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RG 30/349 - The Bridgman Family Papers
Scope and Content

This is a sizeable collection. The Bridgman Family Papers document the family’s time and achievements as missionaries to South Africa over nearly a century (1860-1949). Included in these family papers are a good many biographical and genealogical histories of each member of the extended family. Unevenness exists in the collection, however, in part because the bulk of the materials primarily document the work and accomplishments of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman (1869-1925) and his wife, Clara Davis Bridgman (1872-1956). The research materials relating to the lives of other family members, including Frederick’s parents, Henry Martyn and Laura Bridgman, and his sister and niece, Amy Bridgman and Ruth Cordelia Cowles, among others, are less weighty in terms of the amount of documentation. While the entirety of the historical information on the Bridgman family covers the period 1641-2003, it mainly documents the three generations that served as missionaries in South Africa since 1860.

The Bridgman Family Papers are arranged into 16 record series: Series I. Biographical Files; Series II. Correspondence; Series III. Diaries and Reminiscences (mostly unpublished); Series IV. Genealogical Files; Series V. Guest Book; Series VI. Newspaper Clippings; Series VII. Printed Matter; Series VIII. Writings; Series IX. Photo Albums; Series X. Photographs; Series XI. Scrapbooks; Series XII. Sound Recordings, Series XIII. Artifacts; Series XIV. Miscellaneous; Series XV. Research Files of John Bridgman (photocopies); and Series XVI. CD-ROMs.

Materials most relevant to the Bridgman-Cowles family history and missionary work in South Africa, however, can be found in the correspondence in Series II, the diaries and reminiscences in Series III, and the photographs in Series X. Although the correspondence series is modest in size (approximately 0.3 l.f.) and the date span is rather uneven, the letters contain commentary relating to the daily life and missionary activity in South Africa. For example, in a 1916 letter to her son, Frederick Bridgman, who was on furlough at the time, Laura Bridgman discusses the difficulties of working in “Darkest Africa” at her old age (nearly 82), as well as the health of Frederick’s sister, Amy Bridgman Cowles, and the overall progress being made at the Umzumbe Station in Natal. The correspondence series also includes a 1963 letter from the General Secretary of the American Board, John Reuling, to Ruth Cowles, in which he explains that a government decree was forcing the Bridgman Memorial Hospital to close because of its devoted service to poor native blacks in a predominantly white area of Johannesburg.

The diaries and reminiscences in Series III, also provide information pertinent to the Bridgman-Cowles family history and missionary work in South Africa. Featured in this series is the 1890 unpublished autobiography (handwritten and typed transcript) of Henry Martyn Bridgman, in which he discusses his childhood, his education at Amherst College (Massachusetts), his courtship with Laura Bridgman, and his missionary experience in Natal, South Africa. Another featured item in this series is the diary of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, which documents his day-to-day activities from 1913-1917 in South Africa and on his extended furlough; among the entries in the diary is that of his acceptance of the honorary Doctor of Divinity degree during commencement exercises at Oberlin College on June 14, 1916. Other useful materials include Frederick Bridgman’s hand written reminiscences of Zulu Boyhood (n.d.), and the personal diaries of Laura Bridgman (1871) and Clara Davis (1889, n.d.).

In addition to the photographs of extended family members, Series X provides a visual documentation of the Bridgman-Cowles’ missionary work in South Africa. Within the Zulu tribe subseries, one will find photographic content or evidence of native customs, including competitive dancing, a courting ritual, and a wedding ceremony. Included here are visual representations of the Bridgman family members working amongst the impoverished and neglected black population, as well as the merging of Western Christian tradition with the native Zulu culture. Within Series X, there also exists a subseries of photographs documenting the delivery of medical services to patients, the work of doctors, and the existence of facilities at the Bridgman Memorial Hospital. More photographs, mainly relating to the family history, are housed in five large photo albums and several loose album pages in Series IX.

Series VII consists of printed matter that provides additional documentation relating to the Bridgman Memorial Hospital (founded in 1928). Also included in Series VII is printed matter relating to the 1860 ordination of Henry Martyn Bridgman, and booklets issued by the American Board about Zulu culture and the history of the missionary effort in the Natal region. (see the Bridgman Family Papers series descriptions and inventory for listings of specific materials contained in all printed matter subseries).

