The Oshawa Historical Society’s summer 2020 newsletter is all about Henry House and the Henry family. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the home becoming a museum, and we wanted to celebrate this occasion with a Henry House themed newsletter. For me, writing about the Henrys inevitably turns into writing about Ebenezer Elijah Henry aka E.E. Henry or Eben. He has been an interest of mine since I first accessioned a letter that he wrote to his father into the archival collection. My newsletter contribution was about this letter and how fascinating I found this glimpse into the more personal life of the youngest of Thomas and Betsey’s sons.
Initially the newsletter was to include an image of this first letter along with a transcription because the original handwritten letter can be challenging to read. After a staff meeting on June 4, we changed our approach and decided to no longer include the letter in the newsletter. Why did we decide to switch this letter for a different one written by E.E.? Simply put, staff decided that the language used, while appropriate at the time it was written, is not only inappropriate, but it is hurtful for those who he was commenting on.
As the world reacts to the protests against police brutality in the United States, Canada is also looking at our history of anti-Black racism, how that has been white washed from our history, and the role that museums have played in this. In the letter, Henry writes about a recent American election, the controversial 1876 election that saw Rutherford B. Hayes win the election due to a decision made by the Electoral College after losing the popular vote to Samuel Tilden. Henry notes that this election, just a decade after the abolishment of slavery in the United States, had Black Americans terrified that slavery would be reinstated. There doesn’t seem to be any merit behind Henry’s observation, but it is interesting to see his perspective on the political atmosphere in his newly adopted country. The language used by Henry to describe Black Americans is not acceptable, and staff felt sharing that language does not add to the discussion.
Are we censoring history? Are we continuing to white wash the prevalent racism of those we study in the past? All valid questions and all ones we weighed against the potential pain we could be adding to a community already dealing with the pain of racism.
No, we are not censoring history. The complete letter and transcription are in the archival collection and have been printed in full in our publication To Cast a Reflection. The content of the letter is still clear in my newsletter article without including the complete transcription with the hurtful language.
I have written and spoken at length about the challenges of overcoming gaps in our archival collection due to past collecting practices. Our collection is filled with information on the wealthy white elite of our community because that was who was doing the collecting. Currently we are working to fill in those gaps, but it is not easy because much has already been lost. Research into early Black history in our community has been challenging and rewarding, and ensuring that this community is no longer omitted in our histories is a work in progress. We are very aware that archives and museums are not neutral and we must play a role in ensuring that the community as a whole is represented in what we collect and exhibit.
This post is another way that we are working to be transparent and accountable. Our decision to not share, at this time, the transcript of a letter with hurtful language was made after much careful reflection and consideration for current events.
In 2018, the Oshawa Museum will be publishing a book focusing on the amazing collection of Henry family letters that were donated to the archives in 2013. One of the more prolific letter writers was Ebenezer Henry. Who was Ebenezer Henry?
Ebenzer Elijah Henry, or E.E., was the youngest of five boys born to Thomas and Betsey Henry. Sadly for the young family Betsey died on November 12, 1829 when Ebenezer was just one year old.
The death of Betsey left Thomas alone to care for five young boys aged 9 to 1. While a sister of Thomas’s came to help the family in their time of grief, Thomas knew that the boys would need a mother. Through series of letters, Thomas began courting a young woman from Port Hope, Lurenda Abbey. They were married on November 2, 1830 and Lurenda moved to Port Oshawa becoming mother to five young boys.
By all accounts, Ebenezer had a fairly typical childhood of the time period. Lurenda took to her new role as mother and raised the five boys as if they were her own. The family grew to include ten more children. They had a farm and a fruit orchard on which the boys would have been expected to work. Thomas and Betsey built a frame home where they started their family. Sometime around 1840, Thomas and Lurenda had the stone house that stands today, constructed for the family.
Along with his siblings, Eben’s education most likely began at the small log cabin school located in School Section #2 Cedardale. The school was located approximately 2.5 kilometres from the family home. It is unclear if Ebenezer attended high school. We know that Ebenezer attended Starkey Seminary, located in Eddytown, New York. In a letter written to his father, Ebenezer recounts returning to the Seminary and once again seeing his teacher, Professor Edward Chadwick. Prof. Chadwick became head of the Seminary in 1847, and Ebenezer attended the school sometime between 1847 and 1851.
It appears that during his time in New York State, Ebenezer met Harriet E. Mills. Harriet was living wither mother and step father and is listed as a student in the 1850 US federal census. While it is not yet clear if Harriet was a student at the Seminary, as it was approximately 23 kilimotres from the family home, it is clear that this is when Ebenezer met Harriet. Sometime between 1850 and 1852, the couple wed and moved back to East Whitby Township and settled in a frame house located close to his father’s home.
In around 1857, the couple left East Whitby Township and headed east to Port Hope, the hometown of his step-mother Lurenda. Once there, Ebenezer opened a photography studio. He not only created ambrotype photographs for his patrons, he could also produce copies of daguerreotypes, engravings, painted portraits and other such art work. The studio moved several times during his time in Port Hope, but it did appear to be a successful business venture.
In 1866, Ebenezer and Harriet moved from Port Hope to Leavenworth, Kansas where he once again opened a very successful photography studio. Even with the distance between them, Ebenezer maintained relationships with his family in Canada. The letters sent by Ebenezer to his father offer us a unique opportunity to learn more personal details about the family and provide glimpses into family dynamics. While Ebenezer would return to Canada to visit family, he made Leavenworth this home until his death February 7, 1915.
As the research for the upcoming publication continues, it has been pleasure to learn more the Henry family on a more personal level.
E.E. was the last of five sons born to Thomas and his first wife Betsey. His childhood was spent along the shore of Lake Ontario where the family lived and cared for their farm and orchard. As E.E. reached his late teens, he attended Starkey Seminary in New York State, and it was here that E.E. met his future wife Harriet. They married, lived briefly in a home close to Henry House before moving to Port Hope where E.E. opened his first photography studio. Photography appears to have been E.E.’s passion and one he took with him when he and Harriet moved to Leavenworth, Kansas. It is here that he began, unbeknownst to him, a photography collection that would document the growth of Kansas and showcase the people who called Leavenworth home.
We have been fortunate to create a partnership with the Leavenworth County Historical Society. This partnership will help both sites to better understand the life and impact of E.E. Henry. The following article showcases the hard work by their Historical Society to bring this collection home and to make use of it to learn more about their history.
Museums around the world often count a historically significant photographic collection among their holdings. While sometimes taken for granted by the general population, as common place as they may seem, these collections offer an instantaneous window into history, many times without the need of accompanying commentary. Such artifacts will maintain their importance overtime and henceforth gain wider acclaim, appreciation, and recognition in their own particular time and place in history. It is not every day that a collection is uncovered that spans 100 years of a single town’s history, specifically from the early days of its founding and from work carried out by its pioneer photographers. What is even more significant is the that these images depict life in a western town, from which the United States border advanced. Before Kansas became a state, the western most border of the United States was the Missouri River and the infant town of Leavenworth became the First City of Kansas.
In 1998 the Leavenworth County Historical Society in Kansas acquired such a collection in the form of thousands of photographic negatives—glass plates, nitrates and safety film—representing the first century of Leavenworth history, from the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now known as “The Autry National Center”) in Los Angeles, California. That same year, nearly 4,000 negatives were acquired from David R. Phillips, photographer-collector of Chicago, Illinois, who had purchased the original collection from the Miss Everhard Photography Studio in Leavenworth upon her retirement in 1968, when her efforts to sell it locally were unsuccessful. Over Labor weekend, four tons of glass plate negatives were removed from Miss Everhard’s Leavenworth studio, loaded into a U-Haul van and transported to Chicago, Illinois. Comprised mostly of portraits, the collection represents the elite and founding fathers of Leavenworth, Kansas, the first city of Kansas and gateway to the West. In addition to the cross-section of the people of Leavenworth County, from the wealthy businessmen and society wives, to coal miners, Ft. Leavenworth soldiers, store clerks, and children, there are also photos of Leavenworth homes, the Old Soldiers’ Home, St. Mary College, storefronts, parades, and government buildings.
