Index cards open window to Vermont history

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(Host) In a basement room of the Secretary of State’s office in Montpelier there’s an old manual typewriter sitting on a shelf.

The keys stick from neglect, but the typewriter has sentimental value to Vermont’s State Archivist. It was used by one of his predecessors to type hundreds of thousands of small index cards.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the cards provide a window into life in Vermont more than two hundred years ago.

(Typewriter sounds)

(Gregory Sanford) “It certainly has not been used for quite some time “

(Zind) Mary Green Nye sat at this typewriter for hours creating what is now known as the Nye Index of state records. Nye was Vermont’s editor of State Papers from 1927 to 1950.

(Sanford) “Every time she found an 18th or early 19th century record, she would put a card into her royal typewriter. And type in the name that she found, the description of the document, the date and where to find it.”

(Zind) Nye’s job is now held by State Archivist Gregory Sanford.

Sanford says Nye spent years combing through the Vermont State Records. These are the oldest of the state’s papers and they date back to the 1700s. Each time Nye found a person’s name, she typed a three by five index card with the name and the nature of the individual’s business with the state.

The Nye index is a kind of Vermont census because in the early days of statehood many people petitioned the state as they moved around to establish and build communities.

(Sanford) “It will trace them from one town to the next. It will show their economic interests. They’re often petitioning for roads and bridges.”

(Zind) Until now, anyone wanting to use the Nye Index had to travel to Montpelier, but some of it is now online.

Sanford says because of the sheer number of index cards, only those dealing with state records prior to 1800 are in a searchable online database.

Even though each listing contains only a short description along with information on where to search in state records for more details, they offer a fascinating glimpse into life in Vermont in a very formative period.

For genealogists and people searching for family records, the index is a treasure trove.

Sylvia Bugbee is with the Special Collections Department at UVM’s Bailey Howe Library. Bugbee’s family has been in Vermont for generations, so she’s able to search the database for distant relations.

(Bugbee) “Let’s see. I’m looking at one right now. Apparently Daniel Bugbee had land confiscated in Hartford during the Revolutionary War and he was requesting money for those confiscated lands.”

(Zind) Bugbee says the Nye online index is a valuable tool for people who are looking into their Vermont ancestors, but don’t have much to go on.

(Bugbee) “They have a name, they don’t know where they lived, what town they lived in or when and this will help them find out. And it’s also useful for anyone studying early Vermont.”

(Zind) Mary Green Nye died in 1956. She may not have anticipated that technology would render her typewriter and index cards obsolete, but she did have the foresight to realize her work was important. State Archivist Gregory Sanford says without her index, the records from a critical period in Vermont history would remain inaccessible to most Vermonters.

(Sanford) “Without Mrs. Nye there would have been no entry whatsoever and these would have just been row after row of 18th and 19th century manuscripts and somebody would have had to have a tremendous amount of patience to go through them to try to find what they’re looking for.”

(Zind) The Nye index is online at the Vermont Secretary of State’s Website. Mrs. Nye’s index cards are still available for reference at the Secretary of State’s office in Montpelier.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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