From the Archives: Humanizing the Past

One of the reasons that I love history is that it brings to life figures who are so human.  Often I can see something of myself and those around me in the people of the past.  Other times, their actions seem bizarre and foreign, but I can still see that they were motivated by many of the same worries, passions, and emotions that we experience today.  While buried in research and writing, however, I have found that it is easy to lose sight of this fact.  It is easy to just record the life details of a historical figure – when they were born, where they went to college, when they got married, and so on, while forgetting about the human emotions that accompanied each of those life events.  I recently came across some information that reminded me of the humanity of the figure I was researching and brought me much closer to understanding him.

Frederick Adolphus Packard (1794-1867) was an attorney and nineteenth-century reformer who served for roughly forty years as the Secretary of the American Sunday-School Union, a national organization devoted to founding and supporting Sunday schools, still a relatively new innovation in the United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century.  Although he was extremely prominent during his lifetime, Packard has been largely forgotten by historians over the years.  A few have chronicled his professional accomplishments, but his personal experiences and his inner life remain obscure.  I hope to change that.

During my early research on Packard, I kept coming across contradictory information with respect to how many children he had – some sources said he had four, while others said five.  While looking through an obscure genealogical book available on Google Books, The History of the Descendants of John Dwight, of Dedham, Mass., Vol. II by Benjamin W. Dwight (1874), I realized why.  Packard had five children, but one, his firstborn son, died of unknown causes on his second birthday, January 20, 1829.  I was able to verify this by finding copies of town birth and death records from Springfield, Massachusetts on the genealogy website FamilySearch.

John Hooker Packard death from familysearch crop

“Massachusetts, Springfield Vital Records, 1638-1887,” index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 27 March 2015), John H. Packard, 20 Jan 1829; citing p 145, Springfield, Hampden, Massachusetts, Springfield City Hall; FHL microfilm 185,417.

The death of John Hooker Packard occurred just a couple of months before his father gave up his law practice in Springfield, MA, and moved to Philadelphia to take the job as Secretary of the American Sunday-School Union.  I also knew that Packard’s wife, Elizabeth, did not join him in Philadelphia until the fall of 1829.  Knowing this brought Packard’s situation into sharp, emotional relief for me.  The hardship of losing a child surely devastated Packard and his wife.  To be grieving alone, in a strange city, while trying to acclimate to a new job, must have been excruciating.  Suddenly Packard was much more to me than some guy who died a hundred and fifty years ago; he was a person with whom I felt deep sympathy.  Despite my sorrow at learning of his son’s tragic death, I was glad to have had the opportunity to experience this human connection with Frederick Packard.


4 thoughts on “From the Archives: Humanizing the Past

  1. Mary Lintern says:

    Finding those old handwritten records certainly resurrects the past and makes the people more real. I get emotional too. Nice job, Lisa!


  2. christine says:

    Hello there! This article couldn’t be written much better!
    Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept talking about this. I most certainly will send this information to him.

    Fairly certain he will have a great read. Thank you for sharing!


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