The Missing Whydah Treasure

By Laura Williams, Visitor Services Coordinator

It was a sad day for treasure hunters across the U.S.  when on 6 June 2020, millionaire art dealer Forrest Fenn’s legendary treasure was reported as found. Hidden in the Rocky Mountains for 10 years, the only clues to find the chest filled with gold coins and nuggets were a map and a poem. Like most mysteries, this treasure hunt did not come without a fair share of darkness as it is believed that 4 people died on the quest. [1]  As I learned more about this present day treasure hunt, I could not help but think back on other tales of hidden riches that have puzzled treasure seekers and historians alike. From the pirate Blackbeard to the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II, legends of hidden treasures are as old as time. In fact, one such treasure that is still missing is the rumored bounty of the pirate ship the Whydah which sank just off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass..

The Whydah had a dark past before it was captured by pirates, as it was originally a merchant slaver used within the Triangular Trade and the Middle Passage. It was boarded by pirates as it left Jamaica en route to London in late February/early March 1717. The pirate crew was led by Samuel Bellamy, or Black Bellamy, and the ship was soon loaded up with plunder as they made their way across the seas. In addition to weaponry and other valuables, the most intriguing facet aboard was the rumored 20,000 pounds of gold and silver.  Captain Bellamy’s command of the ship was short lived, however, as it sank on 26 April 1717 after storm winds pushed it onto the shoals of Cape Cod. Only a handful of survivors were left and they were taken ashore to face trial in Boston.

Immediately following the wreck, it is known that Cape Cod locals plundered the ship’s valuables. Cyprian Southack, a cartographer, was also hired to note the location of the shipwreck and gather treasures for the crown. More about his voyages and time serving the Mass Bay Colony can be found in the MHS’s Cyprian Southack letters collection. In fact, much of what we now know about the pirates comes from the priest Cotton Mather’s papers and his account of visits with the men in jail to provide them salvation. However, it was never confirmed whether or not the large bounty of treasure that the pirates gloated about truly existed.

Once six out of the seven surviving pirates were sentenced to death and executed in Boston, the Whydah remained buried under 30 feet of water for over 250 years. That is until 1984 when underwater explorer and Massachusetts native, Barry Clifford, found the ship’s remains and the Whydah became the first authenticated pirate ship wreck in North America. The thousands of artifacts discovered in the wreck can be seen at the Whydah Pirate Museum in Cape Cod, and Clifford has continued his search for the legendary treasure. In 2016, Clifford and his team stated that they discovered a large metallic mass off the coast of Wellfleet, MA that may contain most or all of the alleged 400,000 coins hidden below sea. [2]  Further deconstruction of the mass will be needed to verify this claim.

As modern day treasure hunters continue their quests for riches, the journey will always begin with history and the clues that have been left behind. To learn more about the Whydah pirates, notorious Captain Kidd or Boston’s history as the “Port Where Pirates Hang,” take a look at our previous Beehive posts: The End of Piracy: Pirates hanged in Boston 300 years ago | Beehive & Piracy and Repentance | Beehive.

[1] Chappell, Bill. “Hidden Treasure Chest Filled With Gold And Gems Is Found In Rocky Mountains.”, accessed on June 10, 2020.

[2] Marcelo, Philip. “Explorer Barry Clifford claims he’s located famous pirate ship Whydah’s treasure.”, accessed on June 19, 2020.

Race and Infectious Disease in the 18th Century

By Dr. Talya Housman, Threadable Books

In 1722, Reverend William Douglass attacked the smallpox inoculation efforts of Cotton Mather and Zabdiel Boylston, dismissing inoculation as based on “a silly Story or familiar Interview and Conversation between two black (Negroe) Gentlemen,” and promoted by “an Army of half a Dozen or half a Score Africans, by others call‟d Negroe Slaves, who tell us now (tho‟ never before) that it is practiced in their own Countery.”[1]

Inoculation had been used in Africa prior to its use in Boston and Mather had heard of the process from Onesimus, who was his slave. Mather defended his and Boylston’s experiments noting that inoculation had worked “upon both Male and Female, both old and young, both Strong and Weak, both White and Black.”[2]

The 1721 controversy over inoculation was not exclusively about race. There were myriad issues mixed up in the debate including medical certification and religion. However, as was the case in much of the eighteenth century American history of infectious disease, race played an important and often times unsavory role.

