By Eleanor Proctor
Research Scholar, Historic New England
In the fall of 2021, I began a research fellowship at Historic New England’s Study Center in Milton, MA, hoping to find information on those who worked for the Eustis family at their estate there between 1880 and 1930. I expected to see histories of the Irish and French-Canadian workers who arrived in New England at the close of the nineteenth century. In the course of that research, however, I also found two stories of Black American families who traveled north at the end of Reconstruction to make lives in Massachusetts. It was these narratives that quickly began to overtake my research.
The first person to take fuller form was David Chesnut. Chesnut was born in Massachusetts in 1876 to parents who had come north from the Carolinas and had likely been enslaved. After working as a coachman at the Eustis Estate for several years he became a career chauffeur, invested in some real estate and raised a family.
I was eventually able to locate some of Chesnut’s living descendants, which conferred wonderful detail and texture on my image of him. His granddaughter graciously allowed me access to her family photos and records as well as her recollections of him. In a photo taken late in his life David sits with his granddaughter on his knee, gazing into the camera with a slight smile. He appears dignified and solemn, yet clearly at ease by a fireplace in the living room of his home.
As I learned the details of his life, he took shape not as the employee of an estate but as someone with a much wider, richer life than the census box allowed. Chesnut was a jazz enthusiast who played the trumpet in local marching bands and loved the music of John Phillip Sousa. He raised his two sons to be musicians, hosting memorable kitchen table improv sessions. He remained engaged in the community into his old age and took long daily exercise walks, although he kept Hershey bars hidden in the kitchen for his grandchildren. He was soft spoken. He was much beloved by the generations that followed him. He lived comfortably into his nineties, passing away in 1966. What I had hoped for in this project was to participate in some small way in the resurrection of voices like David Chesnut’s. It was reassuring to have had the opportunity to meet with his family and feel that first-degree stakeholders in his story had been heard.
When I approached my next potential subject at the Eustis Estate, I soon found myself facing the well-documented challenges of doing genealogical research on formerly enslaved Black Americans after the Civil War.
The Eustis’s early butler Charles Bowie was in their service between 1904 and 1924, but despite weeks of searching that turned into months, much of his origin story remained frustratingly out of reach for some time. Bowie was born in northern Maryland in 1860 and his parents were almost certainly enslaved by the Bowie family, who owned large numbers of enslaved people there at the time of his birth. The overlap of names between the enslaved and their white enslavers quickly hampered my early research. Attempting to find Charles’s family on slave schedules proved additionally fruitless, because the enslaved who lived there were generally listed with brief, one-word descriptions rather than actual names, or simply by numbers and ages.
Even for a historian, it is continually jarring to see so many people listed as property. It was often overwhelming in both an emotional and a practical sense. Finding a rare descriptive detail about anyone felt like a victory, each one so precious that it threatened to derail my focus on Bowie as a single subject. Still, I wanted to illuminate Bowie’s story beyond his working world so I kept combing records, falling further and further down the rabbit hole in hopes of finding more of him. I looked at real estate photos of the still-standing house on the plantation where Bowie’s parents were most likely enslaved. The fields that once surrounded the house are now sprawling green lawns, with endless ornate fireplaces yawning into the empty rooms inside. I wondered if Bowie’s mother Adelaide had ever walked through those rooms, and if there was any way to know.
I couldn’t find any documentation of Charles Bowie’s journey north—not when, where or how he arrived and no indication of what the circumstances around his trip may have been. His racial history was mysterious too. An early census identified him as “mulatto” and once in Boston he was alternately identified as Black and as white on census records. He also married a Swiss-German immigrant in what seems to be a rare example of interracial marriage in 1890’s Boston. These combined facts provided a glimpse into the inherent complexity of racial categorization at the time.
It’s possible that Bowie’s biracial status allowed him to present his racial identity flexibly, something not totally uncommon for a person in his situation. Although I was to some extent able to flesh out his professional life after he came to work for the Eustis family, it seems that he had no children, no direct descendants to find, and no way to give real credibility to any of the early scenarios I had constructed around his larger experience. I wanted so badly to see Charles Bowie the way I had been able to see David Chesnut. I found one anecdote that recounted his running of the Eustis Estate, revealing him as both eminently capable and deeply trusted—the qualities that must have made him ideal in his position. Although it was just one story, I finally felt that at least I had an impression of his personality as opposed to just his address.
Eventually I had to accept that some of the holes in Charles Bowie’s timeline might be impossible to fill. It is an experience too common in this area of research. My early success with David Chesnut’s story was in some ways misleading in that it was the exception. David’s family had a wonderful photo record of his life and had carefully preserved the genealogical materials they shared with me. I’m glad that there’s so much important work being done here by a wide variety of groups. Institutions, historical societies and citizen historians understand the necessity of finding this information, organizing it and making it available. Despite these dedicated efforts however, the state of historical records in this area reflects a larger system still rife with inequities and official inattention.
Objectivity aside, I felt a real sense of loss when I came to the end of my Bowie research without the complete picture. After spending so much time “with” him, I sometimes felt that failing the project was secondary to the feeling of failing Bowie himself. There is still so much to be done in this area and Charles Bowie is unlikely to get another look from someone else, so if I can’t finish his story there’s a sobering finality to its incompleteness. Not only was Charles lost to history after his death, during this project I sometimes felt personally responsible for losing him again.
Historical research often feels like an archaeological dig: sometimes you unexpectedly unearth something amazing and sometimes you spend weeks digging with nothing to show for it. This experience felt more like panning for gold—you know it’s everywhere, but the particles are so tiny and the job of sorting them out is so enormous. When you’re able to make a historical connection the information itself is sometimes so fragile, so tenuous, that it feels like sand through your fingers as you work to substantiate it. Pulling something usable out of that river often feels unlikely.
It is still deeply unfair that lives can be so thoroughly unwritten. We are all part of a world that remains deeply complicit in the obfuscation of these histories. One of the pieces of advice I’ve repeatedly heard in respect to the genealogical research of enslaved people is the echo of a larger experience: “just don’t give up.” Although deadlines demanded that I eventually move on to other topics and individuals within the scope of the project, I often find that at the end of the day I close my latest notes and flip the pages back to Charles Bowie, scanning all the possible places of his origin. They have typically romantic names—“Bellefield,” “Willow Grove” and “Sim’s Delight.” At this time I still have no way of knowing how Bowie felt about these names, these places, or the people who were there. I cannot attempt to understand his experience through his own words. I do know, however, that both his life and that of David Chesnut tell larger stories of remarkable persistence that we as historians can only hope to honor in some small way by continuing our research.