The Seward Family Letters


My entrance into the Digital Humanities is playing out in two complementary acts. The first, as a Mellon fellow, provides me with theoretical and technological training. The second stage of my digital humanities involvement is with the Seward Family Project – a hands-on application of how to “do” DH.


The Seward project is a documentary transcription project that  focuses on the letters William Henry Seward’s family wrote to each other spanning a time period from 1820s to the 1870s. Seward is best known as United State Senator, governor of New York, Secretary of State to Lincoln and Johnson, and his final claim to fame, purchasing Alaska. The letters were written between William Henry and his wife, Frances, and their children, Will Jr, Augustus, Fred, and Fanny. These immediate family members make up the bulk of the correspondence, particularly the letters between Frances and William Henry. What we discovered early on is that while William Henry Seward is the most researched and written about member of his family, he is by far one of the least interesting! (OK, some of us are biased). Truthfully, however, while his contributions to politics, society and the nation are fantastic historical topics, the collection also offers rich insights into the histories of women and gender, families, upstate New York, and race and slavery.

The Seward papers on which our project is based are housed at Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) at the University of Rochester and they include 100,000-150,000 manuscript items. The project also uses manuscripts from the Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY. The project is at an early stage where our efforts are to create a website where we will display transcriptions of the letters, along with an image of the handwritten letters themselves, showcase student projects, and open up the world of the Seward family to the end-user. We are hoping to go live with the website in Spring 2016. The continuation of the project has been facilitated with a $360,000 grant from the Fred L. Emerson Foundation.

One of the features of this project is the involvement of undergraduates through a series of courses, The Seward Family’s Civil War and The Seward Family in Peace and War. The project also collaborates with librarians, archivists, and the Digital Humanities Center at the University of Rochester. My role in the project is as a graduate student manager working as the Transcription, Annotation and Editing Manager. This means that I oversee student transcribers who work on assigned letters for their class assignments as well as oversee student employees who do paid work on the project. I really love and am learning a lot in my role as manager. In addition to understanding the editorial process and what it means to annotate, I’m learning a lot about managing a team of people and doing research as a group, not as a solitary researcher scouring the archives by myself. This model is much different than the type of research I’ve previously done, and while at times it is challenging, it is ultimately more rewarding as I share the load of discovery and thrill of creativity with other incredibly intelligent and thoughtful people.


Serenity Sutherland is a PhD student in History at the University of Rochester. She is a 2014-2016 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities.