Section: News

Archives finishes transcriptions of Philander Chase letters

The College Archives has finished transcribing the Philander Chase letters, a collection of almost 2,000 letters written by and to the founder and first president of Kenyon and his family members. The letters, which were written over the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, took over seven years to transcribe and encompass everything from mundane familial concerns and requests for money to musings on religion and the future of the College.

The letters are available on Digital Kenyon both transcribed and in their original handwritten form. Each one is accompanied by a short summary of the contents. Molly McLaughlin ’23, who has worked at the Archives since the fall of 2021, was particularly drawn to the Chase letters. “I think it’s really interesting to read these firsthand accounts — primary sources — especially since they’re something that I care about, since they’re about Kenyon for the most part,” she said. “It was like getting to do a puzzle for three hours.”

McLaughlin said that she would have the letter she was transcribing pulled up on one side of her computer screen and a Google Doc on the other side. Although the handwriting initially posed a challenge for her, she soon got used to Chase’s style. “After a while, you really know it like the back of your hand. Philander Chase sometimes would go through little phases where he would, you know, not cross his ‘t’s. And you learn to look out for stuff like that.”

She said that some letters were especially enjoyable to read. Some revealed personal quirks about Chase — who, the letters showed, was an avid gardener and would ask people to send him seeds. 

The letters also provide insight into 19th-century America, McLaughlin said. “At the time, he’s in Ohio, and then Illinois, and that’s the west. He’s always calling it ‘the far west,’ because it’s antebellum; it’s the early 19th century. So that’s pretty entertaining to see that point of American history where the Midwest is the far west,” she said. Chase also frequently commented on the political and religious dynamics of his society. “He tended to get very exasperated with the state of the Church of England and the Episcopalian Church. And those were always really entertaining because they were dramatic, and he was a very dramatic writer.”

McLaughlin, who had set a goal to finish transcribing the Chase letters by her graduation, said that it was a sad experience to transcribe Chase’s last letter in the Archives. “I realized that there were a few left in the inventory, and none of them were by him. And I was like, man, what do I do now?”

Although Chase’s letters are now fully transcribed, McLaughlin said that the next big project is his sermons, which will also take years to complete. “Chase’s writings aren’t done or anything. So that’s nice, because it’s not like, okay, it’s the end. But it definitely felt like that when I finished.”

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