Working in a Pinch: Researching During the Pandemic

By LJ Woolcock, Library Assistant

We’re getting close to a year since the pandemic set in here in the US, which I think we can all safely say, no one could have imagined when things first started closing down in 2020. While sourdough definitely stole the show as America’s new hobby, my colleagues and I at the MHS library know there’s also a wave of new historians who have been using their time in quarantine to dive into research. At the same time, most historical institutions, libraries, and archives remain shuttered. As a library assistant, one of the most difficult things I have to do on a regular basis is tell patrons that they’re going to have to wait or request reproductions of the materials they’re interested in using.

So, how can you carry on with historical research when many archival collections are inaccessible and libraries are closed?

I’d like to offer some of the sources that I regularly turn to–both in helping patrons as well as with my own research–when I am not able to access unique archival collections.

Print Materials

Books, pamphlets, advertisements, broadsides, and other printed materials often are unappreciated when it comes to historical research. They’re not given the same value as manuscript collections because they are not unique documents. They also lack the “numen” that archives hold for people: that sense that you’re touching history, making a direct physical connection with the past. However, printed materials contain a wealth of information and ought not to be overlooked.

A fantastic example is city directories. They are incredible tools for identifying regular people living in the city in the past. If you’re looking for someone specific, they list names, addresses, and professions, which you can then use to try to find further sources on an individual. On a broader scale, they also give a bird’s eye view of who was living in the city, where they lived, and what they did for a living. They allow you to form a textual map of a street, neighborhood, or the city as a whole.

The MHS holds physical copies of Boston city directories from the first publication of the Boston Directory in 1789, into the 20th century:

Boston City Directories

But many have also been digitized and can be accessed for free on HathiTrust and the Internet Archive.

HathiTrust search results

This is just one example. If a printed book is in the public domain (in general, works published before 1926 or were released more than 95 years ago), there’s a chance that it’s been digitized. For example, if you’re interested in the history of Black activism or Boston’s Black community, David Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles, one of the only published works in U.S. literature to openly encourage to Black people to resist slavery and other forms of white oppression, is available in full on Google Books. Walker self-published his Appeal from Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and thousands of copies travelled to Black readers across the US.

Working with print materials may not provide the same experience of tracing the pen strokes of the past like archival documents, but it does emphasize how history is something that’s built—that you have to take many scattered pieces to construct an image of what the past looked like.

Published Archival Documents/Edited Editions

Two resources we often use at the MHS are our publications Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society and Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. These publications, documenting new acquisitions and meetings of the Society, hold unexpected treasures. They’re filled with full transcriptions or edited editions of documents that would be otherwise inaccessible outside of our reading room.

If you find a collection or source in our catalog, check the form “Additional Forms available.” If it has been published in either Collections or Proceedings, it will most likely be indicated there with the series, volume, and page number.

MHS library catalog

Many collections of archival documents that were edited and published in the 19th century are now in the public domain, and many have been digitized and made available online as well. Some editions that I’ve used during the pandemic include the early colonial Records for the Town of Boston (colorfully titled “Second Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston”—there are many subsequent reports that publish town records into the 18th century), the digitized volumes of Massachusetts Town Vital Records to 1850, and Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War.

Modern edited editions, such as the digital edition of the Adams Papers, are also easily accessible during the pandemic.

Digitized Archival Collections

Of course, these are the current gold of pandemic researchers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “If only more had been digitized!”

Many of the MHS’ digitized collections live in our online collection guides. If you see a collection guide with a blue “Digitized Content,” you can click through to see what materials are available online.

MHS collection guide

Objects, art, and some additional archival sources are accessible through on our online Collection Highlights and Online Resources. There are also digitized collections in more unexpected places; for example, the papers of Mary Hartford, a member of Boston’s free black community in the 18th and 19th centuries, can be found in one of our past digital exhibits, “African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts,” along with materials from many other collections that otherwise haven’t been digitized.

Consult a Librarian

If you’re not sure where to start or how to identify sources that might speak to a topic, you can always email librarians and archivists to ask for help. The MHS library has its contact information here, including our live chat service.

Keep a “for-later” List

Something that I do while conducting my own research, is to keep a document where I save citations of documents, collections, digital history resources, secondary books, and other things related to my topic that are relevant, along with the place I found them. Anything that you think you may want to remember, or check out in the future related to your research can be thrown inside.

I’ve always found it to be a helpful tool, but during the pandemic it’s been especially essential. If you’re only able to access books from your library using a to-go service, you can look at their footnotes and keep a record of what sources you might want to Google. You never know what might be available online; but even if it’s not possible to access those documents now, you’ll have a record of what you’re interested in and where they are.

Keeping a list also provides you with an intellectual history of your own curiosity: you’ll be able to see what in a particular article sparked your interest, and any new paths you may want to explore. And, I guarantee you—no matter how awesome it sounds right now, you will not remember the name of that collection, or the date of that one letter, later on. I can’t tell you how many times my list has saved me from pandemic brain-fog forgetfulness.

Hopefully this provides some new paths for pandemic historians out there. Suggestions like these may not be able to take the place of archival research, but they do provide us some way into our questions. Limits frustrate us, but they also foster creativity—we learn to think in unexpected ways, and create connection that previously might have gone unexplored.