Human bondage is a critical piece of these stories. Though in this case Mather used his voice to amplify an idea he heard from Onesimus, as Mather’s “property,” Onesimus had little choice in the course of events and we have no record of his voice in the story. Unfortunately, Onesimus is hardly the most exploited enslaved person in the eighteenth century history of infectious disease. Numerous physicians in the Americas performed experiments on slaves. For these experiments, physicians would solicit consent from the owners of slaves, rather than the enslaved persons themselves. Physician John Quier, for example, experimented with innoculation on almost eight hundred slaves.[3]

The freed black community was far from unaffected by the interplay between race and infectious disease. In 1793, yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Indpendence and one of the most prominent physicians in North America, actively worked to combat the disease. After reading Dr. John Lining’s account of the 1754 yellow fever outbreak in Charleston, Rush wrote to his friend Richard Allen, a preacher and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who was one of the most influential black leaders of the time.

Richard Allen by Daniel A. Payne
Portrait of Richard Allen by Daniel A. Payne from the frontispiece of History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1891)

Yellow fever, Rush informed Allen, “infects white people of all ranks, but passes by persons of your color.” While Rush wrote that this “important exemption which God” granted to the black community from “a dangerous & fatal disorder” did not create “an obligation to offer your services to attend the sick,” Rush emphasized that tending to the sick white community would earn the black community gratefulness. (Interestingly, Rush initially wrote that nursing the sick would “render you acceptable to,” but he struck out those words and replaced them.) Allen and the black community of Philadelphia obliged, tending to the sick white community. However, as Rush himself would later discover, they were no more immune to yellow fever than the white community. [4]

In fact, Lining’s research was part of an ongoing myth that black bodies are more immune to all sorts of things than white bodies: disease, heat, pain – the list goes on.

The intersection between infectious disease and race in the eighteenth century is a reminder that infectious disease intersects with and exposes other existing problems in our society – be they racial, socio-economic, religious, or otherwise.

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. 

[1] William Douglass, Inoculation of the Small Pox as Practiced in Boston, Consider‟d in a Letter to A—S– -M.D. & F.R.S (Boston, 1722), 6-7.

[2] Minardi, Margot, “The Boston Inoculation Controversy of 1721-1722: An Incident in the History of Race,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 61, no. 1 (2004), 58 citing Cotton Mather, The Angel of Bethesda, ed. Gordon W. Jones (Barre, Mass., 1972), 113.

[3] Londa L Schiebinger, Plants and Empire, (Harvard University Press, 2009). p. 175.

Rana A. Hogarth, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840. (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 220, fn. 12.

[4]Ibid, 24-8.

Early American Purses

By Angela Tillapaugh, Library Assistant

Silk purse that belonged to Sarah Leverett
Purse made for Sarah Leverett. Silk. 1840. 20 cm x 15 cm. From the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The image above shows a brown silk purse with floral embroidery owned by Sarah Leverett. Small drawstring purses, sometimes called reticules, became popular in the early 19th century. They were usually made fine materials like silk and velvet, and some decorated with elaborate embroidery or beading to make them stand out. Most were secured by a drawstring on the top and held around the wearer’s wrist. Previously, carrying small fashionable purses was not standard for early Americans.

Dimity pocket
Pocket belonging to Abigail Adams. Dimity with cotton tapes by unknown maker. Late 18th-early 19th century. 36.1cm x 13.7cm. From the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Women used to carry their belongings in pockets, like the one above owned by Abigail Adams. Unlike menswear, pockets were separate garments that would be tied around the waist underneath an outer skirt with slits cut into it so the wearer could easily access the pouch. Unlike the delicate embroidered purses, pockets were large practical garments usually made of sturdy cotton that could fit many of the wearer’s belongings. Reticules replaced pockets around the early 19th century when full dresses with layered petticoats fell out of fashion. Dresses with high waistlines and slim fitting skirts became popular among fashionable women. Slim fitting skirts were not conducive to hiding large pockets, which were considered undergarments and inappropriate to see through a dress.[i] To account for the loss of pockets, many started carrying small purses like the one owned by Sarah Leverett. Some American women fought against the loss of the pocket, arguing that carrying a bag could never provide the same freedom having your belongings tucked away in a pocket. Other women argued that the opposite was true, the reticules gave women more freedom because they were not weighed down by heavy pockets.[ii]

Regardless, the pocket never made a significant comeback in American women’s fashion, but the purse continued to evolve. Luggage manufacturers like Louis Vuitton introduced the early modern purse by making smaller versions of their suitcases and calling them “hand-bags”.[iii] These purses were much more secure than the silk drawstring bags and allowed the owner to carry more belongings with them then the pockets of centuries prior. The purse has certainly stood the test of time, continuing to modernize and change with the times to meet the needs of the wearer.

Further reading on Abigail Adam’s pocket:

[i] Danford, Sara. “The History of the Handbag,” May 31, 2017.

[ii] Trufelman, Avery, host. “Pockets: Articles of Interest #3.” 99 Percent Invisible (podcast). October 2, 2018. Accessed June 04, 2020.

[iii] Danford, Sara. “The History of the Handbag,” May 31, 2017.

Letters to William and Caroline Eustis, Part III

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the third part of a series about the letters to William and Caroline Eustis at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to read Part I and Part II.

Letter to William Eustis
Letter from Henry Dearborn to William Eustis, 5 April 1807

Among the many interesting letters to William and Caroline Eustis at the MHS is one written by Secretary of War Henry Dearborn in Washington, D.C. on 5 April 1807. I’d like to take another one of my deep dives and look at this letter in more detail. It’s a great example of what we archivists often see in historical correspondence: a relatively mundane topic juxtaposed with a very dramatic one.

Dearborn began his letter to William Eustis by informing him of the routine appointment of a man named Lemuel Trescott to be collector of customs at the port of Machias, Maine. Dearborn had asked Eustis for advice about Trescott’s character, and what he heard reassured him. He’d been particularly concerned with the question of temperance, “as so many of our old Army friends have failed on that score.”

So far, so good. But what began as a letter on straightforward official business became, on the second page, an account of the escape and recapture of Vice President Aaron Burr before his trial on charges of treason. Here’s how Dearborn described it (I’ll preserve his misspellings):

Col Burr, after forfiting his bonds to the Court at Natchez, by an escape, was taken up in a shabby disguise a few miles from the Spanish boundary on the Mobile, and in that situation conducted by a Citizan and small guard to richmond in Virginia where he has by Judge Marshal, been laid under bonds of $10,000 to abide his trial at some future day.

(An online currency converter tells me that $10,000 in 1807 is the equivalent of approximately $220,000 today.)

Aaron Burr had been Thomas Jefferson’s first vice president, serving until 1805. He had, of course, famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. But this time, he was accused of something quite different: plotting to create a secessionist state in the West and raising troops to invade and annex Spanish-held land in Texas and Mexico. Or something like that. The details and purpose of his enterprise are still contested by historians.

Thomas Jefferson ordered the arrest of Burr, who surrendered to the authorities at Natchez in the Mississippi Territory. As Dearborn explained in the passage above, Burr then escaped and managed to get to within a few miles of the border of West Florida before his recapture in February 1807. West Florida was a Spanish territory consisting of a narrow strip of land along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida panhandle to the Mississippi River.

Dearborn also related the story of a second escape attempt by Burr on the way to Richmond.

In passing a small village in S. Carolina where some people had assembled, he leaped from his horse, ran towards the people, announced himself, and claimed protection, but the guard cocking their pins and threatening to fire if he did not immediately return, he returned & proceeded on the journey.

I found references to this story online and confirmed that this incident took place in Chester, South Carolina. It was probably reasonable for Burr to hope for sympathy in that state, since his son-in-law was a prominent landowner there. But he’d clearly taken the people of Chester by surprise, and what might have become a dramatic rescue unceremoniously fizzled out. Interestingly, the rock on which Burr stood as he made his plea to the town is now a designated historical marker carved with the following inscription:

In 1806 [sic] Aaron Burr while passing through Chester a prisoner dismounted on this rock and appealed in vain to the citizens for help.

Burr’s trial at Richmond was a sensation and lasted for months. He was eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence of any overt act of treason. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall presided.

Incidentally, Henry Dearborn and William Eustis had a lot in common. They were both Revolutionary War veterans. They both served as Secretaries of War, Dearborn under President Jefferson, and Eustis right after him under President Madison. And both men knew Burr personally. Eustis in particular was a good friend and frequent correspondent of the vice president, which may have been why Dearborn was keeping him in the loop.

This letter is also fairly typical for another reason: tricky handwriting. With practice, archivists get better at reading old manuscripts, but each correspondent has his or her own quirks. Dearborn’s writing is large, and the letters don’t really connect up well with each other. For example, this word is apparently “pins.”

Detail from letter written by Dearborn
Dearborn’s handwriting: “pins”

Here is “some.”

Letter from Dearborn to Eustis
Dearborn’s handwriting: “some”

And this one, as near as I can tell from context, is “wrong.” Or, that is, “rong” spelled wrong.

Letter from Dearborn to Eustis
Dearborn’s handwriting: “rong”

Stay tuned to the Beehive for more on the Eustis collection.

“How are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

The news is scary. In the midst of global pandemic, an economic crisis, and nightly images of police brutality, we keep hearing the same question over and over: What do I tell my children?

This is not a new question. Every time John Adams sat at his writing desk in Philadelphia, quill in hand, he contemplated what to say to his “little flock.” He knew they had the violence of war on their doorstep, and the smallpox virus was creeping ever closer. “My Anxiety about you and the Children, as well as our Country, has been extreme,” he confided to Abigail on 24 July 1775.

John recognized that his children were exceptionally lucky to have a mother like Abigail to explain, care, and console, but he was still their father. In his letter to Abigail of 2 June 1775, John wrote, “My Dear Nabby, and Johnny and Charley & Tommy are never out of my Thoughts.”

letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 2 June 1775.

Adams encouraged his children to communicate with him, telling them he longed “to share with your Mamma the Pleasures of your Conversation.” Sometimes he invited the children to lead the conversation and tell him what they were experiencing. On 17 March 1777, he asked his son Charles, “What Subject do your Thoughts run upon these Times. You are a thoughtfull Child you know, always meditating upon some deep Thing or other. Your Sensibility is exquisite too. Pray how are your nice Feelings affected by the Times?”

John also reminded his children that God was watching over them, and that they could trust Abigail to keep them safe. “I hope you and your Sister and Brothers will take proper Notice of these great Events, and remember under whose wise and kind Providence they are all conducted. Not a Sparrow falls, nor a Hair is lost, but by the Direction of infinite Wisdom. Much less are Cities conquered and evacuated,” he wrote to John Quincy on 18 April 1776. For the baby, Tommy, John simply wrote, “Be always dutifull and obedient to your Mamma.”

John Adams encouraged conviction and virtue in his elder children, writing John Quincy what books to pull out of the family library to prepare for a life of public service and responsible citizenship. “Public Virtues,” he wrote to Abigail on 29 Oct. 1775, “and political Qualities therefore should be incessantly cherished in our Children.” For Tommy, who was too young to understand what was happening, John focused on love and play. “Tell Tom, I would give a Guinea to have him climb upon my shoulder, and another to chase him into his Jail.”

Letter from John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 29 Oct. 1775

John Adams, like every parent, had many anxieties and aspirations for his children. He urged Abigail to “elevate the Minds of our Children and exalt their Courage; to accelerate and animate their Industry & activity— to excite in them an habitual Contempt of Meanness, abhorrence of Injustice and Inhumanity, and an ambition to excell in every Capacity, Faculty, and Virtue.”

To his daughter, Nabby, Adams provided his most succinct advice for navigating tumultuous times: “To be good, and to do good, is all We have to do.”

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.

John Winthrop’s “History of New England”

by Laura Williams, Visitor Services Coordinator

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.” [1] 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.” [2] 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.

John Winthrop portrait
This portrait depicts John Winthrop (1588-1649) and is attributed to Paul Moschowitz, [19–]
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. [3] 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.

John Winthrop journal
John Winthrop journal, History of New England (manuscript), volume 1

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.

I encourage you all to visit our Witness to History website and contribute your story. View Winthrop’s History of New England  journal, volume 1 on our website and read a detailed account of how the volumes made their way into the MHS collections.

