Cataloging the Bullitt Family Papers
By Shirley Harmon
I have been cataloging the Bullitt Family Papers since March 1999 and recently completed the second phase of the three-phase process. The collection consists of approximately 176 cubic feet of materials, organized in 194 boxes and 49 oversized folders, making the Bullitt Family Papers the largest collection housed at The Filson. The papers date from the 1760s to the 1990s and contain a wealth of information concerning Louisville’s pioneer days, early settlers’ struggles with Indians, Kentucky’s road to statehood, antebellum Louisville, the Civil War, the early 20th century, and World War II.
To provide an example of how a collection is processed, I will briefly summarize what I have done in the past five years. When I came to The Filson in 1999, Jim Holmberg, curator of special collections, introduced me to the Bullitt collection. At that time it was housed in The Filson’s climate and humidity controlled stacks in six four-drawer file cabinets and in storage boxes. These papers were placed with The Filson in 1992 following the death of Thomas W. Bullitt. Thankfully, Thomas’ father, William Marshall Bullitt, had somewhat organized his ancestors’ papers according to individual family members’ names. Since this collection is so large, the decision was made to continue cataloging the collection as Marshall Bullitt had originally arranged it, alphabetically by person’s name.
My first task was to transfer the materials into acid-free folders and then file them chronologically and alphabetically by name. In general, collections are first arranged by personal correspondence, followed by diaries, business correspondence and papers, legal papers, land papers, military papers, autographs, poetry, speeches, stories, newspaper clippings, miscellaneous envelopes, genealogy and finally other miscellaneous papers and items. The pre-processing phase required one year to complete.
With the pre-processing stage finished, I then started the cataloging process. To catalog a collection, each letter, will, deed, and paper must be carefully read from the perspective of how the contents of the item may be useful for a researcher. For example, in the Bullitt collection is a letter dated 1847 from William C. Bullitt to his friend Zachary Taylor. Taylor at the time was in Mexico serving in the Army during the Mexican War. In the letter, Bullitt writes about Taylor’s chances of becoming the next president and also tells him news from Louisville. From just that one letter is a minimum of five possible subject headings: Bullitt, Taylor, the Mexican War, United States politics and government, Presidential elections and Louisville history. These subject headings and the collection information are then typed onto cards for our card catalog and entered into The Filson’s online catalog. When a researcher studying the Mexican War arrives at The Filson’s special collections department, he or she can look up “Mexican War” in the card catalog and see that we have this letter among our collections.
As I cataloged this collection I came across numerous interesting, funny and revealing letters, diary entries and other papers that provide tremendous insight to the Bullitt family and their farm. Receipts and contracts from 1790 and 1791 pinpointed exactly when the Oxmoor house was completed. Letters from 1792 and 1799 give a glimpse of the early political climate in the new state of Kentucky and reveal Alexander Scott Bullitt’s influential role in politics and government. Letters from 1816 tell a story of murder on Oxmoor Farm. Recollections and letters written by the Bullitts who lived at Oxmoor during the antebellum years reveal the everyday life of the slaves. Letters from 1847 tell the story of Martha Bullitt, her courtship and marriage, and her tragic death at a young age. Recollections and letters written about and during the Civil War disclose the events that shaped the Bullitts during this tumultuous time and why they decided to close up the Oxmoor house and farm and move to the city. Letters, blueprints, and diary entries dated 1909-1928 tell the story of how Oxmoor became the Bullitt home once again and how it was transformed from a small plantation farmhouse to a modern southern estate. And there were many touching letters that show the close and loving relationship of the Bullitt family.Throughout the last five years the Bullitt Family Papers have been among the most widely used of our collections. Last year historian Sam Thomas completed his history of the Oxmoor Farm estate and the Bullitt family, for which he extensively used this collection. Numerous Filson Fellows have also used this collection during their research at The Filson. The materials in the collection span almost every era in American history and include the invaluable documentation of local and national history, making the Bullitt Family Papers a significant resource for researchers. The family’s correspondence with prominent families, such as the Binghams, Speeds, Logans and Marshalls, emphasizes their local importance and also illuminates the society of antebellum Louisville, reveals the role of women in the family, and sheds light on the everyday lives of the Bullitt slaves. Other documents, including letters from Patrick Henry, a land grant signed by Thomas Jefferson, Civil War correspondence from the three sons of William Christian Bullitt, and letters and photographs from World War II, contain important information about national figures and events.
With the cataloging process now complete, I will soon begin to compile the information needed for the card catalog and online catalog. Following that phase, I will move on to cataloging the collection’s photographs, another time-consuming project. “As for now, court is in recess.”
Samuel Thomas’ definitive history of one of Kentucky’s earliest farms is available for purchase from The Filson
Historical Society. As old as the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Oxmoor Farm has witnessed the entire continuum
of Kentucky, from its pioneer settlement to suburban development. Thomas consulted The Bullitt family papers in his
research of Oxmoor, a publication conceived, financed and executed by the Oxmoor Cemetery Corporation. A great gift
of Kentucky history for family and friends!
The Filson Historical Society