In addition to the series highlighted above, the Bridgman Family Papers also contain biographical materials relating to both the missionary work in South Africa as well as the biographical history of the Bridgman-Cowles family. By way of example, the articles and obituaries in the biographical series (Series I) provide an informative overview of the family’s achievements as missionaries as well as several family members’ biographical histories (birth, childhood, education, marriage, children, occupations, and other accomplishments). While the bulk of the series relates to the life of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, the files also includes biographical materials on other members of the Bridgman-Cowles family including Henry and Laura Bridgman, Burt Bridgman, Clara Davis Bridgman, and Ruth Cordelia Cowles, among others. The genealogical files, housed in Series IV, contain family timelines, biographical sketches, and other materials that help to trace the Bridgman, Brainerd, and Cowles families back to the 1640s. The collection also contains materials relating to several of the family members’ student years at Oberlin College, including Clara Davis’ 1889 diary from Oberlin (Series III. Diaries and Reminiscences), Frederick Bridgman Sr.’s 1887-1896 college scrapbook (Series XI. Scrapbooks), and Frederick Bridgman Jr.’s 1928-29 “Animal, Botany, and Ecology,” lecture notes (Series VIII.). Other notable materials in the collection include the record albums of Zulu prayer and South African music (Series XII. Sound Recordings, Series XVI. CD-ROMs), and the artifacts in Series XIII, which include Zulu beadwork, weapons, and tools among other items.
Series Descriptions

Series I. Biographical Files, 1896-2002, n.d. (11 folders)

Consists of two passports, one immunization certificate, and several other associated documents relating to the commission of Clara Davis Bridgman to perform missionary work in Natal, South Africa (1897-1941). Biographical files also contain an announcement of the wedding of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman and Clara Strong Davis, and the birth of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman Jr. Series includes obituary notices and clippings from several South African newspapers, missionary and church magazines, and the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, regarding the 1925 death of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman. Files also contain the eulogy of Dr. Frederick B. Bridgman as delivered by Dr. Howard Bridgman and others concerning Frederick’s life and achievements as a missionary in South Africa. Included in the series is a 1925 unpublished, typed manuscript on Dr. Bridgman’s life written by Basil Matthews. Finally, the series also consists biographical sketches and obituary notices of Ruth Cordelia Cowles and other members of the Bridgman-Davis-Cowles family (i.e. Henry Martyn Bridgman, Laura Bridgman, Jerome Davis, Frederick B. Bridgman Jr.).

Series II. Correspondence, 1854-1971 (20 folders)

The correspondence series contains four subseries. Subseries 1 consists of five folders of correspondence of Henry Martyn and Laura Nichols Bridgman. The subseries contains one letter written by Henry Martyn Bridgman in 1869, and 13 letters (1854-1916) sent and/or received by Laura Nichols Bridgman. Subseries 2 consists of seven folders of letters (1869-1925) sent or recieved by Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, Sr. throughout his lifetime, including a 1916 letter from his mother, Laura Bridgman, sent to Frederick while he was away on furlough, that describes the progress being made at the Umzumbe Mission Station in Natal, South Africa. The subseries also includes four additional letters regarding Frederick’s death in 1925 and the arrangements for his memorial service. Subseries 3consists of two folders of letters (1869-1954) sent and/or received by members of the Davis and Strong families.Included here are letters (1869-1912) from Cheyenne, Wyoming; Beloit, Wisconsin (n.d.); and Kobe, Japan, as well as miscellaneous letters (1912-1954) sent and received by Clara Bridgman’s brother, Merle Davis. And, finally, Subseries 4 consists of six folders of correspondence of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, Jr. (1923-1971). The letters include Frederick’s correspondence with his parents, Frederick Sr. and Clara Bridgman, his aunt, Helen Davis Chandler, his cousins, Ray Cowles and Ruth Cordelia Cowles, and John A. Reuling, the General Secretary for the Division of World Mission of the United Church Board for World Ministries, among other family members and colleagues.

