If the first half of 2020 has shown us anything thus far, it is that there are countless sources of media, voices, opinions, and channels to connect with one another and tell the story of the times. How will historians look back on these days in our history? What will make up our archives and serve as a source for insight?
With the state of the world constantly changing, we are given the opportunity to think back and reflect on those significant days in history that have also shaped our civilization. As members of our community acknowledge present day experiences and their importance on the MHS’s Witness to History: What Are Your COVID-19 Experiences? website, there still remains boundless opportunities to connect with the past. Throughout the summer, I will highlight historical events and feature relevant pieces from the MHS collections. By looking back on these moments of adversity, progress, and pertinence, (and their remnants), we can discover that our present perspective may still be influenced.
We begin this series with John Winthrop’s History of New England. The surviving volumes of this journal are housed at the MHS among the Winthrop family papers and contain Winthrop’s personal writings surrounding the “history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from the sailing of the Arbella in March 1630 until shortly before his death.”  A Puritan lawyer who was selected to lead English immigrants and form a colony in Massachusetts, Winthrop served as governor for the Massachusetts Bay Colony and is known as “the chief figure among the Puritan founders of New England.”  The journal begins with his recording of the journey from England to America, but as time went on it also served as a way of documenting civic and social details for the colony. His observations included daily occurrences of early New England life, as well as a look into his political standings and religious ideologies.
Since the late colonial period, historians have used Winthrop’s journal, first as a manuscript, and since 1790 in a variety of editions, for the study of the founding of Massachusetts.  Having been reelected as governor over a dozen times, Winthrop’s historical account of his views and experiences in early colonial life are extremely valuable as a source for the study and understanding of American history. His narration of Puritan life offers a much more in depth account of the political affairs within a desired utopia for the New World. The journal also includes references to many other prominent figures of early New England history, including William Bradford of Plymouth, John Cotton, Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams. Though a completely biased account of the goals and principles for the colony, the public nature of the document gives us clear insight into Puritan ideals in a time of growth.
This manuscript is only a small part of the total Winthrop family papers collection, which includes personal journals, manuscripts, diaries, deeds, etc. from generations of family members. Even today, documenting our own personal experiences, opinions, and reactions to historical events will play an important role in the preservation of history. As we understand such writings to be a personal or one-sided account of events, the unique perspective that a manuscript such as this brings to evaluating history is irreplaceable. As “witnesses” to history, it is imperative that subjective documentation of events continues to contribute to the world’s archives. Whether it be a blog, Tweet, traditional diary entry or a handwritten letter to a loved one, historical accounts may now take many forms.
On 17 May 1816, First Lady Dolley Madison wrote to her friend Caroline (Langdon) Eustis. She started by apologizing for not writing earlier, complaining, “my occupations have increased seven fold since you left me, & caused me to forget (allmost) the use of my pen.” This item is one of sixteen that form the letters to William and Caroline Eustis at the MHS.
The letter is apparently Dolley’s answer to one written by her “devoted friend” Caroline, which is also part of the Eustis collection.
Caroline lived at the Hague, where her husband was serving as U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands. He’d been appointed by Dolley’s husband. Caroline boasted about her invitation to the coronation at Brussels of William I, king of the Netherlands, and sent Dolley engravings of William I and Queen Wilhelmine. According to an 1897 article in New England Magazine, Caroline became “a great favorite with the king and queen.”
Dolley’s reply came more than eight months later. In spite of the delay, she assured Caroline of her affection and esteem, as well as that of mutual friends. The names she dropped were a veritable who’s who of Washington wives: Lucy (Payne) Todd, Dolley’s sister and wife of a Supreme Court justice; Anna (Payne) Cutts, another sister and wife of a former U.S. Congressman; Catherine (Murray) Rush, wife of the U.S. Attorney General; and Hannah (Nicholson) Gallatin, wife of the former Secretary of the Treasury and brand-new minister to France. This network of women was key to Dolley’s popularity.
Many books have been written about Dolley Madison and her significant role as First Lady and hostess at the White House, so I won’t attempt to duplicate that work here. A search of our catalog returns 12 published biographies dating from 1886 to 2012, and online sources abound. To me, the most fascinating resource is Paul Jennings’s reminiscences of his years as an enslaved person in the Madison White House, first published in 1865. He called Dolley “a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every body in Washington, white and colored.” (It should be noted that the memoir is a transcription of Jennings’s recollections written “in almost his own language” by John B. Russell.)
1816 was a remarkable year in the history of the nation’s capital. Just two years before, in the midst of the War of 1812, British troops had marched into the city and set fire to many of its buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. With the White House gutted, the Madisons moved to the “Seven Buildings,” a row of townhouses a few blocks away on Pennsylvania Avenue. When she wrote this letter to Caroline, the Madisons and some extended family members filled two of the seven residences. Dolley’s 24-year-old son John Payne Todd, her “darling Payne,” was also with her at this time. (Payne was her son from her first marriage and her only surviving child. Her first husband and another son had both died of yellow fever on the same day in 1793.)
But now the war was over, and, as Dolley explained, the bustling city was “in a state of great improvement” and “crowded with strangers from every Nation.” However, overwhelmed with familial and social responsibilities, she was already looking forward to the end of her husband’s presidential term and the family’s return to their home at Montpelier, Virginia.
One of the things I like about doing these deep dives into a single manuscript is that it gives me the opportunity to learn more about a specific historical moment and the individuals involved. There’s almost always something interesting or surprising to uncover. Writing about this particular collection also allows me to highlight the work of our digital team, which has fully digitized all sixteen letters. We hope you’ll explore more of the letters to William and Caroline Eustis and the stories behind them.
Even as much of the country begins to make slow steps towards reopening, many of us still find ourselves spending much more time than usual at home. One of the things that I’ve been doing to occupy some of that time is browsing the MHS catalog, ABIGAIL. I thought it might be fun to invite the readers of the Beehive to join me, so to guide your exploration, I’ve made a scavenger hunt!
I find the easiest way to search in ABIGAIL is to search by Author/Creator name (in the format Last Name, First Name, e.g. Franklin, Benjamin) or by Library of Congress Subject heading. If you need some search tips, check out this page of our website, as well as the bottom of the ABIGAIL home page. Now let’s get hunting!
an artifact owned by a First Lady of the United States
a suffrage and an anti-suffrage document
something with a connection to your home town/state/country
an item related to abolition
a sports-related item
a book related to your favorite class that wasn’t “history”
an item related to your favorite historical event
an item created the year your grandmother was born
a nature-related item
an item related to indigenous peoples of Massachusetts
a 19th century diary
an item created by a person who shares your first or last name (or both!)
an 18th century newspaper
Below are examples of items I have handled in my time at the MHS that serve as answers to the scavenger hunt.
If you want to save your findings for future reference or future viewing in the MHS reading room, you can do that! Start by logging in or registering for an account in Portal1791, the library’s automated request system. Once you find the catalog record for an item you want to save, click on the red “Request Item” button next to the call number. This will auto-direct you to a request form. Make notes about the item in the “My Notes” field, then scroll to the bottom of the page. Instead of selecting a date to view the item, select the “Keep for My Review” option, then hit “Submit Request.” This will save your request in the system; you can find all of your saved requests under the Requests field in the left-hand menu. They’ll have the status “Awaiting User Review,” but once the library reopens to the public, you can edit the request to make it an active one.
Selection of possible answers to the scavenger hunt:
Something created pre-1500
An artifact owned by a First Lady of the United States
Something with a connection to your home town, state, or country
A nature-related item
An item related to the indigenous peoples of Massachusetts
“I intend next week (Thursday) to be inoculated by Doctr. Joseph Gardner at Point Shirley…it would be a singular pleasure to me if you and I could be pockey Companions.”
– Jonathan Sewall to John Adams, 15 February 1764.
We don’t have a response from Adams to his good friend Sewall’s offer to get inoculated together, but Adams did get inoculated against smallpox in April of 1764. What did the process of getting inoculated look like in 1764?
Adams’s inoculation did not look so different from our shots at the doctor’s office today. He described the process in a letter to Abigail: “Dr. Perkins demanded my left Arm and Dr. Warren my Brothers. They took their Launcetts and with their Points divided the skin for about a Quarter of an Inch and just suffering the Blood to appear, buried a Thread about a Quarter of an Inch long in the Channell. A little Lint was then laid over the scratch and a Piece of a Ragg pressed on, and then a Bandage bound over all.”
Following the procedure, the patients would carefully monitor their symptoms to see if and how they developed smallpox. After five days of watching, Adams updated Abigail: “We have compleated five days, and entered two Hours on the sixth, since Innoculation, and have as yet felt no Pains, nor Languors from Pox or Medicine, worth mentioning. Indeed what the others have suffered is a mere Trifle.”
However, only eight days later Adams explained that he had not written to Abigail for the last eight days due to “an Absolute Fear to send a Paper from this House, so much infected as it is, to any Person lyable to take the Distemper but especially to you.” Not only was Adams infected himself, but “every Room in the House, has infected People in it, so … there is real Danger, in Writing.” Adams’s fear of sending mail might ring familiar to many of us frantically researching how long Coronavirus lives on paper vs. cardboard vs. plastic to see when we can interact with our mail, packages, and groceries.
Another familiar concern is infecting loved ones. “For all the Mountains of Peru or Mexico I would not,” Adams wrote to Abigail, “that this Letter or any other Instrument should convey the Infection to you at unawares.”
Thankfully Adams developed, by both his own account and those of others, a light case which earned him immunity without too much pain. He recovered quickly and returned to Braintree in early May. Abigail had missed Adams terribly. On hearing the news of Adams returning to Braintree, Abigail, then in Weymouth, wrote “Welcome, Welcome thrice welcome is Lysander [her nickname for Adams] to Braintree, but ten times more so would he be at Weymouth, whither you are afraid to come.—Once it was not so. May not I come and see you, at least look thro a window at you?” Abigail’s desire to see Adams through a window mirrors the news stories of cranes raising people to look in on their loved ones at nursing homes and friends parking in cars next to each other to talk through their windows.
It’s been over 250 years since John Adams was inoculated against smallpox during the outbreak of 1764. Today we are faced not with smallpox, but with coronavirus. We do not yet have a vaccine, but we, like Abigail, miss our loved ones. We, like John Adams, fear passing contagion to our loved ones. We find ways to respond to crisis and disease that are not only despair, resourcefulness, and charity, but also, like Jonathan Sewall’s offer of “pockey companionship,” wit, camaraderie, and a bit of snark.
Dr. Housman’s first book project uses digital tools to explore sexual crime in seventeenth century England. She has written on numerous historical topics including slavery, suffrage, religious freedom, industrialization, charitable giving, and pandemics for various public history organizations.
 Jonathan Sewall to John Adams, 15 February 1764 in Papers of John Adams, Vol. 1. [link]
 John Adams to Abigail Smith, 13 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]
 John Adams to Abigail Smith, 18 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]
 John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]
 John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]
 John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1; Cotton Tufts to Abigail Smith, 19? April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]
 Abigail Smith to John Adams, 9 May 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]
2020 is an unprecedented year for National History Day in Massachusetts. While COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down in countless ways, our community rushed in to help make sure that this experience would not be cancelled for our students. In the midst of a pandemic, 686 students from across Massachusetts presented 406 projects to 207 tireless volunteer judges, who assessed their projects in 68 teams across two rounds of judging. There are 61 students who will continue on to represent Massachusetts at the National History Day® virtual national contest, where they will compete with students from across the country and around the world. A huge congratulations to all of our students, teachers, parents, judges, and volunteers for making this historic competition a success!
In the 2019-2020 season, over 6,000 students from 69 schools across the Commonwealth spent the school year working hard on documentaries, papers, exhibits, websites, and performances. This year’s theme, “Breaking Barriers in History,” inspired students to tackle some of the more complex historical moments and figures in history. Projects this year cover a wide swath of historical eras and subjects including: the history of Sesame Street, ACT UP, Deaf education, the Seattle Open Housing Campaign, Bessie Coleman, Frida Kahlo, climate change, and much more.
After competing at their school levels, hundreds of students prepared to participate in the regional and state competitions. However, COVID-19 required a last-minute pivot to an entirely virtual competition amidst shutdowns across the state. Through heroic effort, students and teachers submitted virtual versions of their projects, and a crew of judges volunteered to assist with our first ever state-wide History Day contest in Massachusetts! Everyone came ready with fantastic questions, insightful and kind commentary for our students, and a willingness to be flexible about our last-minute virtual system.
On Monday, 4 May, we announced the winners of our 2020 competition in a virtual awards ceremony. In addition to the 61 students moving on to Nationals, 98 students were awarded special prizes to honor excellence in specific areas, such as Best Use of Primary Sources, Best Project in LGBTQ+ History, and Best Project in Sports History. You can read more about our winners and their projects here.
Thank you again to all of the students, teachers, parents, schools, and judges who supported this unprecedented competition. Thank you as well to all of our sponsors at the Mass Cultural Council, Mass Humanities, and the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation.
We welcome members of the public to learn more about the NHD program. There is no better way than to serve as a judge at one of our competitions! Please contact us at email@example.com for more information.
In the winter of 1764, smallpox descended on Boston and John Adams went to get inoculated against it. You might have heard that Edward Jenner pioneered the smallpox vaccine in 1796 – so how did Adams get inoculated in 1764?
Adams used an earlier method of inoculation called “variolation,” rather than Jenner’s “vaccination.” Inoculation is the process of introducing a small amount of viral matter into the body in order to teach the body’s immune system to fight off the virus, thus making the patient immune to future infection. Variolation used viral matter from smallpox patients, usually pus from a light case of smallpox. Jenner’s vaccination, meanwhile, used matter from the milder cowpox virus. As a milder disease carrying the same immunities, cowpox matter was much safer.
Zabdiel Boylston, the uncle of John Adams’s mother, Susanna Boylston Adams, is often credited for introducing variolation to the Americas in 1721. In fact, Onesimus, one of Cotton Mather’s slaves, told Mather of the practice and Mather convinced his friend Boylston to try inoculation. Around the same time, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had her daughter inoculated in England after learning about variolation during her husband’s diplomatic posting at the Ottoman court in Istanbul. Variolation was used in not only Africa and the Ottoman Empire but also China and India long before the Western world ever discovered this secret.
The impetus for Boylston and Mather’s efforts in 1721 was the arrival in Boston of the sixth large outbreak of smallpox. Boylston began inoculating hundreds but controversy erupted over his efforts. Many worried about the intentional spread of disease. Others felt that if anyone died from inoculation, Boylston was guilty of murder. Fierce debate raged in Boston between supporters and opponents of the practice of variolation. The debate did not remain on the page – Boylston was physically assaulted on the street. However, Boylston and Mather collected information on infections and were able to show that inoculation dropped the smallpox mortality rate to 1 or 2% from approximately 15%. By 1749, William Douglass, the fiercest opponent of inoculation, published an essay admitting inoculation’s benefits and encouraging society to inoculate.
Though variolation was well accepted by the time of Adams’s 1764 inoculation, there remained about “500 Persons, who continue to stand it out, in spight of Experience, [and] the Expostulations of the Clergy.” These individuals caused Adams to wonder if man was truly “a rational creature” since he would have seen himself as “a deliberate self Murderer” if he had refused to inoculate himself. In addition, inoculation in 1764 was not an entirely uniform process. Adams wrote that in his recovery from the inoculation, “Each [doctor] has a few Particulars in Point of Diet, in which he differs from the others, and Each has Pills and Powders, different from the others to administer.”
As we all wait for scientists to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, it’s important to remember the controversy that followed the 1721 Boston inoculations as well as the gradual normalization of the variolation process that preceded Jenner’s discovery. The development, adoption, and improvement of infectious disease response are messy processes – not a single “eureka” event. It is common to have initial disagreements among experts on treatments and often the first workable treatment is later replaced with an improved option.
It’s easy to see dates like 1796 as the shining beacons in the lines of smallpox history – but to John Adams and much of Boston in 1764, they were thankful to live after 1721. Adams celebrated “Inoculation for the Small Pox” as evidence of America’s “Glory of the Invention.” He praised Boylston’s 1721 “discovery” and “practice” of smallpox inoculation “which has since proved of such inestimable benefit to Mankind.”
Dr. Housman’s first book project uses digital tools to explore sexual crime in seventeenth century England. She has written on numerous historical topics including slavery, suffrage, religious freedom, industrialization, charitable giving, and pandemics for various public history organizations.
 Stefan Riedel, “Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, 18:1, (2005), 22.
 Shawn Buhr, “To Inoculate or Not to Inoculate?: The Debate and the Smallpox Epidemic of Boston in 1721,” Constructing the Past, 1:1, (2000), 63.
 For more on this controversy, see Christianna Elrene Thomas Hurford, “In His Arm the Scar”: Medicine, Race, and the Social Implications of the 1721 Inoculation Controversy on Boston, unpublished doctoral dissertation, (Ohio State University, 2012); Amalie M. Kass, “Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic,” Massachusetts Historical Review, 14 (2012), 1-51.
 William Douglass, A Summary, Historical and Political, of the first Planting Progressive Improvements, and present State of the British Settlements in North America, (Boston: Rogers and Fowle, 1749).
 John Adams to Abigail Smith, 17 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]
 John Adams to Abigail Smith, 14 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]
Effective May 6th, by executive order, Massachusetts residents over the age of two are required to wear a cloth face covering or mask in public spaces where social distancing is not possible. So, I imagine like many of my fellow residents of the commonwealth, I spent some time earlier this week at the sewing machine making cloth face masks (I used this great online tutorial courtesy of Gather Here in Somerville, Mass.) so that my wife and I are equipped to continue our morning walks and weekly trip to the grocery store. The act of sitting at the sewing machine, wrestling with box pleats, brought to mind a whimsical sewing-related item in the MHS collections that I had pulled for a colleague at the end of last year. Happily, I had a copy of the image that I snapped at the time — so now even though we don’t have ready access to our physical collections I’m able to share the item with all of you.
This delightful illustration, depicting elves leaping to the rescue of their distressed fellows with the help of Willimantic Six Cord Thread is on the front of a trade card produced by Willimantic Star Thread Co. (Willimantic, Conn.). Brightly-colored print trade cards, such as this one, were popular in the latter half of the 19th century. A precursor to the modern business card, they were made to be both eye-catching advertisements and desirable collectables in and of themselves. The colorful illustrations — with varying degrees of connection to the product or service the business offered — were often intended to be humorous, and were frequently produced in sets to create added incentive for people to collect, arrange, and display them. This Willimantic card was collected by an unknown individual and pasted into an album that now resides in the Society’s collection alongside trade cards from a variety of New England businesses. Here are several other examples from the surrounding album pages.
The Massachusetts Historical Society holds over 200 specimens of these advertising cards, although having looked over most of them myself I say few are as charming as the life-saving elves. A subject search in our catalog ABIGAIL for “Advertising cards – Specimens” will provide you with a list of catalog entries — most for individual cards (descriptions only, no images sadly). While MHS staff cannot currently provide reference reproduction services as we are working remotely, you are welcome to contact our reproductions coordinator if you would like to request a quote for services upon our return to the building.
by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator
Last year, the MHS acquired a remarkable collection of sixteen letters to William and Caroline Eustis, 1803-1823. The Eustises’ correspondents included four U.S. presidents—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams—as well as Dolley Madison, the Marquis de Lafayette, and others. Incredibly, five of the letters in this collection were previously unknown to scholars.
Our digital team has digitized all sixteen letters (and transcribed a few), and you can access this content from the collection guide. But I’d like to take this opportunity to inaugurate a series here at the Beehive about this collection, looking at some of the individual letters in more detail.
It’s not hard to see how William Eustis ended up with so many illustrious correspondents. Born in 1753, he worked as a military physician during the Revolutionary War; was elected to multiple terms in the Massachusetts and federal legislatures; and served as secretary of war under James Madison, minister to the Netherlands, and governor of Massachusetts.
In the spring of 1808, Eustis was representing Massachusetts in the U.S. House, and one of the great debates roiling the country was President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807.
The Embargo Act was passed by Congress on 22 December 1807 in response to violations of American neutrality by England and France during the Napoleonic Wars, including the seizure of ships and the impressment of sailors. The act prohibited American commerce with “any foreign port or place.” Jefferson hoped that, by withholding our goods, he could apply economic pressure to belligerent European powers and thus avert war.
The embargo was a drastic and unprecedented step that inflamed regional tensions. Partisans in New England, the stronghold of the Federalist Party, were outraged because the law severely curtailed their trade and because Congress had passed it in secret sessions. Federalists were also angry at the defection of John Quincy Adams, then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and a member of their party, who broke ranks and voted for the embargo.
Rep. William Eustis reached out to Adams to express his support. Eustis was a member of the opposing party, a Democratic-Republican, and had even defeated Adams in the House election of 1802. But the two men agreed on the embargo. On 25 April 1808, Adams wrote back to thank Eustis, and it’s this letter that forms part of the MHS collection.
This fascinating letter gives us a window into Adams’s thinking on an extremely contentious issue. He knew his position was unpopular with his constituents, the most outspoken of whom openly impugned his and Jefferson’s motives in the press and voiced “a species of opposition” Adams considered “unwarrantable and […] dangerous.” But Adams sincerely believed the embargo was “dictated by the love of Peace” and would be good for the country.
Which brings us to my favorite passage.
There is so much of self-delusion in human Nature, that I know not whether a man can always, and especially on trying occasions, answer with much more certainty for the purity of his own motives, than other men can answer for him – I can therefore only say that I believe myself to have acted solely and exclusively from considerations of a public nature, and with a single view to the real interests of the Nation.
In other words, human beings are masters of rationalization, especially when making difficult decisions. We like to think well of ourselves. Adams believed he was doing the right thing and for the right reasons, but recognized that we deceive ourselves as much as others are deceived about us, so are we really good judges of our own motives?
Adams’s insight into human nature and his thoughtfulness, not to mention his facility with words, are on full display here. He had clearly wrestled with the decision. This letter, in fact, came at a significant turning point in his political career. His growing disillusionment with the Federalists on this and other issues would soon lead him leave the party altogether and become a Democratic-Republican.
Eustis, Adams, and Jefferson were, in fact, very wrong about the Embargo Act of 1807. The policy was a dismal failure and hurt American markets much more than those of Europe. It was later repealed and replaced with an embargo limited to England and France.
This letter was one the five in the collection previously unknown to historians. However, the Writings of John Quincy Adams, edited by Worthingon C. Ford, includes a few other letters from Adams to Eustis. I’ll close this post with an excerpt from one dated 22 June 1809.
Yes, I believe with you that the first of qualities for a great statesman is to be honest. And if it were possible that this opinion were an error, I should rather carry it with me to my grave, than to believe that a man cannot be a statesman without being dishonest. I have, and must have, confidence in the possible virtue of human nature; and although in entertaining this idea, a man must, and will sometimes, be disappointed, yet if it is coupled with a sound judgment and close observation, I believe he could make fewer great mistakes, than one whose principle is the universal rascality of the species. […] All men profess honesty as long as they can. To believe all men honest, would be folly. To believe none so, is something worse.
Autobiographical reminiscences of the sea otter trade, a short composition comprised of just 22 handwritten pages, contains an account by William Sturgis of the Northwest sea otter fur trade between Boston and Canton, China. Although brief and outwardly unremarkable, something about this account compelled me, who digitized it, and my colleague, who catalogued it, to stall our work and read it in its entirety. Written by a young man at the beginning of a long career in overseas trade, Sturgis’ account offers a cursory glimpse into the still small but burgeoning American fur industry at the beginning of the 19th century; the stakeholders who shaped it, the greed that fueled it, and the trauma left in its wake.
At sixteen years old, William F. Sturgis (1782-1863) embarked on his first voyage from Boston on the ship Eliza, bound for the Pacific Northwest. Following news of his father’s death abroad, the eldest Sturgis son was thrust into financial responsibility, seizing a position as a low-level mate on a trading ship belonging to his employers, Thomas and James Perkins. The aim of the Eliza and six concurrent voyages like it was to trade cloth, arms, powder, coats, and dye to the indigenous peoples of the coastal Northwest in exchange for sea otter skins. These seven ships made up most of the United States’ stake in the Northwestern fur trade, which subsisted on commercial bases in Boston and Canton. Sturgis, by all accounts a pragmatic and studious young man, soon became an asset to his ship and was rapidly promoted. By 1804 he was the captain of his own vessel, and by 1806 he was admiral of a small fleet and had abandoned the Northwest fur trade altogether in favor of the China Trade.
Sturgis’ account includes very little of the above context, most of which comes from a memoir written years later by Charles Loring. In his description of the Eliza’s 1799 voyage, Sturgis provides a list of every American ship present in the area during that season’s trade, her captain, and the total number of furs she accumulated by the end of the year. He also provides a grand total of furs gathered and the average price at which they sold, along with a list of the most popular goods up for barter. In 1799, for example, a total of 11,000 furs were gathered by the seven ships, which sold in Canton for an average of $25 apiece. That year, the traders bartered blue and red broadcloth, muskets, gunpowder, greatcoats, dye, and coarse cutlery in exchange for the furs. Every year’s account starts the same, and it is easy to gauge the steady growth of the fur trade overtime given these numbers. By 1802, the total number of furs gathered grew to 14,000, but they sold for only $20 apiece.
Each year begins with a neat list of figures like that summarized above. From there, the reports become much less organized. Seemingly at a loss for where to begin, Sturgis often makes generalizations about the state of the trade in a given year. All four years of Sturgis’ tenure in the Northwest sea otter trade can best be summarized by his statement from 1801:
“The erroneous idea which was cherish’d respecting the immense profits made in the Northwest Trade induce’d many venturers to engage in it without either information or Capital – the consequence was that any one acquainted with the business might foresee, that almost all of them made losing voyages.”
Sturgis goes on to relate a story, the gist of which he repeats at least once per year and at times once per season. At the eve of 1801, multiple ships outfitted with only enough provisions for a single season’s trade descended upon the same small group of ports in quick succession, all competing for skins. The resulting competition drove up the barter price to an alarming level, such that “a spectator would have thought [the traders’] sole object was to get rid of their Cargoes as soon as possible without minding what they got in return.” The price was so high that other traders were laughed out of port for trying to offer less than 10 fathoms of cloth or three muskets for a singular skin. Before that season, the going rate was 3 fathoms per skin or 1 musket for 2 skins. For ships outfitted for longer trading voyages, 1801 turned out to be an unprosperous year of scrounging for remaining stores of skins and sailing far afield to unload cargo at a profitable rate. This seemed an incurable scenario doomed to repeat every year. At best, prices stabilized by the following season and the trade continued. At worst, ships loaded with skins were lost at sea at the hands of inexperienced captains (1800, 1802), crews starved after trading their food stores for last-ditch profits (1800), and cordial trade deals turned violent when price negotiations soured (1801).
This last point, the violence, is another topic to which Sturgis cannot seem to stop himself from returning. While he himself occasionally uses racist language to describe indigenous Northwesterners in his account, in general Sturgis was widely known for his deep appreciation of Native American culture. Enamored with the interpersonal aspects of commerce with these groups, he worked overtime to familiarize himself with the languages and customs of each, attempting to establish a friendly rapport. Sturgis’ peers did not share his passion. He describes multiple instances of violence against native people in the forms of trade coercion and overblown revenge. In one instance, the ship Bell Savage was attacked by a certain tribe while docked on an island in modern-day Alaska. The captain of another ship, Charlotte, returned later to retaliate and inadvertently murdered members of a completely different tribe. Much later, yet another trading ship docked at the same island only to be attacked again by members of the second tribe, who were understandably confused and enraged by the previous attack.
However, the longest and most harrowing story in Sturgis’ composition involves the Russians, who held several large pockets of land in Alaska at this time, along with the Tlingit people of the Sitka Sound. In his account, Sturgis summarizes the short history of the Russian presence in that area; Russian fur traders settled there around 1799, and while initial interactions with the Tlingit were friendly, the latter soon began to resent the colonists’ presence. According to the Russians, Tlingit living in or around the fort were technically under the purview of the Czar, which meant Russians were free to marry Tlingit women and force Tlingit men into free labor. Fights broke out within the year and continued sporadically until 1802.
Around that time, one of the trading ships from Sturgis’ group, the Jenny, was given assistance and shelter by the people of a particular Tlingit village on Sitka Sound. The villagers told the Jenny’s crew of their plight, and asked for help in forcing the Russians to allow their people more rights. Not only did the crew of the Jenny refuse, but they and another American vessel made the eventual decision to act in defense of Russia’s interests in the hopes of establishing a future commercial advantage. They sailed back to the village that had aided the Jenny, met with the chiefs under the guise of friendly trade, and captured or murdered several people in a surprise attack. Aboard the ship, one Tlingit hostage was singled out for execution, at which point he made a furious speech about the treachery of the Americans. Why would they side with the Russians, he asked, and why specifically attack the group that recently helped American sailors? Sturgis was apparently present, and the speech disturbed him. He attempts to quote it in its entirety within his account before describing the “peculiarly disturbing” manner in which the Tlingit man was subsequently executed.
After Sturgis is finished describing this incident, he repeats news he heard from a fellow trader that the Russians took revenge on the Tlingit people of Sitka Sound soon after, a conflict known now as the Battle of Sitka. The Tlingit were forced to leave the area in secret, afraid the Russians would enslave them, after the fourth day of battle. In what they saw as an act of mercy, they murdered the elderly people and children of their tribe to prevent them from slowing the escape and falling into the Russians’ clutches. The commander who gave Sturgis the news was one of the first to return to the base after it was deserted, only to find it littered with bodies. After relating this story, Sturgis writes one last halfhearted paragraph about another lost ship before concluding his account altogether.
This account is unique in its brevity and carries with it an oddly disembodied sense of empathy. The shame that Sturgis undeniably felt as he recounted his experiences is extremely palpable. So too is the air of helplessness apparent in his descriptions of the actions of others involved in his industry. His efforts at equitable trade and friendliness were clearly not enough to set a precedent or change the racist views of his peers. His continued compliance in the trade despite his misgivings speaks to his reluctance to jeopardize his position, but he cannot help himself from returning to the worst events in his account. It is easy to understand why he abandoned the fur trade after only a few years, despite the financial success and notoriety it brought him.
Later in his career, Sturgis publicly redoubled his advocacy by denouncing the continued expansion of the United States and Britain, arguing that the lands they claimed rightfully belonged to the indigenous people already living there. The last few pages of his account, written in another hand but seemingly dictated by him, describe the eventual decline of the Northwest sea otter trade due to scarcity of live otters after 1829.
Abigail Adams knew what to do. Whether her correspondent was nursing a broken heart or a broken arm, Abigail had the cure. She penned thousands of letters throughout her life offering advice on matters spiritual, botanical, financial, medical, and political.
But what would Abigail Adams do in the midst of a pandemic? Fortunately, with the trove of letters Abigail left us from the 1776 smallpox epidemic, the question is not “What would Abigail do?” but rather “What did Abigail do?”
First, Abigail kept herself informed and was proactive. Abigail had already lived through a smallpox epidemic in 1764 and knew the importance of staying ahead of the disease. On 17 June 1776, she wrote to John that inoculation was beginning. “Dr. Bulfinch has petitiond the General Court for leave to open a Hospital some where, and it will be granted him. I shall with all the children be one of the first class you may depend upon it.”
Second, Abigail heeded the advice of medical professionals. Doctors encouraged patients to remain in peak physical form to fight the disease. “We are ordered all the Air we can get,” Abigail wrote on 29 July. “[We] abstain from Spirit, Salt and fats, fruit we Eat, all we can get, and those who like vegetables unseasond may Eat them, but that is not I.” In the same letter, Abigail lamented that their isolation was extended several weeks by the doctor’s uncertainty that the inoculation took with each child, but she trusted his judgment. “This doubtfull Buisness is very dissagreable as it will detain us much longer, but there are several instances now of persons who thought they had had it, and were recoverd, and lived away freely, and now are plentifully dealt by.”
Third, Abigail sought solace when the stress got to be too much. This solace mainly came in the form of candid letters to her husband. “This Suspence is painfull,” she wrote on 30 July. “Tis a pestilence that walketh in Darkness.” She was homesick and stir-crazy and longed “for the sweet air of Braintree.” On 1 August, she acknowledged that “I forget one day what I wrote the day before. This small pox is a great confuser of the mind, I am really put to it to spell the commonest words.”
John empathized, writing on 23 July, “You will find several dull Hours, and the Children will fatigue you.” On 10 August, he wrote, “This Suspence and Uncertainty must be very irksome to you. But Patience and Perseverance, will overcome this, as well as all other Difficulties. Dont think of Time, nor Expence.”
Abigail kept herself informed, was proactive, and monitored her physical and mental health. But above all, Abigail wrote. During the two months that Abigail and the children were isolated with smallpox, Abigail wrote more than 15 letters to John detailing their experience. “I believe you will be tired of hearing of small pox,” Abigail wrote to John on 29 July. She filled page after page with information not only about herself, but about their neighbors, their servants, and what information she received from the outside world.
Because of Abigail, we can feel and know what it was like to live through the smallpox epidemic in 1776. The MHS invites you to bear witness to history the same way Abigail did. Tell us about your experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Historians of the future will thank you. Someday someone might even write a blog post about you.