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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Graphic novel of one of the earliest lesbian couples in America draws from Henry Sheldon Museum archives

The Sheldon’s collection includes the famous ‘double silhouette’, an emblem of LGBTQ+ rights across the country.
The Sheldon’s collection includes the famous ‘double silhouette’, an emblem of LGBTQ+ rights across the country.

The most extensive documentation of same-sex couples in America lives right in the town of Middlebury at the Henry Sheldon Museum. The museum holds archives of the relationship between Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, one of the earliest documented lesbian couples, when they lived in Weybridge, Vt. during the early to mid-nineteenth century. Now, those very archives will be used for an upcoming graphic novel. 

Tillie Walden, Vermont’s renowned cartoonist laureate, will take up residency at the museum beginning in May in order to write a graphic novel about the couple’s life.

After living in several places around New England, Bryant and Drake settled down in Weybridge in 1807 until Bryant’s death in 1851, according to the museum’s website. The two lived together for 44 years and are now buried under the same headstone in Weybridge. 

Thanks to the meticulous record-keeping of Henry Sheldon, a Middlebury resident who was passionate about local history, the Sheldon Museum now possesses the contents of a trunk of letters sent to Henry Sheldon by the Drake family from a familial home on Morgan Horse Farm Road where Drake spent her final years following Bryant’s passing. 

The letters detail her relationship to Bryant, as well as Drake’s life after Bryant’s death.

The archives include over 900 letters from the Drake family, which Eva Garcelon-Hart, the archivist at the museum, is currently organizing. It also contains diaries, business letters, business records and poems. Bryant and Drake often wrote poems to communicate with one another. 

The museum also holds in its possession the ‘double silhouette,’ Bryant and Drake’s silhouette profiles facing each other. The piece of art is considered to represent one of earliest documentations of a same-sex couple in the United States.

“It became a big symbol for a lot of gay people across the country,” Garcelon-Hart told The Campus. 

The collection has an adult cradle as well, which the couple kept in their house for times of sickness, as well as a pin cushion from their tailoring business and pieces of clothing. The museum does not have any photographs of Bryant and Drake.

Coco Moseley, executive director of the Sheldon Museum, wrote in an email to The Campus about what she expects Walden’s work process in creating the graphic novel to look like. 

“I’m sure she will be spending a lot of time in the Research Center with the archival materials, but I also look forward to showing her more of the Museum’s collection to help ground her in the 19th century,” Moseley wrote. 

Walden’s upcoming book will differ from the only previous narration of Bryant and Drake’s lives, “Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America,written by Rachel Hope Cleves, a professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, in 2014. While Cleves used records from places outside of Vermont and focused on the couples’ intimate relationship, Walden will exclusively rely on the Sheldon museum archives to tell the story of Bryant and Drake’s years living together in Vermont, according to Garcelon-Hart. 

The Sheldon is partnering with Vermont Humanities and Tillie Walden to produce a graphic novel following Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake’s life together.

Walden’s project was commissioned by nonprofit arts organization Vermont Humanities and the Vermont branch of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, executive director of Vermont Humanities, became interested in the story of Bryant and Drake through Cleves’ book, according to Seven Days.

Vermont Humanities will use a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund projects for its “United We Stand: Connecting Through Culture” initiative. The campaign is operating nationwide and allocates a full budget of $2.8 million to Humanities councils to support local programming.  

“The goal of this is to support local programming that helps communities counter the destructive effects of hate-fueled violence on our democracy and public safety,” said Ryan Newsanger, director of programming at Vermont Humanities. 

Vermont Humanities has already partnered with Walden on several other projects. Most recently, the organization worked with the Center for Cartoon Studies, where Walden currently teaches, as well as the Vermont Secretary of State and other groups to create a book entitled “Freedom and Unity” a graphic novel intended to be a guide to civics and democracy in Vermont.

“She's become a bit of a national sensation for her work,” Newswanger said of Walden. “We’re thrilled that she is open to partnering with us.”  

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Garcelon-Hart hopes that the book’s accessible graphic novel format will draw a wider audience to the story of Bryant and Drake.

“Graphic novels became, in the last several years, a tool also for presenting historical material,” she said. “If there’s one thing about her she’s incredibly committed to creating a truly historically accurate depiction.”

Walden will give eight talks about her project at various libraries and nonprofits throughout 2024, and will likely finish the book in 2025. 

While Garcelon-Hart sifts through the archives of Bryant and Drake’s relationship, Moseley is working on creating a space in the museum dedicated to sharing the couple’s story through the museum’s archives, including a display of the couple’s adult cradle. Current plans include a partnership with the Preservation Trust of Vermont to unveil a historic marker in front of Bryant and Drake’s tombstone to mark their life together.

“I’ve personally been working with the staff team at the Sheldon to develop a space in the Museum dedicated to sharing Charity and Sylvia’s story, including a place to display their adult cradle that served as a comfort to them,” Moseley wrote in an email to The Campus. 

The importance of the collection and Walden’s book extends to the acceptance of women. 

“It’s also about women in the 19th century who supported themselves,” said Garcelon-Hart, noting that Bryant and Drake lived together in their house at a time when women weren’t even able to own property, while also owning a tailoring business together.

“There’s lots of beautiful language and kind of a solid, interesting documentation of someone’s life,” Garcelon-Hart added.

Garcelon-Hart is excited for the public to read Walden’s graphic novel, explaining that Bryant and Drake’s story demonstrates the acceptance of rural communities to same-sex relationships over two centuries ago.

“People, I think, tended to think that big urban centers are more liberal and accepting. And here, these two women clearly were accepted,” she said, adding that it was widely known the couple was in a relationship and thus was seen as a married couple. 

Tillie Walden, Vermont’s cartoonist laureate, will take up residency at The Sheldon starting in May 2023.

Emily Hogan

Emily Hogan '24 (she/her) is a Local Editor.   

She is studying Environmental Policy with a minor in Math. In addition to writing and editing for the Campus, she also dances with the On Tap dance troupe and serves on the Environmental Council. She has previously worked with the Sustainability Solutions Lab at Middlebury.