Practicing Provenance

As a kid, I used to scrawl my name inside the cover of all of my books. As a teenager, I did the same with record albums. There would be no mistake that Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” was mine. Little did I know then that these inscriptions would be a form of documentation for future researchers. Even as a preteen, I was practicing provenance. 

More recently, I inherited some books from my mother. One in particular, The Blind Girl of Wittenburg: A Life Picture of the Times of Luther and the Reformation, was published in 1856. Mom never wrote her own inscription in this book, but her adoptive mother did: Elizabeth S. Hunt, her married name, and the date Sept. 1st, 1940 is written inside the back cover. Nothing surprises me there. The little bit of information I have about Elizabeth Hunt’s history (from Mom) is that she was born an Orton, her family was originally from South Carolina, and she’s part Indian. This last fact explains her middle name being Seabrook, and I’ve since tied her to a Seabrook Island family. However, more curious is the inscription written inside the front cover of the book: Margaretta A. Fleming, Jan 1856. 

A pretty name, Margaretta’s handwriting is beautiful as well, from an era when proper ladies took their time with such tasks, as written letters were the preferred form of communication. Her inscription was most likely lettered carefully with a quill pen dipped in ink. 

As a researcher, book inscriptions have always fascinated me. If you’ve ever seen me at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair (April 24-26th, 2020), I was one of the many bibliophiles peeking inside the front and back covers of every book I touched. Will I be able to track down the history of this Margaretta Fleming? Was she related to Elizabeth Hunt? Did she leave the book to her as an heirloom, or did Elizabeth merely find it at a used book sale while visiting Charleston? Going back through my adoptive grandmother’s family tree, I found a census that may link her to the Gregg family who bought Seabrook Island from William Seabrook himself. There is more confirming to do there, but the find feeds my curiosity for future research. 

My focus – a sometimes difficult task for me when playing around in genealogy – turns back to Margaretta Fleming.  I found there’s a collection of letters between a Margaretta Fleming Parker Ravenel, once of Charleston, SC, and her husband, Samuel Prioleau, donated to the University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library. The letters date from before, during, and after the Civil War and pertain to family news, European travel (Elizabeth Hunt’s father was from England), and other subjects. Oh, the stories these letters could tell. I don’t have immediate access, but one day, I plan to read every one of them. 

There is more information out there, and while additional digging may link Margaretta to my mother’s adoptive family, today I must settle for simply knowing it exists. 

What leads will you find on the inside cover of a book?  

Vicki Entreken

About Vicki Entreken

Vicki is an editor, writer, and creative writing coach with a passion for researching and preserving historical photographs and documents; especially those which help to unearth long-buried family secrets. She’s currently writing a book and pursuing a master’s certificate in digital humanities.

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