Congratulations to the Student Winners of our first Virtual National History Day Contest in Massachusetts!

by Kate Melchior, Assistant Director of Education

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 for more information.

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]

Willimantic Thread Saves Lives! Nineteenth-Century Trade Cards at the MHS

by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

Cloth masks
Cloth masks. Photograph by Anna Clutterbuck-Cook.

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.

Lifeguards depicted on trade card
Lifeguards depicted on trade card produced by Willimantic Star Thread Co. (Willimantic, Conn.). Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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.

Horsfords trade card.
Horsfords trade card. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
American Antelope
American Antelope depicted on Arm & Hammer trade card. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
RI State Fair trade card
Rhode Island State Fair trade card. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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.

In the meantime, stay safe!

Letters to William and Caroline Eustis, Part I

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.

Letter to William Eustis, April 25, 1808
Letter from John Quincy Adams to William Eustis, 25 April 1808

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.

Newly Digitized: William Sturgis’ painful foray into the Northwest sea otter trade

by Alexandra Bush, Digital Production Assistant

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.

William Sturgis, Autobiographical reminiscences of the sea otter trade, p.4
Ships, profits, and furs sold in 1800, William Sturgis, Autobiographical reminiscences of the sea otter trade, p.4

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.

Russian fort at Sitka, ca. 1860
Russian fort at Sitka circa 1860, Dall-Healey Family Photographs.

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.

The MHS holds a digital-only copy of this manuscript. Images of the manuscript in full can be found on our website.

For further reading

Log of the ship Eliza

Hooper-Sturgis papers, 1798-1857

Loring, Charles Greely. Memoir of the Hon. William Sturgis

Living in an Epidemic: What Did Abigail Do?

by Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

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.”

Letter written by Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 29 July 1776

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.”

Letter written by John Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 10 Aug. 1776

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.

From Diplomacy to “Defence”

by Sara Georgini, Series Editor, The Papers of John Adams

For John Adams, the end of the American Revolution ushered in a difficult peace. This saga plays out in the 301 documents that compose Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams, now available in our free Adams Papers Digital Editions, chronicling his public life from December 1785 to January 1787. His tenure as the first American minister to Britain from 1785 to 1788, which he seized on as his dream job—and a post that Adams heavily lobbied for in congressional circles—felt fruitless by late December 1785. After months of court presentations and dinner-table diplomacy, Adams could not persuade the British ministry to settle prewar debts, restore lost property, or normalize commercial relations. His face-to-face encounters with the British ministry ground to “a full stop.” With trademark candor, Adams reported home that King George III was too “obstinate” and possessed an “habitual Contempt of Patriots and Patriotism,” while the new prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, “oscillated like a Pendulum” on key questions of foreign policy. Adams projected that Anglo-American relations would continue suffering in a state of “contemptuous silence” and neglect.

John Adams by Copley
John Adams, by John Singelton Copley, 1783, Harvard Art Museums

The British newspapers made it worse. Editors printed a series of attacks and misrepresentations of both American news and John Adams that his wife Abigail denounced as “false…false as Hell.” A turning point came in February 1786. The British rejected Adams’s memorial requesting their evacuation of posts on the American frontier. Adams, left to uphold a treaty that he never found satisfactory, saw that he was mired in a system that stonewalled American interests. This type of diplomatic toil, Adams wrote to friends back in New England, was akin to “making brick without straw.” By January 1787, Adams had resigned his commissions, ready to return home after a decade’s worth of service. What, then, did he really accomplish in Europe?

Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams tells us a new story. For, between 1778 and 1788, as he moved from The Hague to Auteuil and from London to New York, John Adams formed an extraordinary and little-known record of cultural diplomacy. First, he recruited allies and funds to the American cause. Then Adams urged them to amplify the history and culture of the new nation. Europe’s “Men of Letters…who are possessed of the best Hearts and most virtuous Principles, are anxious to assist Us in the great Work We have to do,” he wrote to the Scottish educator George Chapman in 1785. Entrusted with dual commissions to manage Dutch loans and craft commercial agreements with the nations of Europe and North Africa, Adams stuck to congressional instructions. He worked on negotiations related to Anglo-American economic relations, as well as proposed treaties with Morocco (successful) and Portugal (not). We used annotation and illustrations to narrate his work, including an image of a rare, Arabic-language manuscript in the Adams Papers.

