Doris Townshend

History Repeated

In historian Doris B. Townshend’s last name, the silent “h” stands for history, literally. After crossing the Atlantic from England, the name was Americanized to “Townsend,” before Charles Hervey Townshend, Doris’s late husband’s grandfather, restored it out of respect for the past.

It was a respect he passed to his son, Henry Townshend Sr., who passed it to his son, Henry Jr., who gave it to his wife, Doris—and for her, that level of interest in the old was something new. “When I was growing up, I did not care for history,” she confesses now, after earning a place as one of the most prolific amateur historians in New Haven history. “I always wrote more imaginative things.”

You can find many artifacts of Doris’s wanderings through the past—most of which are locally concerned, and many of which feature touches of that original imaginativeness—in the New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library. Her works merit 26 different cards in its catalog, from an essay on “New Haven in the Early 1800s as Remembered by an Old-Timer” to a young-adult primer on the local Quinnipiac tribes. Among them is a sizable book of very special interest: a comprehensive family (and select New Haven) history, Townshend Heritage, published in 1971 when Doris was still in her 40s.

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Now she’s in her 90s—94, to be exact—and though she says her memory isn’t as good as it used to be, Doris still remembers the moment she met her husband, on a train passing through the city she would eventually make her own. At the time, both were in college—she at women-only Mount Holyoke and he at men-only Dartmouth. “We stopped in New Haven, and these rowdy Dartmouth boys got on,” she recalls. “One of the boys had a sister at Mount Holyoke, and my husband Harry asked his friend from Dartmouth to ask his sister if he could have a date with me. That started the whole thing.”

The family of her soon-to-be husband—who would become an alderman, mayoral candidate and civic leader more generally—already had long, deep roots in New Haven by the time he and Doris found themselves on the same train. In Heritage, Doris traces them back to 1739, when a barber and wig-maker named Jeremiah Townsend arrived here from Boston. Jeremiah set up his business on College Street facing the New Haven Green, where—after gaining some renown for his “long, flowing style of wig”—he would eventually be buried, and where his gravestone still rests within the crypt below Center Church.

It was the start of a local thread of history that now spools mostly in Morris Cove, along the not coincidentally named Townsend Avenue. There, behind a tall hedge, stands a grand former farmstead that’s been in the Towns(h)end family since the early 1800s. Where Doris and Henry would settle down, and where Doris still resides, the home, expanded greatly since its earliest days, is a maze of antique seating, woven rugs, decorative lampshades and framed things hung against fancy wallpaper, including depictions of gone-but-not-forgotten family members.

Fortysomething Doris’s preface to Heritage names the experience of living in that environment as an important catalyst for the book, which ninetysomething Doris identifies as both her first published work and, to this day, her most substantial. “Living in an old family house, I could not help but wonder about its life story and its former occupants,” she wrote of the curiosity that would lead her to the family’s private store of “local history books and pamphlets, news clippings, family letters, diaries and ancient documents.”

Asked today if her research process resembles that of an academic historian, she laughs and says, “I don’t know,” adding, “Once I get ahold of something, I just like to delve into it.” A more specific idea of Townshend’s process is apparent in a pair of important habits: noting her sources and methods, which are often quite extensive, and explaining any caveats about the confidence the reader should place in certain aspects of the story she’s telling.

For example, for her work Lark: Faithful Beloved Servant, a booklet about a slave old Jeremiah once owned, Doris identifies the “primary source” of her research as a piece of oral history, told and transcribed generations after the subject of her inquiry had passed away. Wary of such a source’s potential for embellishment or forgetfulness, and keen on being transparent with the reader, in the book she describes the process behind Lark as a matter of “collecting the lore, substantiating it with as many facts as possible and weaving fact and fiction into a plausible account.”

Two of Townshend’s most sought-after works, according to folks at the New Haven Museum, are Fair Haven: A Journey Through Time, first published in 1976, and The Streets of New Haven: The Origin of Their Names, whose first edition was published in 1984. In many spots, these books exhibit her trademark blend of uninflated prose and narrative panache, delivering facts both efficiently and joyfully.

“Waves of Irish immigrants swept into New Haven, as they were doing in the other other urban centers along the eastern seaboard,” she writes in Fair. “Many spilled into Fair Haven, where the cost of living was cheaper than in the city. On Grand Street alone the number of transplants from ‘the old sod’ read like the gathering of the clans: McBride, McCarthy, McCoy, McGinnis, McIntyre, McKeon, McManus, McNally and McVetey. The men came as laborers to work in the factories and on the railroads. Some were craftsmen. Many of the women went into the genteel homes of wealthy New Haveners as servants, creating a sub rosa society of their own replete with Gaelic wit and town gossip.”

In Streets’s preface, after advance-thanking her readers for any corrections they might provide and summarizing the “painstaking and exhaustive” research she’s performed to support the book’s assertions, she sounds still one more note of epistemic caution. “I have often used the ‘three equivocating sisters,’ probably, possibly and perhaps,” she writes, “but there is a point where even they do not suffice and imagination takes over. I hope I will be forgiven for that.”

It’s the sort of humility that should be high on the list of qualities we want in our historians, professional or otherwise.

The Whitney Library at the New Haven Museum
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(203) 562-4183

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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