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Earthbound and Heavenbent
Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres (1747-1817)
By Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle
Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle is the author of Earthbound and Heavenbent: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres, 1747-1817. Her talk of the same title was the sixth in an occasional series of talks by outside scholars who have used the resources of the Amherst College Library for their research. It was given in the Barnett Reading Room of Archives and Special Collections on March 25, 2004, during Women’s History Month. The author relied heavily on the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, which are at the Library, and the talk was co-sponsored by the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Foundation. This summary was prepared by Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle.
Carlisle’s research was conducted primarily at the library’s Archives and Special Collections, which houses a rich store of papers belonging to the Hadley, Massachusetts, family that lived in Forty Acres for two hundred years. The house came to descendants through female members of the family. Now the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum, it bears the names of the first three women to live at Forty Acres.
In describing the process of her research, Carlisle discussed ways in which references to people and events in diaries and letters sent her on lateral searches outside the Archives and Special Collections to the library’s general resources and beyond. Major events in the life of the family took her to Boston libraries, to graveyards in that city and in Vermont, and led her to trace routes followed by Elizabeth Phelps in order to visit married children in Litchfield, Connecticut, and Brimfield, Massachusetts.
Carlisle read quotations from her book, drawn from the writings of the Forty Acres family. She spoke of the effect that these personal papers had on her perception of the historic events occurring between 1747 and 1817, Elizabeth Phelps’s life span. That life encompassed the French and Indian War, the Revolution, Shays’ Rebellion, and the War of 1812. Elizabeth Phelps’s letters and diaries reveal a strong, lively, literate, reflective woman who loved to write. Carlisle described her as a pious Calvinist, and one who was not always able to suppress her sense of humor as when she wrote to her daughter that the pastor, Mr. Woodbridge, “preach’d the same sermon I wrote to you about in my last ... he told us he did it by perticular desire—who’s we can guess.”
In closing, Carlisle pointed out that there are many other stories waiting to be uncovered in the family papers that include diaries, letters, inventories, account books, deeds, bills of sale for slaves and indenture servant documents. She described the effective system of filing the more than one hundred linear feet of documents that have made this rich store of personal history accessible to her and other would-be researchers. The Porter-Phelps-Huntington Papers constitute just one segment of the history carefully preserved in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.