Sidi Haj Taher Ben Abdelhack Fennish to the American Commissioners
Sidi Haj Taher Ben Abdelhack Fennish to the American Commissioners, [28 June 1786]
Diplomacy, for Adams, was personal and political in scope. He sought to repair Anglo-American relations, one person at a time. He hired an old loyalist friend in exile, John Jeffries, to serve as the family doctor and care for his first grandson. And as he labored over his seminal, three-volume schematic of tripartite federalism, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, Adams wrote letters of introduction for New England merchants. Though he did not bend the congressional instructions that prevented him from giving legal advice, Adams used his post to nurture national needs. He leaned heavily into promoting American whale oil, mainly to aid his debt-ridden friends in New England, then weathering Shays’ Rebellion. Adams was beset by transatlantic tides of paperwork: loyalist pleas and immigration inquiries flooded his desk. Still, he regularly made room for more correspondents and contacts. Not always patiently, the American minister sat for a small army of artists including John Singleton Copley. An advocate of the growing American Republic of Letters, Adams built bridges of correspondence between learned and scientific societies. Thanks to his work, Harvard scholars shared their finds with London’s Royal Society and with French surgeons. American students traded star sightings and observations with the Palatine Academy of Science in Mannheim. Firmly, Adams tugged Europeans’ attention toward the “first fruits” of independent America.

Literature and religion were intellectual pursuits that Adams enjoyed dabbling in. History was his passion. Three years’ posting to London planted Adams in scenery that he had only read about. On his days off, Adams tore through England’s landmarks. He made quick tours of the countryside with Abigail or Thomas Jefferson in tow. He relished seeing the cottage where Shakespeare metered his sonnets, and he breathed in the lush green estates of landed gentry. Ever a fitful diarist, John Adams recorded the sites with Whiggish approval of the country seats’ symmetrical topiary, classical statuary, and working farms. In his letters home, John focused on historic sites. He explored key episodes of the English Civil War through visits to the battle sites of Edgehill and Worcester. Adams, ever forthright and opinionated, was more of a tourist than a diplomat on such trips. At the latter venue, Adams felt “provoked” to remind the local residents that “this is holy Ground, much holier than that on which your Churches stand.”

Title page of Defence
John Adams, Defence, Title Page

There was more to John Adams’ life than diplomacy. Volume 18 reveals the fiftysomething minister in a moment of change. He witnessed the marriage of his daughter, Abigail 2d, to William Stephens Smith; promoted the ordination of American Episcopal bishops; and made his final tours of Europe. During his time in London, he also drafted the first volume of his Defence. With his mission at a standstill, he had ample time to devote to the task. Adams’ opening salvo pieced together or silently quoted from historical examples, mainly drawn from case studies of Italian republics, to show that balanced government prevented civil war. Adams argued that America needed such a structure in order to sustain the hard-won republic. To learn more about his blueprint for the nation, you can start reading Volume 18 of The Papers of John Adams here.

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.

“Planted by my hand”: John Quincy Adams, Arborist

by Neal Millikan, Adams Papers

Today, 22 April, is Earth Day, and in honor of this event, we will explore John Quincy Adams’s post-presidential stint as a horticulturalist. When Adams left the White House in March 1829, he believed he would spend the rest of his life in idle retirement at Peacefield, the family home in Quincy, Mass. By November, Adams worried in his diary that “my occupations are engrossed for transitory purposes . . . I am losing day after day without atchieving any thing.” The following summer he sought to remedy this situation by establishing an “orchard” or “plantation,” and by 17 June 1830, Adams’s diary noted that he had planted walnuts, oaks, chestnuts, elms, and a variety of “fruit-trees” including peaches, apples, plums, and apricots, “which I have attempted to raise from the stone and seed.”

John Quincy Adams relished the work outdoors. His diary entry for 4 August revealed his devotion to this task: “Every plant that I raise from the seed takes hold of my affections; and when it perishes by a stroke of the Sun . . . or a voracious insect, I feel a disappointed hope.” Like today’s gardener, he battled pests invading his plants; Adams noted in his diary that he was plagued with “Wasps, flies, black ants, Squash bugs, Turnep worms, and insects numberless.”

