Last week, I travelled to Louisiana State University from Grinnell to study the Uncle Sam Plantation Papers from their special collections library. It was first time in Louisiana and I was not expecting the humid weather. But I did not have to suffer too much as I spent most of my time in the Hilltop Memorial Library, where it was always nice and cool. The Hill library is so spacious and beautiful. Furthermore, the librarians and staff at the Library were all extremely helpful and friendly; it was easy to see they enjoyed their jobs and liked to see visitors come view the special collections. I had the best environment to work in.
However, things did not turn out as I planned in the archives. I had come in with certain expectations for what I would find; for example, I thought I would obtain information on the material environment of the Uncle Sam Plantation and what kind of people lived there. As I began examining the documents and records from the 1850s through 1900s, I quickly discovered many of the documents were in French (an unfamiliar language to me). Also, the documents were handwritten in an old style fancy cursive with loops everywhere and vague scrawlings making it difficult to decipher. I could not read a lot of the furniture bills or the letters of correspondence that may have given me the information I had aimed for.
But, I found it was easier to read the documents from the 1870s-1900s than the 1850s and I did discover other information. I read through grocery lists, freed blacks’ payrolls, time books of workers’ daily tasks, a Freedmen Bureau’s document, sugar cane weighings and orders, sugar factors’ records, and more. I was surprised and happy to learn about aspects of the plantation I had not expected; for example, I found the plantation started growing rice in addition to sugar during the 1880s. Moreover, I liked being able to handle the documents. Previously, I have never been able to see and touch primary documents so it was a fascinating experience for me.
Overall, I really enjoyed travelling to the archives. Even though I did not find all the information I had hoped for, it was an invaluable learning experience and I was very pleased with what I did learn from studying the Uncle Sam Plantation Papers. I appreciate being given the opportunity to look at these historical documents from the 1850s to 1900s and apply this research to our Uncle Sam Plantation project.
Author: Sam Nakahira
Sam Nakahira ‘19 is a History major with a concentration in American Studies. She is the team subject-matter expert who researches the sugar plantation and its cultural history. In addition, Sam hopes to incorporate the digital humanities in her own research as a Mellon Mays fellow.