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Putting historical pieces together with York’s Lewis Miller

Lewis Miller drawing of the early century York County Jail

Doing historical research? Can’t find much on a particular person or family? Don’t despair—just keep looking and widen your search to include many resources. Sometimes you find what you are seeking where and when you least expect it.

See below for my recent York Sunday News column using York’s 19th century folk artist Lewis Miller as an example. When I first became acquainted with Miller’s work through the York County History Center, I thought that much wasn’t known about his life, but there is lots when you put the pieces together. The same could be true for whoever or whatever you are pursuing.

Lewis Miller drawings and other resources help paint a fuller picture of the past

You are probably familiar with the wonderful drawings of Yorker Lewis Miller (1796-1882) depicting 19th century American life. Many are in noted collections, such as the Henry Ford Museum and Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Two volumes of Miller’s drawings have been published over the years by YCHC and its predecessors (the Historical Society of York County and York County Heritage Trust). The first, entitled Lewis Miller, Sketches and Chronicles (1966) is now out of print. Lewis Miller’s People (2014), edited by Lila Fourhman-Shaull and me, is available through the York County History Center and other booksellers.

Miller left behind thousands of images, making York County one of the best-illustrated communities of the nineteenth century. These drawings are made even more valuable when combined with other sources relating to the people and events he depicted. We can use Miller himself as an example: Miller wrote letters back home while visiting relatives who had moved to New York City and to Virginia, and he also corresponded with York friends and family members after he retired to be among the Virginia relatives. Some of that correspondence survives in the YCHC Library/Archives, with some possibly still in private hands, waiting to be discovered. Six letters and 14 drawings, previously unknown, were acquired by YCHC only two years ago. These letters revealed why he was still depicting Yorkers and sending hundreds of the drawings to York friends until just a few months before his death in 1882.

Other sources include several autobiographical pages Miller interspersed in his sketchbooks in the YCHC collections. One outlines his family history back to 1720 in Schwabisch Hall, Germany, and tells how his parents came to America in 1772 on the ship Minerva. This immigration can be verified by a standard reference, Strassburger’s Pennsylvania German Pioneers: A Publication of the Original Lists of Arrivals in the Port of Philadelphia From 1727 to 1808, showing Lewis’s father, Ludwig, as a passenger on the Minerva, taking the oaths and qualifications September 30, 1772.

In another account, Miller tells of returning from his two year tour of Europe, and then he goes on to describe York County people, the majority of whom were of German descent. He lists new inventions he has seen, including railroads, steam ships and telegraphs. He decries bad morals and thievery, from young pilferers to a York merchant that left town with Miller out $500 dollars, perhaps for unpaid carpentry work. He was strongly against the “bad custom prevailing by our citizens,” the love of liquor. Some of his drawings of individuals also describe their fondness for alcohol.

Another source of information on the lives of Lewis Miller and other residents is the collection of York County Orders at YCHC. These detail payment by the county for services rendered. There are dozens of them from the 1820s authorizing payments to Miller for carpentry work. For several years he seems to have been the only carpenter employed by the county, sometimes hiring helpers, as well as deliverymen to bring him lumber and supplies. Most of the work included repairs or improvements at the court house, jail or town bridges, but he occasionally made furnishings, such as a bench for the jail, a desk for the court house or a ballot box.

Contemporary newspapers are another wonderful source of information. Lewis Miller’s obituary is the lead story on the front page of the September 29, 1882 York Gazette, taking up two and a half columns. It was written by his friend, Pennsylvania Dutch poet and attorney, Henry Lee Fisher, who a few years later wrote a section on Miller for Gibson’s 1886 History of York County, an honor awarded few.

Historical research entails tying these different sources together for a more complete picture. Newspapers are again invaluable, such as the November 11, 1828 York Gazette article that neatly connects both a particular county order and perhaps Miller’s drawing of the county jail. It reads:


November Sessions 1828

The Grand Inquest of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania now sitting & inquiring for the county of York, beg leave to inform the Honourable court that they have examined the prison of said county of York, and found it in an excellent and becoming situation, much to the credit of the Keeper thereof; that in the opinion of this inquest there is an improvement highly necessary, that is, to affix shutters to the front windows on the third story, in order to prevent prisoners from seeing persons passing and repassing on the opposite side of the street, to whom they are in the habit of calling, and to whom ill and unbecoming language is too frequently used by the prisoners, as well to the displeasure and mortification of those persons who reside in the immediate neighbourhood of the prison, as to those who are thus accosted by the prisoners. This Inquest would therefore recommend the measure under the impression that it will receive every due consideration.”

In other words, the Grand Jury is recommending that shutters be put on the jail windows to keep prisoners from verbally abusing passersby. It took some months, but the following county order shows that Miller got the job done. It reads: “The County Commissioners Dr. To Lewis Miller for Work done at the jail September the 25 1829. To makeing Blinds Shutters to Seven per, work’t at wood work and Shoing them with Sheetiron and painding        $38.00.” Getting past the phonetic spelling, it says Miller is to be paid for making seven pairs of shutters, reinforcing them with iron and painting them. Then, looking at Miller’s drawing of the old jail at the corner of George and King streets, you see that the windows have some sort of covering, conceivably Miller’s shutters.

There are many other sources that you can also combine to learn more about the people, places and events of the past. Others include church and cemetery records; civil records, such as deeds and wills; census; photographs; city directories, historical maps and atlases. When you put them together our heritage comes alive.

The above resources and more can be found at historical societies, such as the York County History Center, as well as archives like the York County Archives and the Pennsylvania State Archives. All such institutions are open to the public for research. Check their websites for hours, location, fees and other information.