Series III. Diaries/Reminiscences (mostly unpublished), 1871-1917, n.d. (7 folders)

The series includes transcripts of letters contained in the 1871 diary of Laura Bridgman (original not included). The series also contains both the transcript and original handwritten copy of Henry Martyn Bridgman’s unpublished autobiography; in the autobiography, Henry chronicles his life from his early childhood days through 1891(the year of the work’s composition). The series contains handwritten reminiscences of Rev. Frederick Brainerd Bridgman’s childhood at the Zulu mission station, written later while living at 33 South Professor St. in Oberlin, OH (c. 1887-93), as well as his diary from 1913-1917. Finally, Series III contains the diaries and reminiscences of Clara S. Davis Bridgman from as early as 1889, while a student at Oberlin, through her years of service at the Bridgman Memorial Hospital (Johannesburg) in the 1930s.

Series IV. Genealogical Files (1641-2001), compiled in 2001, n.d. (6 folders)

Series contains biographical sketches and material (photocopies and transcriptions) establishing the genealogical relationships of members of the Brainerd family, Laura Bridgman’s ancestry, dating back to 1641 (2f). To trace the years of missionary work of the Bridgman-Cowles family back to Henry and Laura Bridgman’s first commission to South Africa in 1860, there exists a timeline and detailed list of significant dates and events. The genealogical files also contain a historical packet from John E. Bridgman. Compiled in 2001, the packet includes an obituary notice of Laura Bridgman (1923), the minutes on the death of Henry Bridgman (written 1897), a letter from Amy Bridgman Cowles (1896) to family members in the United States announcing Henry’s death, and an article written by James Bridgman (2001) about Mabel Martson, another Bridgman descendant, among other related Bridgman family memorabilia.

Series V. Guest Book, 1912 (1 folder)

Consists of one guest book given to Frederick Brainerd Bridgman from  friends and colleagues of Durban, South Africa, upon his departure in 1912. Inside the book is a two-page letter of thanks to Dr. Bridgman, signed by 35 colleagues. Also included are two personal letters of thanks to Dr. Bridgman from various friends and colleagues, and a letter concerning a fund in honor of Bridgman.

VI. Newspaper Clippings, 1898-1937 (2 books, 1f)

Series contains two scrapbooks of mounted newspaper clippings relating to the social missionary work of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman and Clara Davis Bridgman (1898-1937).Prominent among the clippings are those taken from South African newspapers (the Johannesburg Star, the Ilang laseNatal, and the Daily Mail, among others). These pieces chronicled the press coverage of the Bridgman’s missionary work, highlighting the focal points of their labor like the Helping Hand Club, the Bridgman Memorial Hospital, and other local programs. The series also includes a copy and original print of an unpublished newsletter circulated by Frederick Brainerd Bridgman entitled “The Transvaal News” (1918-19).

Series VII. Printed Matter, 1880-2000, n.d. (27 folders)

