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A Tragedy of Records

One of the challenges in doing research on an obscure person who lived 100 years ago, as did Emmett Wilson, is that the majority of their correspondence and records might not exist.

Moldy books prior to cleaning. This was taken at Emory University. Source: Emory University.

Moldy books prior to cleaning. This was taken at Emory University. Source: Emory University.

Time can be tough on historic documents. For instance, colleagues at Stetson University Archives have told me that mold is a big problem in the preservation of historic documents in Florida. Today, there are ways to clean mold off of historic records, but not everyone could or would preserve mold-damaged documents, and unfortunately, books and other documents were simply discarded.

Also, there’s the case of simply being obscure, and, alone. Emmett did not have any descendants. His papers most likely were still in his office at the time of his death, and went to either his law partner (Walter Kehoe) and/or his brother (Cephas Wilson). Both men probably put Emmett’s papers in boxes, stored them in the attic, and forgot about them. This is what I believe happened to Emmett’s correspondence and related documents.

After Walter Kehoe and Cephas Wilson died, their descendants then inherited Emmett’s papers just because they were part of Walter Kehoe and Cephas Wilson estates. Those descendants likely had no connection to Emmett, or, did not know Emmett, and would not have considered the relevance of his work in local history. So, Emmett’s papers were tossed out without a thought.

It’s a tragedy of records.

Speaking of tragedies and records, one of the documents I’d love to see (but doesn’t exist) is the 1890 Census. Emmett and his family would have been enumerated in rural Washington County, Florida, and it would have given a more accurate address of their home than what was previously available (the 1885 Florida Census). [One of my current research questions is to find the address of the first Wilson home. The second home, which is located on 6th Street in Chipley, was built about 1895.]

Anyway. The general story is that it was destroyed by fire in 1921, but it turns out that the destruction of the decennial census has a far more complicated and interesting tale. Read about it here.


Categories: Florida History Recommended Sources Research Status

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