleboro, MA. He was born May 5, 1785 to Levi and Ruth Newell Maxcy. Following his graduation from Brown College, Maxcy studied law in Litchfield, where the two likely met.
This letter, written April 20, 1779, is one of my favorite pieces of correspondence from the Benjamin Tallmadge Collection. It clearly conveys the danger of the enterprise undertaken by the members of the Culper Ring and their acute awareness of the extraordinary risks they were taking. Tallmadge writes to Washington enclosing intelligence gathered by his agents about British activities in Rhode Island. The letter expresses the difficulties present in getting information to Headquarters expediently, writing, “I have urged by Letter & Verbally the plan of forwarding Letters by some shorter Route to Hd Qrs. – C – wishes, as much as your Excellency to hit on some more speedy mode of Conveyance, but after all his Enquiry finds such a step very dangerous & difficult.”
One of the spycraft methods employed by Benjamin Tallmadge and the Culper Ring was the use of a code. Tallmadge developed a code dictionary and shared it with General Washington. Although this dictionary is not part of our collection, we are fortunate to be able to access Washington’s copy, now preserved by the Library of Congress. A transcribed version is available on the Mount Vernon website.