The series contains five subseries. Subseries 1 consists of two folders of printed matter relating to Frederick Brainerd Bridgman. Included here is a 1927 tribute piece, “Frederick Brainerd Bridgman: A Modern Pioneer Missionary,” produced by the American Board on the life and contributions of Frederick B. Bridgman, written by James Dexter Taylor, D.D. There is also an article, “In the Name of the Father,” a feature in the November 26, 2000 issue of the Sunday Times Explorer. The latter investigates the history and effects of American missionary work on the Umzumbe Valley in Natal, South Africa. Four folders of printed material regarding the Bridgman Memorial Hospital in Johannesburg make up subseries 2. Specific material includes a published history of the hospital (1987), the 1961-62 annual report, two information brochures (1953, n.d.), and a paper, “Urban History and Health: Nurse Cowles and Alexandra Township 1926-1946,” written by Columbia University Professor, Marcia Wright, about Ruth Cordelia Cowles’ work at the Bridgman hospital and in the surrounding area. Subseries 3 consists of five folders of church records. The subseries includes an article published (1940) in the Northampton Gazette on the discovery of church records related to the 1860 ordination of Henry Martyn Bridgman at the Congregational church in Westhampton, Massachusetts. Also included in the subseries is a 1926 program from a service in Brockton, Massachusetts that honored Clara Bridgman’s missionary work in South Africa. The subseries also contains a January 1945 calendar issued by the African Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, as well as other documents related to the Bridgman family’s history with churches in East Haddam, Connecticut, and Westhampton, Massachusetts. Subseries 4 consists of eight folders of printed matter relating to the Bridgman’s social work among the native Zulu tribe of South Africa. The subseries contains a copy of “Zulu Mission: A Condensed Sketch 1835-1898,” which is a detailed history of the Zulu people, the Natal region, and the missionary work in the area, compiled and issued by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The subseries includes an unpublished history of the Bridgman family’s missionary work with the Zulu nation written in 1986, as well as a published work (n.d.) entitled, “The Story of Laura Bridgman of Umzumbe,” that chronicles the work of the late Mrs. Henry Martyn Bridgman in Natal, South Africa. The subseries includes a South African song book (n.d.), as well as an English-Zulu dictionary (1880) and an elementary Zulu language text-book (1921). Also found in the Zulu tribe files are original typed and handwritten mission reports (n.d.) from the Umzumbe station. Subseries 5 contains eight folders of miscellaneous printed matter relating to the Bridgman/Davis families and South African missionary work (see inventory for specific title listings).

Series VIII. Writings, 1888-1954 (2 folders)

Contains writings by Clara Davis Bridgman’s sister, Helen Chandler, in honor of Clara Bridgman’s 82nd birthday (1954). This series includes a transcript and original handwritten poem written by Laura Bridgman to her husband, Henry Martyn Bridgman, on the occasion of his 58th birthday (1888). Included in the series is a story, “Hana, The Mountain Blossom,” written in Oberlin by Clara Davis (c. 1893). Also included is the “Animal, Botany, and Ecology,” lecture notebook of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, Jr. (1928-29).

Series IX. Photo Albums, c. 1870s-1999 (5 volumes and 1 folder)

Includes five photo albums of the Davis-Strong and Bridgman-Cowles families. Contains several hundred childhood/family photographs, as well as photographed accounts of missionary work in South Africa, Japan, and China by members of the extended family. The series also includes loose album pages containing photos of Bridgman-Cowles family members, the Umzumbe mission station in Natal, and more recent photos (1999) of John Bridgman, grandson of Henry Martyn Bridgman, in South Africa.

Series X. Photographs, 1866-1960, n.d. (73 folders and 2 framed photographs)

The series consists of four subseries. Subseries 1 contains photographs (1928-1949, n.d.) of doctors, nurses, mothers, babies, events, and facilities at the Bridgman Memorial Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. Subseries 2 consists of entirely family photographs (1866-1960). Individuals photographed include Henry Martyn Bridgman, Laura Bridgman, Sohpie Davis, Frederick Bridgman, Clara Davis, Merle Davis, George Cowles, and Amy Bridgman Cowles among others at various stages of their lives (1866-1960). Subseries 3 contains photographs related to the family missionary work. Included here are photographs of the Helping Hands Club, the Taletha Home for Girls, the Umzumbe mission station, churches and other mission -related sites. Subseries 4 consists of photographs of the Zulu Tribe. Included in the subseries are photographs of Zulu men, women, babies, a wedding, a witch doctor, and other aspects of Zulu culture.

Series XI. Scrapbooks, 1881-1933 (2 books, 5 loose pages)

Contains a scrapbook of letters, concert programs, invitations, sketches, and other memorabilia from Frederick Brainerd Bridgman’s school years in New Britain, Connecticut, and at Oberlin High School, Oberlin College, and the Chicago Theological Seminary. The series also includes the scrapbook of Mrs. Helen Mathews Bridgman, spouse of Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, Jr. The scrapbook contains letters, programs, class schedules, and memorabilia from Helen Mathews’ student years at Oberlin College (1928-1932). Series also includes an envelope of five loose album pages containing photographs of Johannesburg, Durban, and other locations in South Africa.

