Teachable Texts from the National Archives at Boston
Laura Goodale: Early American Historian?
- Historical Background
- Activities: Examine it! Use it!
- Broadening Activities
- Additional Resources
"I must be industrious and make myself fine with my own Hands, and who can blame me for spending some of my time in that manner when it is part of the virtuous Woman’s Character in the Bible."
~Betsy Delancy discussing needlework in Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters
"From the manner in which a woman draws her thread at every stitch of her needlework, any other woman can surmise her thoughts."
~Honore de Balzac
Needlework was an important part of a young woman's education in early America. Girls learned to sew early and often devoted many hours each day to mastering the craft. Many women turned to their sewing needles to express themselves both artistically and intellectually. They also created samplers [decorative pieces of needlework] to record information. Today, samplers serve as important historical documents that can teach us about the past from a woman's perspective.
Sixteen-year-old Laura Goodale, daughter of Chester and Asenath Goodale, stitched this family record with its strawberry and vine border around 1809. Her mother submitted the sampler with her widow’s pension application as proof of her marriage to Chester Goodale— a Revolutionary War veteran. For her husband’s service to his country, Asenath was awarded a pension of $50 a year.
We can learn more about the fascinating story of Laura and her sampler by analyzing historical documents kept at the National Archives.
On May 25th 1840, Laura [Goodale] Hadley was called before a Justice of the Peace to testify that the sampler she had created thirty years earlier was accurate to the best of her knowledge. This sampler was used to prove that Asenath and Chester Goodale were married—an important step before Asenath could receive her widow’s war pension. You can read Laura’s statement here:
R.F. Barnard, the Justice of the Peace who received the sampler, noted that before it could be taken into evidence it had to be cut from its frame, "a frame which appeared to have been long used with the family."
Asenath Goodale was entitled to a widow's pension because her husband Chester had fought for approximately two years in the Revolutionary War. Chester had originally applied for a soldier’s pension in 1832 at the age of 69. You can access the legal brief for his pension application below. Using the information in this document, can you figure out how old he was when he joined the army?
Because her daughter Laura's sampler was accepted as legal proof of her marriage, Asenath was awarded the sum of $50 per annum. You can view a receipt for one of her pension payments here:
In 1855 Asenath, then 85 years old, applied to receive the 160 acres of land under the Bounty-Land Act of 1855. A copy of Laura's sampler was attached to her application, proving once again that she was indeed married to Chester Goodale.
What information can you gather simply from looking at this piece of needlework? [Note: Laura uses the abbreviation "viz." for the Latin videlicet, meaning "namely"]
- Why do you think Laura might have made this sampler?
- There are several indicators that suggest that Laura Goodale was new to needlecraft. See if you can spot them on your own first.
- Hint: On the right side of the sampler, the letters run into the decorative border. The border design is uneven and inconsistent. There are also spelling inconsistencies within the document. In several places Laura stitched the letter 's' backwards. This could either be a design flaw or a sign that Laura was in the process of learning to write.
- There is a name at the bottom of the sampler that appears outside of the border. Why do you think Laura did this?
- Laura omitted only Chester Goodale's full birth date. Is it possible that she did not know it?
- Although Laura made this sampler, it is labeled "sampler of Chester Goodale" in the Archives collection. Why might this be?
Collect Needed Knowledge of the Time and Place
What is a soldier's pension? What qualifications were necessary to receive one? Why was it so important to families like Laura Goodale's? Find information about soldier's pensions here: http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/fall/samplers-1.html
What was the Bounty-Land Act of 1855? Who was able to apply for a piece of free land? Why do you think the government might have passed such a law?
- Where did Laura and her family live? Conduct an Internet search for Egremont, Massachusetts and locate it on a map. How is it similar or different to where you live? What do you think life was like in Egremont in the 1800s?
- In groups of 3-4 students, create an imaginary diary entry for a day in the life of 16-year-old Laura Goodale. What types of tasks and activities did she do that day? How did she feel about it? What might she have been thinking about?
- What is a historian? What kinds of things does a historian do? Discuss as a class.
- Take a moment to think about the story told through the documents that you looked at. Do you consider Laura Goodale to be a historian? Why or why not? If appropriate, structure discussion as a classroom debate.
- Can you think of a way that you have acted as a historian in your own life? Share your example with the class.
- Acting as a historian, create a timeline that illustrates the story told in the documents listed above. Use them as evidence and try to figure out when important events happened. Which event will you start with?
- Design your own family history sampler with graph paper and markers or colored pencils.
- Imagine the following scenario: 200 years in the future, a history classroom is researching your neighborhood (town/city/region). What would you want them to know about your family? Create a historical document to leave behind.
- Act as historians and design your own family history samplers. Think creatively about how you would like to represent your family, both in picture and in text. Refer back to Laura Goodale’s sampler if you need inspiration.
- Laura used strawberries in the design for her sampler. Historically strawberry motifs symbolize perfect righteousness, being a perfect fruit with no stones or pips. Research popular sampler motifs and their meanings. Perhaps you can incorporate one into your family history sampler. Use this website to help you: http://www.needleworksamplers.com/Simply_Samplers/sampler_motifs.shtml
- Watch the film A Midwife’s Tale to learn more about what life was like for a rural New England woman during this time period. Discuss how you feel the roles of women have changed over time. Learn more about this film at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/mwt/filmmore/index.html
- You can also read an excerpt from the Diary of Martha Ballard, the inspiration for A Midwife’s Tale, here:
- Read the diary entries first and make a list of what we can infer about Martha from reading her notes. What do you think her life was like?
- Then read the text on the same page that provides an interpretation of Martha’s diary and discussion of how to read historical texts. Does this explanation change what you first thought about Martha’s diary?
- Laura Goodale's sampler was not the only one to be used as a legal document. Huldah Booth also created a family sampler that was used to obtain a widow’s pension. You can view Huldah’s Sampler here:
- The meaning behind samplers: popular sampler motifs:
- "Remember Me," Six Samplers in the National Archive [great resource on the history of samplers in the U.S.]
http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/fall/samplers-1.html (part 1)
http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/fall/samplers-2.html#nt45 (part 2)
Standard 1: Family Life Now and in the Recent Past; Family Life in Various Places Long Ago
Standard 3: The People, Events, Problems, and Ideas that Created the History of Their State
Standard 6: Regional Folklore and Cultural Contributions That Helped to Form Our National Heritage
1. Chronological Thinking
- Identify the temporal structure of a historical narrative or story, its beginning, middle, and end (the latter defined as the outcome of a particular beginning).
- Establish temporal order in constructing students'own historical narratives
- Identify the author or source of the historical document or narrative.
- Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage
4. Historical Research Capabilities
- Formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, … from the past.
- Obtain historical data from a variety of sources
- Interrogate historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created
5. Historical Issues
- Identify issues and problems in the past and analyze the interests, values, perspectives, and points of view of those involved in the situation.
- Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances