Debrief the Reader: Researcher as Resource

By Dan Hinchen

As a reference librarian at the Society I work regularly with the more than three thousand individual manuscript collections in the holdings. Often the job is a search for a specific piece of information in order to answer a defined question, perhaps for a remote researcher who cannot visit the library. In other instances, reference work might entail giving researchers suggestions for collections that are relevant to their particular project. Usually this second type relies heavily on searching the online catalog, ABIGAIL, or other in-house resources, to find collections that carry certain subject headings or involve certain people.

Unfortunately, in both of these situations, I do not always get the chance to look at a given collection in-depth and thereby gain a more complete understanding of the contents and how it might complement other resources or collections we have. This can be troublesome in a place where the reference librarians are sometimes expected to have deep knowledge of every collection in the building. In order to level the field a bit I try to focus my attention on the occurrences of the early days of colonial New England, roughly the period of the founding of Plymouth colony in 1620 up to the end of King Philip’s War in 1676. When researchers come forward with questions concerning this time period I try to direct them toward collections or reference materials that, hopefully, will be of use.

While my colleagues in the collection services department are able to delve deeply into collections while going through the processes of arrangement and description, I do not always get that opportunity. Further, if a collection lacks descriptive aids then it can still be difficult to ascertain exactly what lies within and how it might fit with other collections. Yet, there is one recourse that I have left at my disposal should the chance arise.

Enter: the genial long-term researcher.

When a researcher brings an in-depth project to the MHS, we on the library staff have a wonderful opportunity to gain insights into the collections with which they work and to learn the topical connections existing among them. To illustrate: over the last couple of weeks we have had a researcher visit us nearly every day to work on a project involving 17th century colonial interactions between the English settlers and the native inhabitants. The researcher, who worked at the MHS in the past, came prepared with a few ideas of relevant collections with which to work. I suggested one or two other collections that I knew by name but of which I did not have intimate knowledge, with the idea that maybe one or two items would be relevant. As it happens, these collections turned out to be a veritable goldmine for our researcher. This also spurred her to investigate a couple of other things that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

This entire process is a benefit to both the researcher and myself. While I was able to point her to a collection she did not know about and which aided her research, she was able to identify to me the content of the collection, why it was so important for her research, and how it fits in with other collections that touch on the same time period. Because I lack the very thorough knowledge of the topics and themes involved, the researcher helps establish and explain the web of connections among the characters contained in our holdings. Without a doubt, the knowledge graciously passed on to me with regard to these collections will now help me to better direct future researchers in their endeavors to unlock the long-past and lesser-documented realities of 17th century New England.

This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

Welcome back to the Beehive for this week’s events update. We have one more quiet week here at the Society in January before the onslaught of activity in February. Join us on Tuesday, 28 January, for “Making a Workforce, Unmaking a Working class: The Development of ‘Human Capital’ in Houston, 1900-1980.” In this Immigration and Urban History Seminar, Bryant Etheridge of Harvard University discusses the emergence of access to quality, job-relevant education and training as a central economic issue among 1960s civil rights activists in Houston. Etheridge’s paper takes issue with a central aspect of the Long Civil Rights Movement historiography, which typically labels education desegregation and reform issues of social equality. In fact, African Americans and Mexican Americans fought for them because they believed them to be vital and urgent economic issues. John R. Harris, Boston University, provides comment for the seminar which begins at 5:15PM. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to received advance copies of the seminar papers.

Margaret Hall visits the Argonne

By Jim Connolly

From my first days as a part-time transcriber for the Adams Papers to my current work as assistant editor of publications at the MHS, I’ve been lucky enough to work with the writings of strong, smart women–Abigail Adams, Louisa Catherine Adams, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, and Caroline Healey Dall being highlights. In the past few months, I added a fresh name to that list: Margaret Hall.

A Massachusetts native, Margaret Hall traveled to France in 1918 to work with the American Red Cross. She worked in a canteen in Châlons-sur-Marne, near the frontlines where the Great War continued to rage. In letters and journal entries, Hall recorded her experience of World War I, from her general fondness for the poilus (French soldiers) to her complicated responses to scenes of suffering and desolation. But no matter how grim things got, she infused her writing with a refreshing sense of irony and humor. This is to say nothing of the nearly three hundred remarkable photographs she took throughout her journey and pasted into the typescript.

Canteen WorkerThis photograph of a fellow worker illustrates the hectic pace of Hall’s canteen work.

When she returned to the United States, Hall produced from those records a narrative titled “Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918–1919,” a typescript of which lives here at the MHS. In July 2014, the Society will publish an edition of her narrative (with selected photographs), edited by Margaret Higonnet, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

I leave you with a paragraph from the narrative that gives a sense of the adventures Margaret Hall gets up to. Here she writes of her trip to battlefield in the Argonne in the spring of 1919.

“The men threw hand grenades for us, one potato masher caught in a tree, and they screamed to us to drop, which we did in a hurry. Then they tried setting off all sorts of queer smoke things. One they thought was gas, and I must say I was glad when they stopped experimenting. Brought back a little shell with a parachute in it. Hope it is nothing more dangerous than a smoke screen.”

[A “potato masher” is a stick-shaped German grenade used in both World Wars.]

Charlesgate Park, the Bowker Overpass, and Our Changing Urban Landscape

By Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook

As a transplant to Boston, one of my goals of the past few years has been to develop a better grasp of the topographical history of this tangled, layered city. As the daughter of a cartographer, I was raised to pay attention to the built and wild landscape around me, and also to appreciate how landscapes are ever-evolving. One of the things that fascinates me about Boston as a city is the way in which its landscape is constantly in flux, and yet how every inch of the land and the structures on it contain traces of previous contours, uses, and lives.

Charlesgate“Intersection of Boylston Street and Charlesgate from the West. Photograph by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, January 2014.”

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has recently completed a study of the ramps on and off I-90 turnpike in central Boston. One focus of the study is the renovation or removal of the Bowker Overpass, constructed in 1967 over the much-beloved section of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace park system known as Charlesgate Park. Charlesgate Park, completed in the 1880s, connected the Fens and the Commonwealth to the Charles River Esplanade. Boston University student Allan Lasser offers an excellent overview of the history of Charlesgate and the overpass in a 2013 article, “Charlesgate: A Palimpsest of Urban Planning” (New Errands, vol. 1 no. 1).

What, you might ask, does all of this have to do with the Massachusetts Historical Society? Well, we are part of this narrative of landscape too. The current home of the MHS, constructed in the 1890s, stands at the top of Charlesgate East. Our reading room overlooks what once would have been the southern entrance to the Charlesgate Park. In this aerial photograph digitized by MIT libraries, one can see the top of Charlesgate Park and the Fens stretching southwest towards Jamaica Pond; the MHS is just visible in the lower left-hand corner.

In the mid 1890s, Boston artist Sarah Gooll Putnam pasted this photograph of Charlesgate Park into her diary:

Putnam diary“Charlesgate Park. Photograph by unknown photographer, circa 1893-1896. Sarah Gooll Putnam Diaries, vol 20, MHS.”

Last week, on my walk to work, I paused with a camera at the top of Charlesgate East and captured some images This is what the southeast corner of Charlesgate Park looks like today. The building that features so prominently in Putnam’s photograph can be seen in the distance beyond the passing school bus.

Charlesgate 2“Charlesgate Park from the corner of Boylston Street and Charlesgate East. Photograph by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, January 2014.”

While some urban planners would argue the Bowker Overpass is an essential pressure valve, easing traffic congestion in and out of central Boston, it is easy to see why city residents and nature-lovers abhor the auto-friendly changes to the neighborhood. In The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston (Beacon Press, 2008), natural historian John Hanson Mitchell scathingly refers to the Charlesgate as a “perfect example” of “all that went wrong in Boston in the 1950s, and in some ways all that has gone wrong in the environment since the invention of the internal combustion engine” (120). Agreeing with him, citizen groups Friends of the Charlesgate and The Esplanade Association are lobbying for MassDOT to remove the Overpass and restore the Charlesgate Park as a pedestrian-friendly link from the Fens down to the Esplanade. Whatever happens, the MHS will stand at the corner of Boylston and The Fenway, bearing witness to the changing landscape around us.

This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

After a busy week here at the Society we are slowing things down a bit with a shortened week. The MHS is closed on Monday, 20 January, in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and will re-open at the normal time on Tuesday, 21 January. Our only scheduled event takes place on Wednesday, 22 January, as the Society welcomes James O’Connell of the National Parks Service for a public author talk. Drawing on his recent book, The Hub’s Metropolis: Greater Boston’s Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth, urban historian O’Connell will present an illustrated talk about how metropolitan Boston has been shaped by distinct eras of suburbanization, with each one producing a land use development pattern that is still apparent on the regional landscape. This program is open to the public, reservations requested. Click here to register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM.

“The Cabinetmaker & the Carver: Four centuries of Massachusetts Furniture” is now closed. The next exhibit will feature material from the MHS collections and other institutions. “Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial” is scheduled to open to the public on Friday, 21 February, so be sure to mark your calendar!




A Long Winter Walk: The Banishment of Roger Williams

By Dan Hinchen,

Over the last couple of weeks, we in Massachusetts were reminded of the unpredictability and harshness of the winter in New England. Of course, we are not alone and a significant portion of the rest of the country received an even greater shock. Still, the driving snow, sub-zero temperatures, and bitter winds force us to remember what a coastal winter can be. But if you think your commute was bad, the experience of Roger Williams might make you turn up the heat and clutch your hot chocolate a bit more tightly.

In October of 1635, after various hearings and disputes over intersecting matters of theology and secular power, Massachusetts Bay banished Roger Williams forcing him to leave the colony’s borders. But with winter coming on and Williams falling ill the court allowed him the courtesy of commuting the sentence until spring on the condition that Williams would not speak publicly in the interim. He consented to this term and agreed not to publicly proclaim his views.

This agreement did not prevent Williams from welcoming his friends and followers into his home and holding private discussions. However, the Massachusetts court viewed even this as a breach of his promise and, in January, 1636, sent armed soldiers led by Captain John Underhill to Williams’ home in Salem to arrest him and put him on a ship bound for England.



As a blizzard and accompanying gale blustered out of the northeast, the ailing Williams received a secret message from none other than Governor John Winthrop, alerting him to the approaching soldiers. By the time Underhill and his men arrived, Williams had been gone three days.

Williams escaped with his life, liberty, and little else. Leaving his wife and children behind until he could find a new home, he plunged into the winter woods by himself. “He entered the wilderness ill and alone…Winthrop described that winter as ‘a very bad season.’ The cold was intense, violent; it made all about him crisp and brittle…The cold froze even Narragansett Bay, an extraordinary event, for it is a large ocean bay riven by currents and tidal flows.”i

“But the cold may also have saved his life: it made the snow a light powder . . . it lacked the killing weight of heavy moisture-laden snow. The snow also froze rivers and streams which he would otherwise have had to ford.”ii A silver lining to the winter clouds is one that we benefited from during our last storm and surely made our shoveling much easier.

That Roger Williams endured his trek from Salem to Narragansett Bay is no doubt a testament to his personal relationships with the native peoples and their willingness to give him shelter. Yet, “There was no comfort in this shelter. For fourteen weeks he did ‘not know what Bread or Bed did meane.'”iii

And yet Roger Williams survived this ordeal and soon thrived in his new home of Providence, itself a further attestation to the good relations that Williams shared with the indigenous tribes. While Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies both were formed by English settlers putting roots down in a spot without much thought for the original inhabitants, Williams was able to secure a piece of land with the blessing of the Narragansett sachem Canonicus and his nephew Miantonomi, two men who were otherwise ill-disposed toward the English.

“Canonicus and Miantonomi gave Williams permission to settle there after negotiating what seemed clear boundaries. Williams later declared that Canonicus ‘was not I say to be stirred with money to sell his land to let in Foreigners. Tis true he recd presents and Gratuities many of me: but it was not thouhsands nor ten thouhsands of mony could have bought of him and English Entrance into this Bay.’ He said the land was ‘purchasd by Love.'”iv

Though we grumbled about the cold and snow that we experienced last week, chances are the memories are already fading. Williams’ journey, though, had a lasting effect: “Thirty-five years later he would refer to that ‘Winter snow wch I feele yet.'”

To find out more about the life of Roger Williams, try these biographies:

    • – Barry, John M., Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Chuch, State, and the Birth of Liberty (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012).
      – Gaustad, Edwin S., Roger Williams (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
      – Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams: a biography (New York: Macmillan, 1957).

Also, visit our online catalog, ABIGAIL, and search for Williams, Roger as an author to see what works the MHS holds written by Williams or where he appears in other manuscript collections.


iBarry, John M., Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, state, and the Birth of Liberty (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012) 213.

iiBarry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, 213.

iiiBarry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, 214.

ivBarry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, 217.

This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

We have a busy week here at the Society with several public events on tap. First up, on Tuesday, 14 January, is an Environmental History Seminar featuring Edward D. Melillo of Amherst College. “Out of the Blue: Nantucket and the Pacific World” builds upon insights from environmental history, migration studies, and cultural geography to argue that certain historical groups of displayed a rooted cosmopolitanism, which develops through sustained encounters with the peoples and environments of far-away places. Through whaling, Nantucket mariners came to know a distant ocean and its inhabitants in was that were often more refined and subtle than many contemporaneous understandings of the Pacific World. Nancy Shoemaker, University of Connecticut, provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. The seminar begins at 5:15PM.

On Wednesday, 15 January, stop by at noon for a Brown Bag lunch talk with Dylan Yeats, New York University, presenting “Americanizing America: Yankee Civilization and the U.S. State.” With research at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Athenaeum, Yeats is charting the evolution of what he terms the Yankee Network, comprising academic, educational, missionary, and social reform organizations, and the ways in which this network sought to harness those organs of the state that it could over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Brown Bag discussions are free and open to the public.