Series XII. Sound Recordings, c. 1947, n.d. (11 albums, sheet music)

Includes 11 albums of South African prayers and music. Contains one album of Clara Bridgman reciting the “the Lord’s Prayer” in Zulu, recorded on November 10, 1947. Series also consists of seven albums entitled, “Songs of the South African Veld,” by Josef Marais and his Bushveld Band, as well as three albums of other South African music (n.d.). (See Series XVI. For CD copies of these records)

Series XIII. Artifacts 1925-1931, n.d. (2 boxes)

Series contains original Zulu artifacts (n.d.) including a doll, beaded gourd, bracelet, whip, hatchet, spear, and a ball weapon collected during various commissions to South Africa. Also includes Laura Bridgman’s spectacles, an Oberlin Senior prom brush (1931), and other Bridgman family items. A trowel used for the cornerstone of the Bridgman Memorial Hospital (1928) is also contained in the series.

Series XIV. Miscellaneous, 1860-1925, n.d. (1 box)

Series contains a chart (n.d.) that traces a timeline of the Bridgman-Cowles family missionary service to South Africa (1860-1949); the very same chart appears in Series IV. Genealogical Files. The series also includes an undated, framed certificate, printed in a foreign language, entitled, “Mfundisi Bridgman ne Nkosikazi.”

Series XV. Research Files of John Bridgman, 1835-2003 (8 folders)

Series consists of several items complied in 2003 by John Bridgman, grandson of Henry Martyn Bridgman. Contained in the series is a folder of materials from Amy Bridgman Cowles including a transcript of a speech (1934) she delivered on the history of missionary work in South Africa, a transcript of Henry Martyn Bridgman telling the story of his education (n.d.), an excerpt from Henry’s diary en route to Liverpool, Nova Scotia (1858), an excerpt from Laura Bridgman’s diary (n.d.) entitled, “Reminiscences of Bygoen Days,” as well as other writings and letters of Amy Bridgman Cowles and family members. The series also includes an 1986 unpublished history of the Bridgman family’s social/missionary work with the Zulu tribe entitled, “Bridgman Family Missionaries of Zululand,” (also appears in Series VII. Printed Matter, Subseries 4. Zulu Files). The John Bridgman compilation also contains a published history of the South African missionary effort entitled, “One Hundred Years of the American Board Mission in South Africa, 1835-1935” by Reverend J. Dexter Taylor, D.D. (n.d.). Also included in the series in another published, undated missionary history by Mary W. Tyler Gray entitled, “Stories of the Early American Missionaries in South Africa.” The series contains three folders of miscellaneous lists of missionaries and other printed matter related to missionary work in South Africa. Finally, the John Bridgman research files contain a copy of a 1909 photograph of the American Board Mission, as well as copy of an undated photograph of the Bridgman-Cowles Family (pictured: Burt Bridgman, George B. Cowles, Amy Bridgman Cowles, Frederick B. Bridgman, Clara Davis Bridgman, Laura Bridgman, Ester Bridgman, Henry Martyn Bridgman II, and small children).

Series XVI. CD-ROMs, 1947, n.d. (7 compact discs)

This series consists of four compact disc copies of the record albums of African prayer and music contained in Series XII. Sound Recordings. The series also contains three CDs created by Margaret and Bill Holcomb of scanned images of select photographs, correspondence, printed matter, and other materials contained in the Bridgman Family Papers collection.


The Bridgman Family Papers were received in three installments from William and Margaret Holcomb in 2002 and 2004 (2002/077, 2002/120, 2004/023). John Bridgman donated his research files in 2003 (2003/019). In 2004, audio CD-ROMs (created by the Oberlin College A-V Department) containing recordings of songs and the Lord’s Prayer were added to the collection (2004/024).

Related Materials

Other collections relating to missionary work in Africa include the Frederick Bunker Papers (30/277), the Frank H. Foster Papers (30/103), and the Erwin H. Richards Papers (30/271). See also the student files of Mrs. Caroline Leonard Goodenough 1877, Herbert D. Goodenough 1877, Mrs. Gertrude Pearl Goodenough, and Aubrey W. Goodenough 1906.

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