By Brendan Wolfe
Sue Perdue is the director of Documents Compass at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. She is also one of the brains, along with Holly Shulman, behind People of the Founding Era (PFE), a remarkable online biographical database (funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) that engages what Perdue calls a prosopographical approach.
“Which is what?” I asked. “Give me your elevator pitch.”
“Oh, man,” she groaned. “I would say that it’s the study of whole groups of people in a time and place. In our case, these are people born between 1713 and 1815, mostly in America. We take them from the papers of the Founding Fathers, enter them into a database, and more than 25,000 entries later—well, 25,000 entries and growing, really—we’ve got a whole demographic that we can study.”
“What do you mean you’re taking them from the papers?”
“I mean like this,” Perdue said, and a few purposeful clicks of the keyboard later she produced a 1778 letter from George Washington’s cousin, Lund Washington, to the general, who was away fighting the British. (One can find the letter in the online edition of the Papers of George Washington, published by Rotunda, the digital imprint of the University of Virginia Press.) “We have some of our people sick,” the cousin reports from Mount Vernon, including “Ariana a child of Alice’s who I believe must Die.”
“So all the people mentioned in this letter will eventually go into the prosopography,” Perdue said, “from the general to Lund to Alice, whom we believe was enslaved. Alice is already there, in fact.”
A few more keyboard strokes: “Here we go. Lame Alice. She was listed as one of two house slaves named Alice at Mount Vernon—the other was Little Alice. There appear to be no records for a slave named Ariana, although the editors of the Washington papers suggest that maybe this is a reference to Little Alice’s daughter Anna. We don’t know, so we guess. And the more information we put into the database, the more we can begin to clarify these identities and, more importantly, their relationships to one another.”
“You’re basically the NSA of history,” I said.
“From what I’ve read, the National Security Agency is interested in phone records in order to track not what people say, exactly, but to put together whole networks of relationships. Who knows who, who talks to who. That kind of thing.”
“That’s it exactly,” Perdue said. “We’re interested in metadata. It’s easy for us to produce a short biographical sketch of Lund Washington, but what about Lame Alice? What about all the other enslaved people? We comb the historical record for references and try to obtain birth year, death year, names of children and years of their births. With that we can begin to identify people and make connections between them. This Alice mentioned here is the same as that Alice mentioned over there. That kind of thing.”
“You’re not chasing terrorists, though.”
“No, but we’re making life a lot easier for scholars of this era.” And with that Perdue put me on the line with Gwendolyn K. White, a doctoral candidate in history at George Mason University. A former fellow at Mount Vernon, White is writing a dissertation on the people of Washington’s plantation.
“You mean a prosopography?” I asked and she laughed.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. Rather than focus on slavery or George Washington or Mount Vernon, I want to consider the whole community together in terms of how they are interacting with each other. And I want to think about Mount Vernon not just as a self-contained place but one that is connected to a larger neighborhood, to Alexandria and the tenants around them. It was part of a thriving local community.”
White saw Perdue present on the PFE project at a conference and asked if she could help. Since May, she has been helping Perdue comb the Washington Papers for more names, more relationships, more metadata.
“I’ll be helping out, it’s true,” White told me. “But what’s more important, I think, is that I’m the kind of scholar who would use PFE. It’s going to be just a fantastic resource.”