Wikipedia entry - Mary Emmons
I was interested in learning more about the Wikipedia coverage of Mary Emmons after we had a discussion in class about her, in which we mentioned that there wasn’t even an article about Mary Emmons on Wikipedia. First, I took a look at the current state of how Emmons is covered on Wikipedia.
Mary Emmons on Wikipedia
Emmons technically had an article, but the article was just a redirect to a small section on the “Aaron Burr” article titled “Unacknowledged children.” This passage began with the phrase, “Among some families that claim descent from Burr,” there is an “oral tradition” that Burr “fathered two illegitimate children with an East Indian woman.” After describing Emmons’s children, it concluded that “Burr's surviving letters and documents provide no evidence of any woman matching the description of Mary or Eugénie.” Finally, a last sentence had been added, almost as an afterthought: “In 2018, Louisa and John were acknowledged by the Aaron Burr Association as the children of Burr.”
Immediately, it appeared that Emmons’s characterization in this article was completely different from what we had studied in class, especially from reading the work of Sheri Burr and talking about the experiences of people of color in Revolutionary America in general. Likely, this was due to the incremental (and perhaps haphazard) way in which Wikipedia articles are generally improved. Before Sherri Burr’s discovery in 2019, the authenticity of Emmons was only supported by speculation. It was only afterwards that more conclusive DNA and documentary evidence was provided, but it must have just been added at the end of the paragraph. No one was able to take the time to rewrite the paragraph to reflect that Emmons’s status really changed -- these children may no longer be “illegitimate” (because in Sherri Burr’s account, there was a marriage certificate) and the claim of descent from Burr and Emmons is not only just an “oral tradition” but also backed up by substantial evidence.
So, I decided to make an article about Mary Emmons, and I had a particular goal. I wanted readers, when they read about her, not to think that she was an illusory figure who might have had “illegitimate” children according to “some families” who had an “oral tradition.” Instead, I wanted to bring in all the evidence that has come up since then, to show that she was a real person who did have children with Aaron Burr -- backed up by the historical evidence that indicates so. In the process of doing so, a few things stood out to me: the importance of wording and the difficulty in finding sources.
The first sentence of a Wikipedia article is arguably the most significant. This is the sentence who characterizes who Emmons is, which introduces the entire tone of the article -- and this is also the single sentence that shows up in the Google Knowledge Panel when anyone types in “mary emmons” on Google. I ended up writing the following lead:
Mary Emmons (c. 1760 – c. 1832), also known as Eugénie Beauharnais, was an Indian woman born in Calcutta who worked as a servant in the household of American politician and Founding Father Aaron Burr Jr. While working as a servant, she had a relationship with Burr, and the couple had a daughter, Louisa Charlotte, in 1788 and a son, John Pierre Burr, in 1792. Before coming to the United States, Emmons worked in Haiti. Her origin from the Indian subcontinent made her one of the first Indian Americans in the country.
Writing this lead brought up some difficult questions, though. How could I create a sentence that emphasizes her agency without solely defining her by her intimate relations to Burr? I tried to look at the “Sally Hemings” article for guidance, but I’m not sure if even the way Hemings is characterized in the lead was the right call. I settled on the above paragraph. I tried to emphasize her heritage and agency -- she was, first and foremost, an Indian woman born in Calcutta who worked as a servant, not just an accessory of Aaron Burr. Thus, I didn’t include that she had a relationship with Burr until the second sentence. Additionally, she was one of the first Indian Americans in the country, perhaps the first -- a perspective we had covered well in class but did not seem to be highlighted in any of the sources I read. That’s why I added the last sentence in the lead.
This example describes just one of the ways I had to pay attention to wording, but I repeated a similar process for every other part of the article that I wrote.
Unlike for many other topics, there is only a finite, limited amount of information about Mary Emmons in existence. Any source that mentioned her only referred to her as a side note, in limited terms, and always in relation to her children. The following quote by Mabel Burr Cornish (a descendant of Burr and Emmons) is emblematic of the briefness with which I would usually find Emmons mentioned: “Jean-Pierre Burr’s mother was an East Indian woman, born in Calcutta, who went to Haiti and became housekeeper to Aaron Burr’s children.”
My challenge was thus to gather enough content to merit a substantial Wikipedia article, not to mention being able to fairly represent Emmons in spite of the paucity of her own viewpoint within her sources. I initially added some interesting representations of Emmons in popular culture: one artist depicted Emmons through a corset in “The Loves of Aaron Burr,” a series celebrating nine women whom Burr had affairs with, and I also had to mention Susan Holloway Scott’s novel. These depictions, however, couldn’t merit more than a brief mention -- works of art perhaps reveal more about the artist than about the subject herself, and could not make up the bulk of the article.
To solve this issue, I decided to focus more on Mary Emmons’s children. After all, it is through John Pierre and Louisa Charlotte, and their descendants, that we even know about Mary Emmons at all. Additionally, children are but a reflection of the values and attitudes that their parents imbibe into them while raising them. Thus, talking about how John Pierre Burr was an active abolitionist, and how Louisa Charlotte’s son became a pioneering African American novelist, serve as vital insights into the kind of person that Emmons must have been. And I had to include the enigmatic fact that the death certificates of both Louisa Ann and John Pierre have “mother” and “father” blank, another telling fact about how Emmons might have had to present herself. Finally, I added a family tree section at the end of the article to show the descendants that owed their entire existence to Emmons’s life.
There’s always the feeling that some history is lost, though, and the feeling of looking through every last page on Google and other archives for terms such as “Emmons,” “Jean-Pierre,” and “Eugenie” was sometimes useful but mostly disappointing as the only few leads I found soon petered off. I do know where to look next, though: the Christian A. Fleetwood papers is supposed to have more information about Emmons and Burr (Fleetwood’s wife was Emmons’s great-great-great granddaughter). Maybe I’ll look at them one day after the pandemic is over.
Overall, this was a rewarding experience! It’s great that I have the power to shape narratives about how Mary Emmons is perceived, just by writing a Wikipedia article about her, though admittedly scary because I don’t want to unintentionally create a negative or demeaning impression of her. Within a week after I created the article, though, another editor already started changing wording and content, commenting that they wanted to “copyedit this solid start of an article.” Perhaps this episode shows that it doesn’t matter if the article isn’t perfect on the first try: as long as you take the first step to create the article, other interested and dedicated people will show up to help you figure it out.
 Aaron Burr - Wikipedia, 23 September 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Aaron_Burr&oldid=979902917#Unacknowledged_children
 Aaron Burr: Difference between revisions, 21 May 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Aaron_Burr&diff=898171669&oldid=898148879&diffmode=source
 mary emmons - Google Search, https://www.google.com/search?q=mary+emmons
 Mary Emmons - Wikipedia, 25 September 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mary_Emmons&oldid=980183835
 “Sarah "Sally" Hemings (c. 1773–1835) was an enslaved woman of mixed race owned by President Thomas Jefferson. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that Jefferson had a long-term sexual relationship with Hemings, and historians now broadly agree that he was the father of her six children.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally_Hemings
 Allen Ballard, One More Day's Journey: The Story of a Family and a People, 2011, p. 271
 Christian A. Fleetwood papers, https://www.loc.gov/item/mm75020784/
 Mary Emmons, 10 October 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mary_Emmons&oldid=982857463