Miss Mary Everhard, for whom the collection is named, had purchased the studio of early Leavenworth photographer, Harrison Putney in 1922. This studio had been established in 1866 by E.E. Henry, for whom many of the older and later notable residents posed. Henry and step-son, Harrison Putney had produced thousands of photographic images over the years which Putney left with the studio. In 1940, another photography studio closed in Leavenworth, the city’s oldest, which had been opened by Richard Stevenson in 1858 and continued by his son, Harrison. Their negatives were left behind in the vacated studio so Miss Everhard added those to the Henry/Putney collection. While Phillips eventually sold portions of the collection to the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and other museums, he recognized the value, as did Miss Everhard and her predecessors, in not only preserving but sharing an amazing photographic record of a most historically significant town. Images made from these negatives are beyond compare. A debt of gratitude is owed Mr. Phillips for saving this wonderful collection of early Kansas history, for when Miss Everhard approached a Leavenworth banker in hopes of using it as her retirement fund, the banker laughed and suggested it was of no value and ought to be thrown into the muddy Missouri River!
In the summer of 2015, the LCHS launched a major campaign to bring back to Leavenworth the balance of the collection still held by Mr. Phillips. It consisted, in part, of the oldest studio portraits and a very rare collection of wet-plate stereonegatives. Mr. Phillips was finally convinced that these negatives needed to be back in Leavenworth. For nearly 50 years he had preserved and promoted the collection with exhibits, published articles, and books. This final piece of the original collection of Leavenworth history is considered the centerpiece of the entire collection and a national treasure. Several trips were made to Chicago to transport negatives back to Kansas as funds allowed. The museum also purchased from Mr. Phillips a 24” Epson printer to be able to make over-sized prints from the negatives for sale as a means of support for the museum.
Besides a general plea to the museum’s membership, town leaders were called upon to make generous donations. A dinner theatre fundraiser and kick-off breakfast were held early in the campaign. Grants were written to secure funding for exhibits of a selection of prints made by Mr. Phillips, news articles were written and a series of presentations were made locally explaining what a glass negative was and what effect the ownership of the collection would make on the museum and Leavenworth. Grants were also written to foundations, with little luck, and the campaign stalled.
The deadline to raise the necessary funds was set for December 31, 2016 and as it fast approached, the funds needed to acquire the collection were significantly short. In the fall of 2016, it was discovered that a Kansas City, Kansas resident had ancestral ties to Leavenworth—Mr. Henry Wollman Bloch. Now in his 90s, Mr. Bloch had founded successful and nationally recognized H & R Block, a tax preparation company and the H & R Block Foundation for his philanthropic work. Mr. Bloch’s ancestor was the Jonas Wollman family, early settlers in Leavenworth, owning and operating a clothing store in the early business district. The family later relocated to Kansas City and then New York City, where they became quite wealthy. Remembering his roots, Mr. Bloch sent a personal check to the museum right before Christmas (Hanukkah for him), to make up the shortfall, thereby officially ending the campaign and securing the balance of the collection.
Now the museum seeks to begin Phase II of the campaign—to raise the necessary funds to design, build, and maintain an annex, where this and other collections can be archivally stored and studied as we seek to become a research center for early Kansas history. The annex will be a carriage house style building, reminiscent of one that once stood on the property. Handicap facilities and accessibility, as well as parking, will also be included. An extension of the Victorian herb and heirloom gardens is also planned to incorporate the original Planters House Hotel steps from which Abraham Lincoln stood on his first and only visit to Kansas and Leavenworth in 1859.
Well, another Friday has come and it’s hard to believe that I have just finished my fourth week as an intern at the Oshawa Community Museum. I am at the museum until early August, completing my final semester in the Museum Management and Curatorship program offered by Fleming College.
One of the focuses for my internship is to research the recently acquired collection of letters and documents related to Thomas Henry for a publication that will be written over the next year or so. This project has allowed me to pursue my interest in research associated with museum and archival collections, but has also served as an enlightening introduction to the Henry family, who I knew nothing about before I came to the museum.
Many of the letters in this collection are from Thomas’ son Ebenezer Elijah (often written as E. E.) Henry. Ebenezer was the fifth and last child of Thomas and his first wife Elizabeth Davis. I have found the exchanges between Thomas and Ebenezer to be the most intriguing ones in the collection. Ebenezer’s letters reveal an interesting relationship between himself and his father that is reflective of many familial relationships today.