Also on Wednesday, MHS Associate Members (age 40 and under) are invited to an evening social with the Young Friends of Historic New England. Guests will gather at the MHS for a reception followed by a scavenger hunt based on “The Cabinetmaker & the Carver” exhibition. For more information, please call 617-646-0543 or e-mail And speaking of the current furniture exhibition, if you have not seen it yet then you are running out of time! The exhibition ends on Friday, January 17. Make sure you come in sometime this week between 10:00AM and 4:00PM to catch a rare glimpse of these Massachusetts-made pieces from private collections which span four centuries.

Finally, on Thursday, 16 January, there is another seminar, this time from the Biography series. “When Subjects Talk Back: Oral History, Contemporary Biography, and the Runaway Interview” will feature a conversation with Joyce Antler, Professor of American Studies at Brandeis, who is currently writing a book on Jewish women active in the feminist movement; Claire Potter, Professor of History at the New School, who is writing on anti-pornography efforts in the 1980s; and Ted Widmer of Brown University, senior advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The moderator for the discussion is Carol Bundy, author of “The Nature of Sacrifice: A Biography of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., 1835-64.” The talk begins at 5:30PM and is open to the public. Be sure to RSVP for this program by emailing or phoning 617-646-0568.

Please note that the Society is closed on Monday, 20 January, in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Normal hours will resume on Tuesday, 21 January.

King Kalakaua’s Tour of the United States

By Andrea Cronin

On 1 January 1875 the last reigning King of Hawai’i arrived in Boston via railroad as the last stop in a good will visit to the United States. King Kalakaua III inherited a national economic depression in 1874 from his predecessor William Charles Lunalilo. In an effort to foster tariff-free trade between the Kingdom of Hawai’i and the United States, King Kalakaua embarked on a tour of the United States in November 1874, visiting cities such as Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston.

Why did the King of Hawai’i visit Boston of all places?

The Boston visit was strategic. New England sugar interests opposed tariff-free trade which would allow Hawaiian sugar to flood the market and overtake their business. The King’s visit fostered a cultural friendship including the lavish dinner held by the City of Boston on 2 January 1875 at the Revere House. The dinner started with oysters in true New England tradition. In fact, the City spent $3,000 in entertainment and accommodations for the royal party at the Revere House. Here is the bill of fare from the banquet in honor of King Kalakaua.

King Kalakaua left Boston on 9 January 1875 with great success. Within the month, his efforts secured the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 which enabled Hawaiian goods to enter the United States without levies.


Party Politics: The Adamses’ Jackson Ball

By Amanda A. Mathews

The women of the Adams family may not have held public office themselves, but they were vital to their husbands’ political careers. Abigail aided John both through her counsel and astute management of their property during his long absences. Louisa Catherine Adams, on the other hand, choosing to remain near her husband at his various posts, used her charm and entertaining skills to showcase John Quincy to the political world in her parlor.

Perhaps her greatest triumph in this vein came on 8 January 1824, the ninth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, an important victory for the United States at the end of the War of 1812. Louisa hosted a grand ball to honor the hero of the battle, Andrew Jackson.

The Jackson Ball that Louisa planned was a magnificent affair that took over two weeks for the family to prepare. Five hundred invitations were issued to congressmen, cabinet members, and the social elite of Washington, and newspapers estimated that potentially 1,000 people attended the ball that required the Adamses to install pillars to support the upper floors of their F Street, Washington, D.C., home. Wreaths, garland, and roses covered the walls, while delicate chalked eagles and flowers graced the floors and guests were treated to a sumptuous buffet. “Mr Adams and I took our stations near the door that we might be seen by our guests and be at the same time ready to receive the General to whom the fete was given,” Louisa recalled in her diary. “He arrived at nine o’clock and I took him round the Rooms and introduced him to the Ladies and Gentlemen whom we passed. . . . my Company dispersed at about half past one all in good humour and more contented than common with their entertainment.”

But this was no mere party. This was politics. The Adamses hoped to win over the support of a yet undeclared candidate and potential political rival in Jackson, and showcase their leadership as John Quincy became a leading presidential candidate. During the evening, a small mishap underscored this understood overlap between the social and political worlds. Louisa recorded, “While sitting in the dancing Room one of the lamps fell upon my head and ran all down my back and shoulders— This gave rise to a good joke and it was said that I was already anointed with the sacred oil and that it was certainly ominous— I observed that the only certain thing I knew was that my gown was spoilt—” While this lavish ball failed to win Jackson’s political support, as he became Adams’s chief rival in the Election of 1824, it was a smashing social success, spoken of for years to come, and clearly revealed Louisa’s mastery of social politics.

If you would like to learn more about Louisa in her own words, the forthcoming A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams is available for pre-order now.