Here, on Cape Cod, Orleans historian Bonnie Snow leads a cemetery walk under the aegis of the Orleans Historical Society. A spry woman in her seventies, she introduces us to eighteenth- through early twentieth-century inhabitants of the town beside their gravestones. She connects them by referring to the writings of two townswomen: the 1857 diary of Susan Maria Sparrow (1833-1910) and the letters to her aunt by Mary Eldridge (1796-1875). Sparrow taught in a local school. Her husband, Joseph K. Mayo, Jr., formerly a mariner, farmed land in South Orleans owned by Sparrow. Her diary was recently discovered behind an attic wall. Eldridge was married to John Doane, who served as a member of the Massachusetts legislature and of the Governor’s Council, and was elected state senator in 1838. So what? Well, apart from the curious fact that neither Sparrow nor Eldridge so much as mentions her husband in her writings, the stories Snow has compiled from what historians now term ego documents form an incremental microcosm of recent American history.
John Doane and Mary Eldridge’s son Thomas Doane introduced nitroglycerin to tunneling, using it in the construction of the infamous Hoosac Railroad Tunnel in northwest Massachusetts as its chief engineer between 1863 and 1867. Subsequently chief engineer of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, he named one of the towns in its course for his hometown. With Doane, we follow white colonial expansion westward from Orleans, Massachusetts to Orleans, Nebraska. Susan Sparrow’s relatives also affected national affairs. Her maternal grandfather Joshua Crosby was a gun captain on board the USS Constitution. He is reputed to have fired the shot that brought down the mizzenmast of the HMS Guerriere leading to her capture in 1812. Her younger brother Benjamin Sparrow was prominent in the nativist, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party, which achieved electoral success in Massachusetts in 1854. In 1871, the US Life-Saving Service was formed in succession to the various volunteer organizations that had sought to aid mariners in distress. Sparrow’s standing was sufficient for him to be appointed the first superintendent on the Cape when that position was created in 1873, a post he retained through various changes of administration until 1904. He died in 1906. Four years later, his elder sister, the school teacher and author of the diary recently discovered behind an attic wall, died at the age of seventy-seven.
Headstones in a cemetery, letters to an aunt, and a succinct daily diary are strands of a thread from Orleans, Massachusetts that can be twisted to form the cordage of local, regional, and national history. I honor local history. Yes, a fair proportion of practitioners are untrained as historians, and many come to their enthusiasm through a fascination with the past of their own families, then their hometowns, seldom further. Yet local need not be parochial. When Bonnie Snow wrote an article for the Orleans Historical Society Newsletter about two World War II servicemen from Orleans stationed on Tinian (base of the Enola Gay, of Hiroshima A-bomb fame) in which she discussed senninbari (Japanese soldiers’ apotropaic belts, each sewn with a thousand stitches), some locals felt she had strayed too far from Orleans affairs. On the contrary. She demonstrated that following local threads leads you ever outward, helping the curious discover the world and the large-scale weavings of its history.