Works Cited

The David Walker Memorial Project. “David Walker’s Appeal.” David Walker Memorial Project, (accessed 1 March 2021).

The Diary of William Logan Rodman, Part I

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

This is the first installment of a series on the diary of William Logan Rodman. Stay tuned to the Beehive for more.

About a year ago, the MHS acquired a very interesting diary kept by William Logan Rodman of New Bedford, Mass. Though it covers only a year and a half of Rodman’s life, it’s full of terrific anecdotes, descriptions, and hot takes on current events leading up to and including the first year of the Civil War.

Rodman diary
Page of William Logan Rodman diary

If he sounds familiar to you, that may be because of his grandfather Samuel Rodman (1753-1835), a very prosperous merchant who made his name in the whaling centers of Nantucket and New Bedford. Samuel married Elizabeth Rotch, and several other Rodmans also married into that family, interweaving the two powerful New England whaling dynasties. William’s maternal grandfather, meanwhile, was Thomas Morgan, a prominent merchant of Philadelphia.

Members of the Rodman, Rotch, and Morgan families were also practicing Quakers and fervent opponents of slavery.

In October 1860, when he began his diary, William Rodman had a comfortable life. He was 38 years old, unmarried, living in New Bedford, and “participat[ing] moderately in business,” as his Harvard biography puts it. But his life would change dramatically in the coming months, and it all began with the momentous election of Abraham Lincoln on 6 November.

Abraham Lincoln photo
Carte-de-visite photograph of Abraham Lincoln, ca. 1861-1865

Southern backlash to the election was fierce, but Rodman was initially sanguine about it, writing the day after, “I have no fears of Secession or Revolution. The South will bluster & Resolve but […] all will be quiet.” And a few days later: “They will have to submit to the will of the majority viz the Union or go to everlasting smash out of it.” He dismissed what he called “Southern secession nonsense” in the newspapers.

James Buchanan was now a lame-duck president. Rodman hated him, and he did not mince words. He called the administration “corrupt and degraded” and the man himself “the meanest & vilest of the American Presidents,” lacking “a vertebral column.” He rarely even referred to Buchanan by name, preferring epithets such as “the Old Public Functionary,” “an inefficient old fool,” and even “Mrs. Buchanan,” probably a not-so-veiled reference to rumors about the bachelor president’s sexuality.

James Buchanan photograph
Photomechanical of James Buchanan, undated

Buchanan’s political positions were abhorrent to opponents of slavery like Rodman. Buchanan had intervened in the deliberations of the U.S. Supreme Court in Dred Scott, pressuring justices to rule against Scott and deny citizenship to Black people. He supported the Fugitive Slave Law requiring free states to return enslaved people to their enslavers and argued for a federal law protecting slavery in the territories. And he used his 1860 State of the Union address to pre-emptively blame the Northern states for Southern secession (emphasis mine):

The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects. The different sections of the Union are now arrayed against each other, and the time has arrived, so much dreaded by the Father of his Country, when hostile geographical parties have been formed.

I have long foreseen and often forewarned my countrymen of the now impending danger. This does not proceed solely from the claim on the part of Congress or the Territorial legislatures to exclude slavery from the Territories, nor from the efforts of different States to defeat the execution of the fugitive-slave law. All or any of these evils might have been endured by the South without danger to the Union (as others have been) in the hope that time and reflection might apply the remedy. The immediate peril arises not so much from these causes as from the fact that the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom. Hence a sense of security no longer exists around the family altar. This feeling of peace at home has given place to apprehensions of servile insurrections. Many a matron throughout the South retires at night in dread of what may befall herself and children before the morning. Should this apprehension of domestic danger, whether real or imaginary, extend and intensify itself until it shall pervade the masses of the Southern people, then disunion will become inevitable. […]

How easy would it be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever and to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country! They, and they alone, can do it. All that is necessary to accomplish the object, and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way.

Historians have consistently ranked Buchanan at or near the bottom in lists of U.S. presidents. One 2015 biography is even called The Worst President: The Story of James Buchanan.

At the beginning of December, still three months away from Lincoln’s inauguration, Rodman was beginning to sound a little less sure of himself on the question of secession. He wrote, “I cannot feel that this great confederacy is to be destroyed just yet and I dont like to contemplate the fearful ruin that must overtake the South if they pursue their mad schemes.”

Sure enough, on 20 December 1860, South Carolina became the first of eleven states to dissolve its ties with the Union. Rodman had not wanted to see it happen, but now that it was underway, he recorded his feelings in his diary:

Some of our citizens talk blood and warfare, but this is easy talking far away from the probable scenes of danger. I hope we may have peace without blood but if not why my first wish is for wiping Charleston off the face of creation.

Rendezvous at the Lines: The Murray Family During the Siege of Boston

By Lauren Duval, NEH-MHS Long-term Research Fellow, Assistant Professor of History, University of Oklahoma

This past fall I was delighted to spend time at the Massachusetts Historical Society as a research fellow. Analyzing British-occupied cities during the American Revolution, my research centers the urban household and examines how civilian families navigated the disruption of occupation and the consequence of this experience, both during and after the war. The voluminous correspondence of the loyalist Murray family proved an exceptional source for examining these dynamics, offering a fascinating glimpse into how one Boston family navigated the hardships of martial law during the early months of the war.

On April 20, 1775, in the wake of the battles at Lexington and Concord, Bostonians awoke to startling news that they were, in the words of one woman, “Genl. Gage’s prisoner[s]—all egress, & regress being cut off between the town & country.”[1] In the months that followed, both the British army and the militia (later Continental army) besieging Boston were hesitant to allow civilians to cross military lines, fearing disease, espionage, and the loss of resources. Some fortunate Bostonians managed to secure passes.[2] Many others, however, lingered in the besieged city (whether by choice or circumstance), where they endured food shortages, disease, plunder, and violence, and struggled to communicate with friends and family outside the British garrison.

The Murray family was stranded on both sides of the lines. Residing in Boston alongside his wife, Elizabeth, and youngest daughter Betsy, loyalist James Murray occupied his time by gardening and reading books, the latter of which he jokingly referred to as “the best friends now left to me.”[3] His sister, Elizabeth Murray Campbell Smith Inman and eldest daughter, Dolly Murray Forbes dwelt at the family’s Brush-hill estate, in Cambridge, surrounded by Continental troops. Later in the occupation, Betsy, to her parents’ distress, would abandon the garrison to shelter at Brush-hill.[4] Crossing the lines was nevertheless a fraught endeavor, even with permission. In the fall of 1775, for instance, Elizabeth Inman was advised to remove into the garrison for safety. She obtained a pass to visit Boston and became stranded there for the remainder of the occupation.[5]

Despite being separated by only a few miles, the Murray family was divided by both wartime circumstances and military boundaries. Obtaining passes from commanding officers, they arranged meetings at the military outposts that separated the British garrison at Boston from the Continental camp in Cambridge. Such conferences permitted them to visit, exchange news, and offer reassurances of safety. But they were far from private. As James Murray explained in July 1776, a British officer would observe the family’s gatherings “to be Eye & Ear Witness of all that passes.” This precaution, Murray explained, was for the family’s protection and he strongly advised “the Ladies . . . to use the same precaution, on their side: the Times require it.”[6] With various family members stranded on either side of the lines, dependent upon the protection of both armies, the Murrays could ill-afford to be charged with treasonous behavior by either faction. Witnesses, both British and Continental, who could attest, if necessary, to the content of the family’s conversation was an important shield against such charges. Still, the Murrays were cautious not to meet too frequently, fearful of raising suspicions among Massachusetts revolutionaries.[7]

Like inhabitants of occupied cities throughout British North America, the Murrays struggled with the lack of private communications. They lamented the necessity of leaving letters unsealed for inspection and bemoaned the uncertainty of conveyance. The Murrays, with their regular visits at the lines, were in some ways, more fortunate than those families who had to settle for letters or word-of-mouth reassurances of safety. When possible, the Murrays used private channels, entrusting their missives to neighbors who had obtained passes to cross the lines. Such conveyances were nevertheless circumspect; nothing of consequence could be committed to paper, lest the letter be intercepted.[8] Occasionally, the Murrays sent letters and goods via servants and enslaved messengers, whose roles as laborers permitted them to more easily traverse military lines.[9] Such mobility could, however, be perilous. Enslaved laborers were routinely plundered and kidnapped. Disease flourished near military encampments. Like white civilians, the enslaved could become trapped within the garrison, far from their own families and where they encountered far more difficulties in learning about their loved ones’ well-being. Proximity to the British army nevertheless offered a chance for freedom, and approximately twenty thousand self-emancipated men, women, and children made their way to the British lines during the war.[10]

Despite scrupulous planning, miscarried letters, delayed passes, and other mishaps disrupted the Murrays’ meetings.[11] Weather could deter visits, especially in the frigid winter months.[12] Wartime circumstances introduced additional fears; in the midst of civil war, surrounded by two armies, safety was no guarantee. Hinting at the strain of nine-months-long separation, in January 1776, James Murray wrote to his daughters, requesting them to “bring with you as healthy & chearful Countenances as you did at our last [meeting].” “Your very looks will be a feast to your old Father tho not a Word pass,” he assured them.[13] But even as such glimpses fortified the family for the hardship ahead, the long period of separation exacerbated other worries. Parted from his grandsons for several months, James Murray and his wife Elizabeth worried that “they will have quite forgot us.”[14] Each time the family sent off a letter, they worried, as Dolly expressed to her father in May 1775, that “it may be the last time we can hear from you.”[15]

Although only one facet of the wartime disruption that Bostonians faced in the early years of the war, the experiences of the Murray family underscore the deeply personal and intimate ways in which the war affected American families. Residing between two armies, the challenges that the family faced speak not only to the hardship that civil war inflicted on civilians residing in and around the Boston garrison, but also illustrate in vivid detail the consequences of these circumstances on daily life and familial relationships. As Dolly Forbes feared, the separation from her parents did become permanent. Like many Boston loyalists, James and Elizabeth Murray evacuated Boston with the army in March 1776. They eventually settled in Halifax, where James died in 1781, far from the family that he had valiantly struggled to keep unified during the war.[16]

[1] Sarah Winslow Deming Journal, April 20, 1775.

[2] Permit to pass through British lines, May 1775, Miscellaneous Bound Manuscripts, 1774–1775.

[3] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes & Betsey Murray, October 2, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2 (garden); James Murray to Elizabeth Inman, May 23, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2 (quotation).

[4] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes & Betsey Murray, October 2, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[5] Memorial of Dorothy Forbes of Milton to the Honble. Council & House of Representatives of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay, December 12, 1775, Murray Robbins Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 4.

[6] James Murray to Elizabeth Inman and Dolly Forbes, July 26, 1775, Murray Robbins Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 4.

[7] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes & Betsy Murray, Feb 10, 1776 (James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[8] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes and Betsy Murray, November 6, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[9] For a few examples, see James Murray to Elizabeth Inman, May 17, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2; James Murray to Elizabeth Inman, Boston, Thursday, May 18, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2; Elizabeth Inman to Ralph Inman, 29th & 30th May 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2; Elizabeth Inman to Dorothy Forbes and Betsy Murray, October 28, 1776, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[10] Cassandra Pybus, “Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly 62, no. 2 (2005): 261.

[11] Letter to Betsie Murray, February 23, 1776, Murray Robbins Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 5, (miscarried); Elizabeth Inman to Ralph Inman, Sunday April 30, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2 (delayed).

[12] James Murray to Dolly Forbes and Betsy Murray, February 14, 1776, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[13] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes & Betsy Murray, January 10, 1776, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[14] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes and Betsy Murray, November 6, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[15] Letters of James Murray, Loyalist, ed. Nina Moore Tiffany and Susan Inches Lesley (Boston, 1901), 199.

[16] James Henry Stark, The Loyalists of Massachusetts and the Other Side of the American Revolution (J.H. Stark, 1907), 258–60.

Louisa Catherine Adams: “I was a Mother ”

By Sara Martin, Editor in Chief, The Adams Papers

On 8 July 1801 Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams stepped aboard the ship America in Hamburg. She was ill, worried for the son she birthed less than three months earlier, and sailing toward an America she knew only as “the land of my Fathers.” Volumes 15 and 16 of the Adams Family Correspondence, two forthcoming volumes in the Adams Papers series, chronicle the exciting and daunting changes in Louisa’s life during the first decade of the nineteenth century. She met the Adams family in the United States, carved a place for herself and her husband, John Quincy Adams, in Washington society, and most importantly embraced motherhood.

Miniature portrait of Louisa Catherine Johnson
Louisa Catherine Johnson,
miniature, circa 1792

The daughter of an American father, Joshua Johnson, and English mother, Catherine Nuth Johnson, Louisa was born in London on 12 February 1775. She received her education in France, after her family fled to Nantes during the American Revolution. Returning to London after the war, Joshua Johnson became the U.S. consul at London in 1790, and the Johnson household served as a center for Americans in the British capital. When John Quincy Adams arrived in bustling city in late 1795, he was welcomed into the Johnson home and found the three eldest Johnson “daughters pretty and agreeable.” Louisa captivated his particular focus, and the couple was engaged before John Quincy returned to his diplomatic post at The Hague in late May 1796. More than thirty letters exchanged during their courtship are included in volumes 11 and 12 of the Adams Family Correspondence and are available online through the Adams Papers Digital Edition.

Following the couple’s July 1797 marriage, they moved to Berlin, where John Quincy spent more than three years as the U.S. minister to Prussia. The young diplomat successfully negotiated a new treaty with Prussia but found many of his other duties onerous. Neither he nor Louisa relished the constant whirl of Berlin’s lavish court life, and they escaped the capital when they could, enjoying trips to Dresden and Töplitz and making an extensive tour of Silesia. Louisa’s health in this period was precarious. She experienced several miscarriages before the birth of the couple’s first child, a son named George Washington Adams, in April 1801. “I was a Mother—God had heard my prayer,” Louisa recalled in her autobiography years later.

So it was with a great deal of trepidation that Louisa boarded the America for America in July 1801. After “Sixty long and wearisome days” the family arrived in Philadelphia that September. Louisa spent several weeks visiting her family in Washington, D.C., before traveling to Quincy to meet her in-laws. “Quincy! What shall I say of my impressions of Quincy,” Louisa recalled of her introduction into the Adamses’ community. “Had I steped into Noah’s Ark I do not think I could have been more utterly astonished.” With her cosmopolitan upbringing in Europe, Quincy society seemed foreign. She often felt herself on the outside, looking in.

With John Quincy’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1803, Louisa returned to Washington, a city she found charming on her first arrival in 1801: “I am quite delighted with the situation of this place and I think should it ever be finished it will be one of the most beautiful spots in the world.” The close proximity to her family held great appeal, and she remained in the capital during the 1804 recess, while John Quincy visited his parents in Massachusetts. The situation was reversed in 1806 and 1807, when Louisa stayed in Boston while John Quincy returned to his post in the capital.

Louisa’s frequent letters during these periods of separation discuss a wide range of activities, from what she was reading and who she was visiting to what was going on in Congress and Washington society or locally in Massachusetts. Tender moments between husband and wife are joined by periods of miscommunication and disagreement. But much of Louisa’s letters are filled with commentary about their children, for they welcomed a second son, John Adams, in July 1803, and then another, Charles Francis Adams, in August 1807.

Letter from Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams
Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams, 9 July 1804

“I feel oppressed with such a heavy weight of care when I look at our lovely children separated as I am from you my life is a scene of continual anxiety,” Louisa wrote on 9 July 1804. “You know how fondly I doat on my Children you may therefore rest assured they shall be watched with the fondest care and every thing that is possible for a mother to do shall be done to promote their welfare during your absence.” Much of Louisa’s anxiety pertained to the children’s health. In a 4 October 1801 letter she noted a “terrible eruption” on George’s skin but was relieved when it “proved to be nothing more than bug bites.” She also commented on common illnesses from teething and seasonal complaints, along with the challenges in getting the children inoculated.

Louisa was delighted—and occasionally exasperated—by her sons’ antics. “George . . . says you are very naughty to go away and leave him he does teaze me so when I write I scarcely know what I am doing,” she wrote on 20 May 1804. And in January 1807 she reported that while John eagerly anticipated the return of his “very good Papa” it had “been impossible to prevail on him to go to school.” George, on the other hand, boasted that he “believed he was too clever” for his schoolmaster.

Letter from Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams
Louisa Catherine Adams to John Quincy Adams, 21 January 1807

As the first decade of the nineteenth century drew to a close, Louisa returned to Europe with John Quincy. With her children always centermost in her thoughts, this time she looked longingly back toward Massachusetts, where she left her two oldest children under the care of the Adamses . But that is a story for a later Adams Papers volume.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

National History Day in Massachusetts has gone Virtual… and We Need Judges!

By Kate Melchior, Assistant Director of Education

Two NHD in Massachusetts students presenting their topic
National History Day in Massachusetts students

Deadline: Wednesday, 24 February 2021

It’s time again for National History Day in Massachusetts! Our students and teachers are hard at work on their “Communication in History” themed projects in the face of this year’s challenges. Are you looking for something to do at home? Volunteer to judge at our Virtual Statewide Competition. Not only will you support our NHD MA students but you can also learn some amazing history. We need your help to provide quality judging and a great contest experience for the students!

Our competition will be held virtually with two rounds to determine our final winners. We are looking for judges—history aficionados and novices alike. No previous experience required!

Sign up now

Judging will take place between 17 and 21 March, on your own schedule. Visit our Registration Portal to learn more and volunteer to judge today!

For more information about NHD in Massachusetts and to see examples of past projects, visit our website at or e-mail

“I preys mighty for you all”: Letters of a Black Family in the Early 20th Century, Part V

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

This is the final installment of a five-part series on the Jarrett family letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

In this post, I conclude the story of Julia Jarrett and her son Homer, as documented in the Jarrett family letters here at the MHS. Julia had been born into slavery in the 1850s, and in 1909 was living with members of her sprawling family on a farm in Shiloh, Ga. Homer, after years of peripatetic wandering through the Midwest and Northeast, had settled here in Boston, where he would apparently spend the rest of his life. Below is a complete transcription of the fifth and final letter of the collection.

Jarrett letter
Letter from Julia Jarrett to Homer Jarrett, 11 Oct. 1909

Shiloh. Ga.

Oct. 11 1909

Mr Homer C Jarrett.

My dear son

I wrote you some time but no ancer have I received. Why have you not ancered my letter. If you are sick write and let me know. I have been looking for a letter some time.

I received a letter from Claud. He said a Change had taken place with him. It he said made him cry and made him do things that he never did before. I was so glad I didnt know what to do. The children got the letter out of the box and carried it to the field and I went out thair and they read it to me and I couldent help from shouting and crying and rejoicing.

All at home is well at present. I have been sick for two weeks. I went to see Sister Jane Hawkins. Yesterday Sister Sallie went with me. Sister Jane has been sick but she is better now. Grandpa is well and is try to work as usial.

Homer you must be a good boy and try to prey. I preys mighty for you all and the Lord has give me Claud. He is fix up all right and I trust you is all ready fit meat for the Lord. I trust that I will see you once more in life but if I never see you in life hope to meet you where parten [parting] is no more.

All at home sends love to you. All the children sends their best regards to you. Cora and family is well. Wilson and family is well. The drouth [drought] cut the cotton crops off. We has picked out two bales of cotton but we dont know how many bales we will get. Hasent geathered corn yet.

I remain yours Mother

Julia Jarrett.

This letter was written more than two years after the last. I don’t know whether any correspondence was exchanged in the interim (if so, it may be found in the Homer C. Jarrett letters at the University of Georgia), but Julia’s concern for her son is palpable and touching. She was anxious at not hearing from him and worried not just about his physical, but also his spiritual well-being. Overjoyed at his brother Claud’s new-found commitment to religion, she urged Homer to follow his example and “be a good boy.”

