Sophie Eastman–A Historian and a Mystery

It is very, very difficult to find any information regarding the life of Sophie Eastman. Her manuscript, published in 1912 and popular in certain historical circles, is about the only glimpse we have into her rich and varied life experiences. “In Old South Hadley (MA)” is a well written and succinct account of South Hadley history from its founding up until the mid eighteen hundreds. The 334 page history is a careful study of both broad and sweeping historical events as well as minuscule details of daily life right down to dish washing methods and the installation of drinking pumps in the center of town. Beautiful photographs taken by Eastman herself and copies of illustrations by artists in South Hadley accompany the text. I suggest setting aside an entire afternoon if you plan on reading her fascinating portal into life in Old South Hadley. The manuscript is descriptive, full of incredible detail, and quite exhaustively researched. From the founding of South Hadley before the Revolutionary War to the early days of Mt. Holyoke College to Thanksgiving Day traditions “In Old South Hadley (MA)” is well worth the time spent. Eastman’s literary tone lends a personal nature to her work in that she weaves historical fact with personal narrative and quirky stories about past residents of the town.

But who is Sophie Eastman? That is a more difficult question to answer. Her biographical facts are well known: daughter of prominent merchant Charles Eastman and sister to George and Julie Eastman. Born 1839 and died in the early 20th century. Educated at Wheaton College and professor at Mt. Holyoke College when it was still a seminary for young women. She is also known for her poem written in celebration of the South Hadley sesqui-centennial as well as a 17 page work entitled “The Early Days of Mt. Holyoke College.” She insisted on starting and ending her classes on the Mt. Holyoke with a prayer and was a permanent fixture on campus throughout her life. Not much else is known about Sophie Eastman. The categorical silence about her personal life serves to spark curiosity rather than dampen it. What was her personal life like? Did she carry on a romance with anyone? What were her feelings on marriage and women’s rights? Why did she feel it was important to record the history of her town? What did she teach at Mt. Holyoke College?

It is a little sad, actually, that we do not know more about this amazing woman who has played such a large part in recording South Hadley’s history. Much about her can be inferred from what we do know. The fact that she was college educated and went on to teach at Mt. Holyoke College during a time when women had to fight for the right to graduate high school speaks volumes about her strength of character and commitment to education. Her involvement in the seminal days of Mt. Holyoke gives us a picture of a strong and pioneering woman. The accomplishments in historical recording let us know that she had a strong passion for history and the importance of recording the past for future generations.

What we do know about Sophie Eastman is that she produced an amazingly interesting and accurate historical representation of life in South Hadley before the turn of the twentieth century. Her manuscript serves to both inform and entertain readers and her incisive commentary gives us a small picture of her opinions and world view. The text is available for perusal in the Gaylord Library collection.

An online copy of the text can be found here: http://openlibrary.org/books/OL13524070M/In_o_ld_South_Hadley

Enjoy!

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