The problems between Ebenezer and his father seem to revolve around Ebenezer’s interest in spiritualism, his father’s disagreement with this religious trend, and their misunderstandings of each other’s intentions. However, Ebenezer’s letters reveal the existence of deeper issues beyond those religious differences.
In a letter from September 1, 1878, Ebenezer writes to his father, “I have always thought that if there was a prodigal son you certainly looked on me as the one in your family.” His father had apparently written that he was the favourite of the family. Ebenezer begins an emotional response arguing that he has been treated unfairly. In particular, he complains that he (unlike his brothers) has never been given any property by his father, and he notes, “I have had to paddle my own canoe for myself.” It is likely that all of us can relate on some level to Ebenezer’s feelings of envy and unworthiness.
Based on the letters, it is clear that Ebenezer feels that he has been a great disappointment to his father, and his deep desire for his father’s approval and love is apparent. At one point, he is so desperate to prove his worth that he describes all of the attributes that make him a good person. He defensively writes to his father, “I am a Temperate man in all things. I have always tried to shun low bad company I don’t use tobacco I don’t swear nor use bad language. I try to avoid Evil I love the company of the good and I love to help the poor.”
After reading such passages, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Ebenezer. It is these passages that humanize him and make his experiences relatable to our everyday life. I think this is why his letters to his father are among my favourites in the collection.
Unfortunately, the letters in this collection only offer a small glimpse into the lives of the Henry family. Many questions I have about the relationship between Thomas and Ebenezer, as well as the relationship between Ebenezer and his siblings, must remain unanswered – at least until another collection is discovered.
My favourite artifact (or in this case archives document) that is held here at the Oshawa Community Museum and Archives is a letter that was written by Thomas Henry addressed to his son, E.E.. This correspondence letter can be paired with a very interesting photograph that is also here at the museum. The photograph shows an image of a man and a woman, Dr. Taylor A.M. and Josephine Keigwin, and with a third man, Charles Grandison Taylor, that can be seen faintly in between the two. This photograph is titled a ‘Spirit Picture’ and was taken by E.E. Henry. The correspondence letter, which goes with this picture and is my favourite item at the museum, is Thomas Henry’s response to the spirit picture. In this letter Thomas, who was a very involved member of Christian church, condemns his son for taking such a picture, and goes on to lecture his son throughout the letter. The letter was written on June 10th of 1873, and of the spirit Thomas writes, “I do not dispute but what the picture has been taken. It is not of god, in my humble opinion, But of the Divil, and show very clearly to me a falling away from God, and disbelieving his word.” Within the letter Thomas then goes on to relay to his son a biblical story that he feels in pertinent to the situation.
This item stands out to me as being my favourite artifact because of the way in which Thomas is disapproving of his son. This letter in many ways shows the personality and character behind the figure of Thomas Henry. Throughout this museum Thomas Henry is in many ways an icon, and this letter allows me to get a glimpse into the person that Thomas Henry is beyond what I know from giving tours and being involved with the Oshawa Museum. This letter allows for a more realistic image of Thomas to be created, this is due to the fact that he is doing a very common thing, which is yelling and disapproving of his child. This is a way of linking Thomas with the contemporary period because as mentioned, he is doing a very common practice that is still done today. Moreover, my favourite aspect of this particular letter is Thomas Henry’s closing statement to his son, which reads, “and now I would not wonder, but what Dr. Taylor and his medium might get a picture of some of your friends if so send me one.” I feel as though this final statement in the letter is important because it shows Thomas Henry’s continued interest in his son’s life, placing him as a caring father figure, who is invested in learning about his son’s life.
I enjoy this correspondence letter because it is, as I discussed previously, very reminiscent of how parents would address and scold their children today, in particular children who have grown up and left the house. I really enjoy this letter because it acts as a way of fleshing out Thomas Henry more than he had been done previously, and is able to make Thomas appear as a more realistic person, rather than someone whose connection to modern Oshawa is left at the location alone. Through this letter, and others of a similar nature, we are able to learn and become more connected to important figures of Oshawa history, which is why this letter is my favourite item at the Oshawa Community Museum.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our staff’s favourite artifacts and the stories behind the objects (or documents!).
Want more artifact stories? Check out IT’Story: Stories from the OCM Collection, on display now through September!