The envelope is addressed to Homer at what looks like #410 A. Col” Ave., which may have been Colonial or Columbus Avenue. He had traveled north at the cusp of the Great Migration, which historians describe as taking place in two waves between 1910 to 1970. Homer would be followed by millions of other African Americans seeking opportunity and escaping Jim Crow. According to National Park Service data, the Black population of Boston, which grew less than that of other Northern cities, still nearly doubled between 1900 and 1930.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any more information about Julia than I’ve shared in this and previous posts. Homer Clifford Jarrett worked in real estate in Boston and died unmarried in 1959 at the age of 76 or 77. Some of his siblings lived into the 1960s and ‘70s, and amazingly little sister Lizzie lived all the way to 1988. To think that a woman who lived long enough to watch the 1988 Winter Olympics on TV had had a mother born enslaved is to see how few generations removed from slavery we are today.

National History Day in Massachusetts has gone Virtual . . . and We Need Judges!

by Kate Melchior, Assistant Director of Education

Deadline: Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Two NHD in Massachusetts students presenting their topic
National History Day in Massachusetts students

It’s time again for National History Day in Massachusetts! Our students and teachers are hard at work on their “Communication in History” themed projects in the face of this year’s challenges. Are you looking for something to do at home? Volunteer to judge at our Virtual Statewide Competition. Not only will you support our NHD MA students but you can also learn some amazing history. We need your help to provide quality judging and a great contest experience for the students!

Our competition will be held virtually with two rounds to determine our final winners. We are looking for judges—history aficionados and novices alike. No previous experience required!

Sign up now

Judging will take place between 17 and 21 March, on your own schedule. Visit our Registration Portal to learn more and volunteer to judge today!

For more information about NHD in Massachusetts and to see examples of past projects, visit our website at or e-mail

The Massachusetts Gubernatorial Election of 1878 – “Honest Money, Honest Men”

By Matthew Ahern, Library Assistant

In 1878, the future of the US currency was on the minds of many American citizens. With America in the middle of an economic depression contributing to anxieties around American monetary policies that had existed since the Civil War, the Greenback party had made considerable gains. Greenbackers saw money not restricted by bullion as being inherently helpful to the lower classes during this economic depression, while traditionally minded gold standard supporters feared what Greenback policy would do to the confidence in the American dollar, both domestically and abroad. In 1878, Massachusetts would be confronted by this debate when ardent Greenbacker Benjamin Butler’s was pitted against businessman Thomas Talbot in the gubernatorial election that year. In a contest that mixed personal reputation with monetary policy, it would be Talbot’s “Honest Money, Honest Men”[1] pitch that would win the day.

During the summer of 1878, Civil War General, and disillusioned ex-Republican congressmen, Benjamin F. Butler found himself as the conductor of a populist movement on a Greenback platform that ultimately led to him receiving the Democratic nomination for Governor. Almost as if in response to Butler and his followers, the Republican party nominated the mild-mannered mill owner Thomas Talbot. A former acting Governor of Massachusetts, Talbot supported the gold standard and took a far more moderate stance to both business and labor reform. This election, with these two contrasting figures would be just as much about personality and personal history as it was about policy.

"Honest Money" ticket
Governor Talbot’s ticket using the phrase “Honest Money” at the top.  “State Ticket. 1878. Talbot and Long.” Collection of the MHS.

Talbot grew up in poverty, receiving only a partial education, and working primarily as a mill worker when he was younger. Eventually he established the modestly sized Talbot Mills in Billerica and had quickly earned himself a strong reputation paying his employees high wages with fair treatment during a time when mill workers were often treated poorly. By the 1850s, he had entered local Republican politics, and was eventually tapped to be Gov. Washburn’s running-mate in his successful 1874 ticket. Only a few months later, Talbot would find himself serving as the acting Governor after Washburn’s electoral victory for the late Charles Sumner’s seat in the US Senate. Though he was generally well liked during his time in office, Talbot destroyed his chances at winning re-election when he vetoed a liquor reform bill due to his temperance convictions (A stance that would be his political Achilles heel). Still a strong voice in the party, he would need to wait until 1878 to get another shot at the office of Governor.[2]

Butler lived a rather different life. Growing up in a family with some means, Butler benefited from an education from Philips Exeter and Colby College. Setting up a legal practice in Lowell, he engaged in speculation and would become a majority stakeholder in the Middlesex Company, a large mill in the city. Entering politics around the same time as Talbot, Butler was originally a Democrat, and first switched party affiliations to the Republican party during the Civil War. As a Major-General for the Union, he was known as an abysmal battlefield commander, but effective administrator. Post-war, he would serve in the US Congress as a Republican, though eventually growing frustrated the Republican platform’s lack of populist policies he had come to favor. Butler switched his party affiliation once more the Greenback Party, and he would carry with him the majority of Democratic party support within the state.

Butler Rally Poster
Butler Campaign Rally, with Butler described as the “People’s Candidate”. “Grand rally! Of the people!” Collection of the MHS.

Talbot and his supporters understood that his reputation would be the key to both challenging Butler and adding validity to his more moderate platform. The Talbot Mills had a strong reputation amongst workers, while Butler’s Middlesex Company did not. Talbot was a loyal party-man while Butler had a history of switching affiliations. Talbot also sought no higher office and disliked public ceremony, while many guessed (and rightly so) that Butler, who thrived in the spotlight, would use the Governorship as a step towards the Presidency. Furthermore, he was aided by rising Republican politician Gen. James A. Garfield, who delivered a speech at Faneuil Hall and lampooned Butler’s monetary policy.[3]

Political attacks continued to rage, with Talbot cast as part of the Republican oligarchy currently in power and Butler labeled a demagogue. Despite Butler’s attempts to soften controversial aspects of his history, he was not able to escape the perception of him as a leader of the “Repudiationists, Greenbackers, and Communists” trying to wrestle for power in the state.[4]

Butler caricature cartoon
1874 cartoon displaying criticisms of Butler in caricature. “Cradle of Liberty in Danger.” Collection of the MHS.