[1] MHS Collections Online, John Winthrop journal, History of New England (manuscript), volume 1, accessed May 13, 2020,

[2] “John Winthrop, American Colonial Governor,” Richard S. Dunn, accessed May 7, 2020,

[3] MHS Collections Online, Witness to America’s Past, accessed May 19, 2020,

Letters to William and Caroline Eustis, Part II

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the second part of a series about the letters to William and Caroline Eustis at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to read Part I.

May 17, 1816 letter from Dolley Madison
Letter from Dolley Madison to Caroline Eustis, 17 May 1816

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.

September 9, 1815 letter from Caroline Eustis
Letter from Caroline Eustis to Dolley Madison, 9 Sep. 1815

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.

An ABIGAIL Scavenger Hunt

by Hannah Elder, Reproductions Coordinator

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!

MHS ABIGAIL Scavenger Hunt

In ABIGAIL, try to find:

  • something created pre-1500
  • 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!)
  • church records
  • 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

Privilegia Carthusiensium
Privilegia Carthusiensium. Written ca. 1300, this volume outlines the special privileges and rules granted to the Cathusian order of Catholic monks. Note the spot where the parchment tore and was repaired!

An artifact owned by a First Lady of the United States

States plate
Martha Washington “States” china plate. This plate is from a tea set made for Martha Washington in China, and given to her by Andreas E. van Braam Houckgeest in 1796. The design on the lip of the plate includes the names of 15 states, including Massachusetts.

Something with a connection to your home town, state, or country

Captain John Binney letter
An extract of a letter written by Captain John Binney while he was stationed at Fort Edgecomb (from the Binney Family Papers). For more information on John Binney and his time at Fort Edgecomb, check out my blog post from September.

A nature-related item

mulberry tree segment
Triangular piece cut from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. Legend has it, the tree this piece was cut from was planted by Shakespeare himself.

An item related to the indigenous peoples of Massachusetts

Natick language rules of grammer
The title page of Natick Indian grammar. This volume is Peter Stephen Du Ponceau’s manuscript copy of John Eliot’s rules of grammar for the Natick (Massachuset) Indian language.

Church records

Record book for the Second Chuch
A page from Volume 8 of the Second Church (Boston, Mass.) records, a record book covering 1650-1808.

An 18th century newspaper

The Boston Gazette
Volume no. 718 of The Boston gazette, or, Country journal, published  2 January 1769. This newspaper was printed by Benjamin Edes and John Gill between 1755 and 1793.

I hope you enjoy your scavenger hunting! To learn more about the library and our services during the COVID-19 closure, visit the Reference Services During COVID-19 Closure page of our website.

“Pockey Companions”: Getting Inoculated in the 18th Century

by Dr. Talya Housman, Threadable Books

“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.”[1]

– 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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[5]

John Adams letter
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764

Thankfully Adams developed, by both his own account and those of others, a light case which earned him immunity without too much pain.[6] 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?”[7] 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. 

[1] Jonathan Sewall to John Adams, 15 February 1764 in Papers of John Adams, Vol. 1. [link]

[2] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 13 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[3] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 18 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[4] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[5] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 26 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[6] 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]

[7] Abigail Smith to John Adams, 9 May 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

Variolation vs. Vaccination: 18th Century Developments in Smallpox Inoculation

by Dr. Talya Housman, Threadable Books

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.[1] 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.[2] Boylston began inoculating hundreds but controversy erupted over his efforts.[3] 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%.[4] By 1749, William Douglass, the fiercest opponent of inoculation, published an essay admitting inoculation’s benefits and encouraging society to inoculate.[5]

New England Courant
New England Courant, Number 20, 11-18 December 1721. Massachusetts Historical Society.

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.[6] 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.”[7]

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.”[8] He praised Boylston’s 1721 “discovery” and “practice” of smallpox inoculation “which has since proved of such inestimable benefit to Mankind.”[9]

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. 

[1] Stefan Riedel, “Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, 18:1, (2005), 22.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Buhr, “To Inoculate or Not to Inoculate,” 66.

[5] 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).

[6] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 17 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[7] John Adams to Abigail Smith, 14 April 1764 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1. [link]

[8] John Adams to the President of Congress No. 9, 25 February 1780 in Papers of John Adams, Vol. 8. [link]

[9] Obituary of Susanna Boylston Adams Hall, 29 April 1797 in Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 12. [link]