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‘This is a whole new body of literature’: Records being digitized could give us new perspective on Colonial life

Curator Katherine Ness weighed an artifact excavated from a Colonial house.Plimoth Plantation

James Cooper has spent much of his life collecting church records from dusty shoeboxes and damp basements. Now he’ll get a chance to share them with the world — and they may give people a new perspective on Colonial life.

A new project will digitize thousands of “fugitive” church records and manuscripts from Congregational churches that were never assembled before because there is no body governing the churches or how they store their records, said Cooper, director of the American Congregational Association’s New England Hidden Histories project.

In the Colonial era, Cooper says, everything that went on first “went through the doors of the local church,” whose ministers served as community mediators, teachers, counselors, and historians.


“Some people are going to be very surprised about the material in these records, especially those who think the Puritans did not have a good time,” he said. “Some of the passages are pretty close to being rated R.”

The project will allow Cooper to continue his search for the far-flung documents and digitize them along the way. It’s among 12 projects in Massachusetts that will receive more than $1.7 million in grant funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities. The American Congregational Association will receive $308,000.

“These records have never been consulted in a systematic way because they were inaccessible,” Cooper said. “We historians are lazy. We would much rather find something that was published in an archive than travel around from town to town and church to church. It’s a lot of work.”

Peggy Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library, which is run by the association, said the documents will also diversify the narrative of the period, adding new, previously unheard voices.

“The documents they’ve been using are from educated people writing sermons and lectures,” Bendroth said. “This is a whole new body of literature that is just beginning to be tapped. We’re really excited about this. This is not just educated men — these are women and children and Native Americans, too.”


The University of Massachusetts Boston was another grant recipient. It was awarded $181,000 to create a digital catalog of Plimoth Plantation’s archeological collection, which includes artifacts excavated from Pilgrim homes built in the 17th century.

Katherine Ness, curator of collections at the living history museum (inset), said thousands of objects from four archeological sites will be catalogued and photographed. To the untrained eye, the collection is just a bunch of ordinary objects. But they tell a story, Ness says.

Laney Ruckstuhl can be reached at laney.ruckstuhl@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laneyruckstuhl.