In the end, turnout would be massive, with Butler receiving more votes than any other defeated candidate previously, though he was still beaten handily by Talbot 53% to 43%.[5] Voters appeared to have seen the merit in Talbot’s campaign pitch of “Honest Money, Honest Men” over a controversial and radical Butler. Butler would go on to achieve electoral victory in 1882 and launch his bid for the Presidency in his unsuccessful campaign of 1884. As for Talbot, his term in office was characterized by incremental labor and prison reforms, as well as the implementing of the first piece of limited women’s suffrage in the state. Refusing a run for reelection, Talbot became largely a footnote in Massachusetts’s political history, but the campaign he ran in 1878 demonstrated reputation can matter just as much, if not more, than a politician’s policy platform.

[1] “Regular Republican ticket : honest money, honest men.” Rockwell and Churchill, Printer. Boston Athenaeum Collections.

[2] Thomas Talbot: A memorial. Privately printed, 1886. MHS Collections.

[3] Endicott’s letter : Garfield’s speech on honest money : delivered at Faneuil Hall, Boston, Sept. 10, 1878. MHS Collections.

[4] “Address of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, 1878.” MHS Collections.

[5] “1878 Massachusetts Gubernatorial Election” Congressional Quarterly Guide to U S Elections, second edition.

“New England Bravery”

By Amy Watson, NEH Fellow, University of Alabama at Birmingham

At four o’clock in the morning on 3 July 1745, Boston’s residents awoke to the firing of guns, the beating of drums, and the ringing of bells. The bleary-eyed Bostonians’ alarm soon turned to delight when they learned the cause of the commotion: New England troops had captured the town of Louisbourg, a French colonial port on the island of Île Royale (in what is now Nova Scotia). For the entirety of the day, Bostonians “laid aside all thoughts of business” to celebrate the victory, participating in a city-wide block party that included fireworks, songs, and “plenty of good liquor.” As one eyewitness wrote, “never before, upon any occasion, was observed so universal and unaffected a joy.”[1]

I began my research at the Massachusetts Historical Society with questions about this victory and the celebrations it sparked. Why had New Englanders volunteered to fight the French at Louisbourg? Why were Boston’s residents so thrilled about winning a fishing port on the frigid waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence? What did they hope to get out of it?

I knew that I would be able to find these answers at the MHS, which has the best collection in America on the Louisbourg expedition, including accounts of military leaders, politicians, and New England soldiers.[2] But my favorite find at the MHS was a simple printed ballad that circulated in Boston immediately following the victory. Entitled “New England Bravery,” this broadsheet describes New England’s capture of Louisbourg in verses to be sung to the tune of the old English song “Chivey Chace.” This ballad gave me not only a glimpse into the raucous celebrations that took place on Boston’s streets in July 1745, but also insight into what Louisbourg represented to the ordinary shopkeepers, merchants, and laborers who sang of its conquest. [Figure 1]

“New England Bravery,” shows the real antipathy that New Englanders held towards their French neighbors in North America. In the ballad’s description of the siege itself, there is the normal lighthearted banter between French and New England soldiers: “Jack Frenchman, cries, you English dogs/ come, here’s a pretty Wench.” But the tone turned serious once the New Englanders successfully captured the port, and decided what to do with their defeated foes: “They all are to be sent to France,/ with all the Islanders,/ Which needs must ease our Countrymen/of many Cares and Fears.” The ballad is therefore advocating for the expulsion of the French-speaking inhabitants of Île Royale, a people whose families had lived in the region for more than a century. [Figure Two]

Why did New Englanders want these French islanders gone so badly? The first motive was commercial: Louisbourg provided access to the cod fisheries of the North Atlantic, a lucrative trade which many Massachusetts colonists hoped to capture for themselves. More pressing, however, were the colonists’ geopolitical concerns. There was a growing political movement on both sides of the British Atlantic in the 1740s to take a more militant stance towards France in order to protect and expand Britain’s imperial hegemony in America.[3]  Île Royale was key to this program: British control of Louisbourg could choke off French shipping to Canada, making it too costly for France to continue its colonial operations in the region. As Massachusetts Governor William Shirley wrote, the conquest of Louisbourg was the first, essential step “to drive the French wholly off the North American continent.”[4] The anonymous writer of “New England Bravery” evidently agreed with Shirley’s aims, and many of the ordinary Bostonians who sang the ballad no doubt did as well.

More than a thousand inhabitants of Île Royale would be deported to France in the months following the conquest of Louisbourg, though some would return home briefly in peacetime, only to be expelled again during the Seven Years War. Ultimately, more than ten thousand French-speaking inhabitants of the greater Acadian region would be forced from their homes in the 1750s-60s, a violent undertaking that historian John Mack Faragher has described as an American example of “state-sponsored ethnic cleansing.”[5] Not all New Englanders supported this cruelty. However, “New England Bravery” suggests that in 1745 there were Bostonians in favor of a forced French expulsion singing out in the streets.

