Preserving Five Generations of Women's Stories Through Paper and Fabric

10 Mar 2024 in

Zachary Bodnar, CLA Archivist

The Capron Family Papers collection is unique, not only because of the extraordinary life led by its central figures, Sarah and William Capron, but because of the five generations of letter writers found within the collection. Of particular note is the fact that the majority of those letters were authored by women and written to other women: from Sarah and Anne corresponding with their grandmother, Anna H. Chickering (née Titcomb); to Laura’s letters with her daughter, Annie; to Laura Capron Green’s trans-Pacific correspondence with Clara Day Capron.

This collection saw a lot of world history unfold, but more importantly, this collection saw five generations of family stay connected through letters, and preserved the memories, both good and bad, of women who were living their lives, both extraordinary and mundane.

The collection includes more than just letters. Asenath Cargill and John Capron were married on January 3, 1784, just two weeks before the Treaty of Paris was ratified by the United States Congress, marking the formal end of the American Revolutionary War. At least one fragment of her embroidered wedding dress (pictured below) was passed down to her descendants and went with her granddaughter, Asenath Cargill Green (née Spring), to Hawaii, where her husband, Jonathan Smith Green, worked as a missionary for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).

Fragment of Asenath Cargill Capron's 1784 wedding dress in the Congregational Library & Archives' collection. Photo by Zachary Bodnar.

About 30 years after Asenath Cargil Green’s death in 1894, her daughter, Laura Capron Green, still living in Hawaii, was regularly corresponding with Clara Day Capron, a distant cousin living in New England. During this correspondence, Asenath’s wedding dress fragment was given to Clara. At some point, Clara passed the wedding dress fragment to someone else in the family. Today, the very same wedding dress fragment exists, alongside five generations of correspondence, at the Congregational Library & Archives.

The central figures of the collection are Sarah Brown Capron (née Hooker) and her husband, William Banfield Capron. The couple met In Hartford, Connecticut, while both were teaching at the Hartford High School. Less than two months after their wedding, on October 1, 1856, they boarded a boat for India where they would be working as missionaries for the ABCFM’s Madurai mission. Even before relocating to India, the two corresponded extensively with their respective families. Sarah corresponded frequently with her parents and sister, Anne Elizabeth, while William similarly corresponded frequently with his parents and younger siblings. Nothing changed about their habits once in India. The collection contains many dozens of letters, most bound together in journals, that were penned during their first 15 years in India.

During their time in India, Sarah and William had two daughters, Annie Hooker (b. 1860) and Laura Elizabeth (b. 1862). A third child, a son named Henry, was born in 1864, but he died the following year. Their first 15 years in India are well documented in the correspondence. Much of the letters focus on their missionary work and daily life in and around Madurai. But the letters also document their family life and the relationships they maintained across two different oceans.

The letters document the joys of seeing their daughters grow, and the heartbreak felt after the death of their son. The family returned to the United States in 1872 for a two-year furlough. When they returned to India in 1874, their children stayed behind in America with their aunt, and Sarah’s sister, Anne Elizabeth Tufts (née Hooker). In 1876, William died from heart disease, but Sarah stayed in India for another decade. While there is a large gap in the collection between about 1865 and 1885, the letters we do have from that period are almost entirely letters from Sarah to her daughters. A related collection, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Book and Manuscripts, fills in some of the gaps, with even more correspondence between Sarah and her two daughters.

Sarah Capron returned to the United States in 1886, but her work with the ABCFM, and later the Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago, continued until her retirement in 1894. At that point she moved to Boston to live with her sister. Once again, the CLA’s collection sees an absence of correspondence during this period in Sarah’s life. This unfortunately means that any correspondence that occurred around the weddings of Annie and Laura is missing. Still, it is very likely that Sarah kept in extremely close contact with Anne, Annie, and Laura, as evidenced by later correspondence during her travels across the US to speak to local missionary societies and while she worked in Chicago educating the next generation of missionaries.

The final section of familial correspondence the CLA holds is from about 1903 until 1909. It is likely that this portion of the correspondence was collected and preserved by Laura, given that she is the recipient of the majority of the letters from this period. She and her husband, James D. Keith, lived in Poughkeepsie, separted from the rest of her family in New England. Ccorrespondence was her way to keep in touch with her mother, aunt, and sister. These four women wrote to each other frequently and extensively. The letters speak to close familial bonds and document the everyday lives of all involved. This portion of the collection also contains letters written to, and by, her own children, James (b. 1893) and Annie (b. 1895), especially when they were off to visit their aunt Annie and her children, Anna (b. 1899) and Arthur (b. 1900). This period of correspondence ends shortly after the untimely death of Annie Hooker Morse (née Capron) in 1909.

The reprocessing of the Capron Family Papers has done much to ensure that these memories and stories can be easily found within the extensive correspondence. We did significant work to identify the senders and recipients of letters and to document that information in the finding aid and folder titles. The CLA also recently purchased a copy of the Memorial of Samuel Mills Capron, which includes a biographical sketch written by his brother, William B. Capron, to further support this archival collection.

Given the myriad people and relationships documented in the collection, we have created a Capron Family Tree to help researchers better understand the collection. The reprocessing of this collection furthers the Congregational Library & Archives’ efforts to collect, preserve, and make accessible the untold stories of Congregational women and bring new interest to this most unique and special collection of familial papers.