During the spring and summer, there is no lovelier spot along the Connecticut River in Massachusetts than the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House Museum in Hadley. Located just five miles west of Amherst center, it is a graceful setting reminiscent of New England’s Colonial age: a large, sturdy house built in 1752 (with no structural changes made on it since 1799), surrounded by protected farmland, forest and, of course, the river. The museum’s reopening for the summer, offering house tours and a variety of cultural events throughout the season, presents a good opportunity to talk about the documentary riches that are found in the papers associated with these Hadley families. The papers, measuring 101 linear feet, are kept here in Archives and Special Collections. They document the history of one extended family over a period of 270 years or eight generations.
One excellent place to start exploring this collection is close to the beginning, with one of its earliest figures, Elizabeth Porter Phelps (1747-1817). Elizabeth was only five years old when she moved into the house that her father had built, the first structure to be erected outside of the stockaded village. Only three years later, her father, Moses Porter, was killed in the French and Indian War.
The extraordinary diary that Elizabeth Porter kept from 1766 to 1817 show that after she married Charles Phelps and the house known as “Forty Acres” became their own, the family was very active socially, entertaining visitors almost constantly. The diary describes the day-to-day reality of managing laborers on the estate (including several slaves), producing crops and large quantities of home goods (soap, butter, cheese), and community activities such as quilting, midwifery, and caring for those who were sick, dying or destitute.
While Elizabeth Porter Phelps’ diary is a rich chronicle of everyday life at “Forty Acres,” her correspondence with her daughters is equally revealing and provides a detailed record of mother-daughter relationships in early America. The letters tell about household work, servants, visits with their son Charles Porter Phelps and his family, trips to Boston, etc.
Elizabeth Carlisle’s book Earthbound and Heavenbent: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres (2004) provides an insightful interpretation of Elizabeth’s documentary legacy — her diary and letters — but it is a legacy that is inexhaustible.