New England Bravery broadside
New England Bravery, Broadside, [Boston] : Sold at the Heart and Crown in Cornhill, Boston, 1745.
Detail of broadside
Detail of New England Bravery, Broadside, sold at the Heart and Crown in Cornhill, Boston, 1745.

[1] Pennsylvania Gazette, 18 July 1745

[2] See William Pepperrell Papers, William Shirley Papers, and William Clarke Journal in Dolbeare Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[3] For more on this political movement, see Steve Pincus and Amy Watson, “Patriotism after the Hanoverian Succession,” in The Hanoverian Succession in Great Britain and its Empire, eds. Brent Sirota and Allan MacInnes (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2019), 155-174.

[4] William Shirley to Lords Commissioners of Admiralty, 10 July 1745, The National Archives of the UK, ADM 1-3817

[5] John Mack Faragher, A Great and Noble Scheme (New York: Norton, 2005), 473

“I Hope You Will Be Successfull in Your New Home and Luck Well”: Letters of a Black Family in the Early 20th Century, Part IV

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on the Jarrett family letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to read Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Today we return to the story of the Jarretts, a farming family in the small town of Shiloh, Georgia. The Jarrett collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society consists of five letters to Homer Clifford Jarrett (1882-1959) from family members, primarily his mother Julia. The fourth letter was written on 17 July 1907. Below is a complete transcription. As before, I’ll retain misspellings but add sentence and paragraph breaks for readability.

Julia Jarrett letter to Homer Jarrett
Letter from Julia Jarrett to Homer Jarrett, 17 July 1907

Shiloh Ga.
July. 17, 1907

Mr. Homer C. Jarrett.

Dear son

I received your letter some time ago. This leaves the family well. Hope when this reach it will find you the same. I just received a letter from Claud. It stated that he was well.

People are slow on crops. We just started back to hoeing the second time Monday. The cotton is looking fine. Corn crop is slow. It is not going to be much corn made this year down here.

I dont think we all went to the district meeting last Saturday and Sunday at Shiloh Ga. It was helt at the A.M.E. Church. It was nice times up thair. On Sunday Shack Barney and Shurn Copeland got in fuss. They shot at one and other. Shurn shot at Shack 3 times. Shack shot at Shurn 2 times. But not one got hurt. Shurn is under a hundred dollar [barn]. They hasent got Shack yet but say they is going to have him.

Homer you must be a good boy and try to prey. The people is got to be so bad nowadays. I hope you will be successfull in your new home and luck well. Grandpa is well and sends his best regards to you often speakes of you. Lizzie sends love to you and many sweet kisses. Charlie eyes is something better. He is plowing evey day. Generous is gone back to cooking again. He is not at home now. Sister Cora and family is well. Brother Wilson and family is well.

I hasent got any ink this time. I will try to get some the next time I write you.

So good bye

Your mother
Julia Jarrett

We’ve met most of the family before. Homer’s brother Claud and sister Lizzie have figured prominently in our series so far, and Grandpa, Charlie, and Wilson have made appearances. Cora, another sister, was married to a man named Levi Whitehead, according to online genealogical sources. I don’t know who Generous was, but it’s a great name!

The handwriting of this letter differs from that of the first three. I believe Claud had previously transcribed for his mother, but since he was away, someone else took over the job. I can only guess who the new transcriber was, but I wonder if it might have been Julia’s young daughter Lizzie. We know she was (or at least had been) in school, and in July 1907 she would have been nine years old.

I hit a number of frustrating dead ends researching the details of this letter. I couldn’t find an African Methodist Episcopal church in Shiloh, but it may have closed, moved, merged with another church, or changed denominations. Today, there are more than 500 AME churches in Georgia alone. I also didn’t locate any contemporary accounts of the confrontation between the two men, Shack Barney and Shurn Copeland, and I couldn’t confirm the meaning of “barn” (or “barm”) in this context. I assume it meant bail or a fine.

But details aside, this letter touches on several interesting themes, particularly the precariousness of the Jarretts’ income from their cotton and corn crops. We also see Julia’s concern for her son Homer, so far away from home—concern not just for his physical, but also his moral well-being.

One thing I like about this collection and other family letters I’ve seen at the MHS is that they really give us a sense of how people talked to each other in their everyday lives. This is something that doesn’t come through as strongly in formal correspondence. Phonetic spellings tell us how Julia pronounced certain words: “helt,” for example. It’s almost as if we can hear her voice. I also love the expression “luck well” instead of “have good luck.”

Homer had been moving steadily northward over the course of the previous two years. By 1907, he had reached New England, and this letter is addressed to him at Farragut House, a resort hotel in Rye Beach, N.H., where Homer was presumably working. Farragut House, according to the 1907 publication New England Vacation Resorts (p. 67), was the largest and priciest hotel at Rye Beach, accommodating 300 guests and costing $5.00 a night. The building has since been torn down, but you can find picture postcards of it online.

In my next post, I’ll be concluding the story of the Jarrett family. I hope you’ll join me!