LSU Geography and Anthropology receives Civil-War era sea chest

Friday, January 18, 2013 - 2:00am

Shipping log books dating back to 1850; diaries from pre- and post-Civil War America; newspaper clippings; and personal items such as photographs, eye glasses, a pocket watch and engraved silverware are just a few of the treasures LSU Department of Geography and Anthropology faculty have discovered in a recent gift to the university – a sea chest belonging to the Lord family.

The sea chest last belonged to the late Evelyn Lord Pruitt, long-time friend, donor to the LSU Department of Geography and Anthropology and sponsor of the LSU Coastal Studies Institute. The chest’s original owner was likely Pruitt’s grandfather, William A. Lord, who commanded ships that sailed to China, India, Europe and around Cape Horn.

The sea chest was recently sent to Boyd Professor Emeritus H. Jesse Walker in the Department of Geography and Anthropology.

“Evelyn had told me many times that she got her love for the sea from listening to her grandfather’s stories,” Walker said. “He obviously left the chest to his granddaughters … she had it as a keepsake of her grandfather.”

Pruitt died in 2000, and the chest had been stored by family friends since then. Walker received the chest from those friends last Thursday, and he along with other faculty, including Doris Z. Stone Professor of Latin American Studies Heather McKillop, Boyd Professor Harry Roberts and Program Specialist Nedda Taylor unveiled its contents the next day.

Walker and other faculty members will begin working to catalog and research the contents, which cover the 1850s through the mid-1900s. The diaries and shipping logs have already begun to provide insight and context to life during that period. In just thumbing through the texts, faculty have found entries discussing the guano trade in Peru and even a mention of Napoleon.

The ship’s logs include those from the vessel the Emily Farnum, which has a unique tie to LSU. On Oct. 3, 1862, the Emily Farnum, captained by Nathan Parker Simes, was captured and released by the Confederate Raider the Alabama. The Alabama’s captain was Raphael Semmes, who following the Civil War became a professor of philosophy and literature at LSU, and the street running in front of the LSU Student Union is now named after Semmes. The Emily Farnum became one of the only American ships boarded by Semmes to not be destroyed.

Walker said the next steps will be to bring in students to help catalog the contents and find someone to help transcribe the texts. Historians and other professors will be brought in to analyze the contents and eventually the chest and its treasures could be put on display in an exhibit.

Pruitt was a longtime friend of LSU, and she contributed more than $900,000 to the university to be used “to educate women in the field of geography.” Thanks to her contributions to the university, the Evelyn L. Pruitt Lecture Series was established and, thus far, 10 women scholars have been brought to LSU to lecture and confer with students.

Pruitt received a bachelor’s degree in 1940 and a master’s degree in 1943 from the University of California-Los Angeles, before joining the U.S. Navy as a geographer. As chief administrator of the Geography Branch of the Office of Naval Research, she supported the development of the Coastal Studies Institute at LSU. She also was a as co-author, with LSU Boyd Professors Fred Kniffen and Richard Russell, of a revised edition of their textbook in geography, “Culture Worlds.”

Pruitt’s interest in and enthusiasm for geography, coastal science and professional women geographers were recognized by the receipt of the Association of American Geographers’ Citation for Meritorious Contributions to Geography, service as the first president of the Coastal Society and receipt of the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Society of Woman Geographers, among other honors.

In 1983, LSU conferred the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters upon Pruitt in recognition of her contributions to “research in coastal environments”; for “promoting the field of remote sensing,” a term she coined; and for “helping LSU gain national and international prominence in geography.

Pruitt passed away on Jan. 19, 2000, in Arlington, Va.

Since its inception in the late 1920s, the LSU Department of Geography and Anthropology has been one of the world’s premier centers for teaching and research in select subfields of geography and anthropology. It is housed in the Howe-Russell-Kniffen Geoscience Complex in the heart of LSU.

Located at the gateway between the Mississippi Valley and Latin America, the department offers a wide array of field and regional expertise in each of these regions. Current faculty and students conduct field research in the Mississippi Valley and American South, Central America, the Caribbean, and Ecuador, as well as China, Japan, Korea, and Europe. As a bidisciplinary department of geography and anthropology, the LSU Department of Geography and Anthropology offers eight degree programs. For more information, visit www.ga.lsu.edu/.

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