Double-Blossom Peach” by A. S. Adams
Watercolor drawing of a “Double-Blossom Peach” by A. S. Adams, April 3, 1828. Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society

Adams became fascinated with studying the development of his seedlings. He recorded in his diary on 15 October: “The more time and toil I spend upon this Nursery, the more it takes possession of me.” In that diary entry he also summarized his gardening activities over the previous months: “I have passed nearly two hours of every fair day in the Nursery— Have dug, and manured and planted with my own hands, in the hope of having the next Spring and Summer a thick and various crop of fruit and forest trees to observe and preserve so far as may be found practicable.” While John Quincy realized many of his seedlings would perish, “if I can save and raise even one in a hundred of them, my labour will not be lost.”

By November, John Quincy Adams had finished setting out his plantings for the season and wrote in his diary on the 27th about his future expectations for his endeavors, hopeful that “in the twentieth century . . . my Grand-children may live to see, an Apple-tree from a seed planted by my hand.” Adams was proud that his land in Quincy was “now pregnant with at least ten thousand seeds of fruit and forest . . . and in a century from this day may bear timber for the floating Castles of my Country, and fruit for the subsistence health and comfort of my descendants.”

Collections Services Without the Collections (Temporarily)

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

How does the Collections Services department of a manuscript library do its work without the manuscripts? Good question.

As you know, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MHS is closed until further notice, and collecting is temporarily on hold. Essential operations personnel has access to the building, but the rest of the staff has been working remotely for about a month now, including the eleven members of my department, Collections Services.

At first it was hard to imagine what we could realistically accomplish without access to the collections for an extended period of time. After all, most of the work we do requires direct contact with the papers, photographs, and other items we collect. Our department is responsible for their acquisition, organization, description, preservation, conservation, and digitization. Even writing posts for the Beehive means consulting original documents, often in multiple collections. But we’ve learned there are many aspects of our work that can be done from home.

For example, collection guides. These online guides contain detailed descriptions of a collection’s contents and reflect their physical arrangement. Over the last month, Collections Services has been working remotely to encode many of our old paper guides, inventories, and box lists for the MHS website. Several members of our department are contributing to this effort, from simple data entry to revisions, encoding, and review.

Encoding in progress
MHS collection guide
One of our completed collection guides

We’re very glad to add these legacy guides to the hundreds of others already available. The advantage of having these descriptions online, of course, is that the text is fully indexed and searchable. Researchers will then use these guides to request materials through our automated system.

Another work-from-home project, this one headed by the Collections Services digital team, is the ongoing digitization of some of the papers of Robert Treat Paine. Paine was a prominent lawyer, politician, judge, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He prosecuted both the Boston Massacre trial and the Shays’ Rebellion trial. His papers include thousands of pages of legal notes on the cases with which he was involved. The notes are voluminous and messy…

Robert Treat Pain law case minutes
Robert Treat Paine’s minutes of law cases

So this is a very large undertaking. The digital team has been working on this project for some time, and many pages have already been digitized. You can find them by going to the Robert Treat Paine collection guide and following the “digital content” links. Eventually four of these thick bundles of legal notes will be available online.

The digital team and the MHS Publications department are also working together on a pilot project to transcribe these notes. During our closure, members of Collections Services have been recruited to create the transcriptions. They’re recording the name or title of each case, the town or court in which it was heard, the date, and a few names or keywords where available. Publications calls this process “calendaring.” We’re fortunate to have so many staff members with experience reading old handwriting, because Paine’s is notoriously challenging!

Handwriting of Robert Treat Paine
Sample of Robert Treat Paine’s handwriting

One last project I want to be sure to mention is our brand-new website entitled Witness to History: What Are Your COVID-19 Experiences? This site is designed with all of you in mind. We’d love to hear what you’re thinking, feeling, and going through during this momentous time. You may choose to use our web form or just keep your own journal and donate it to us. We welcome photographs, as well. Your contributions will be added to the many other diaries and memoirs in our collections. We hope you’ll consider sharing with us.

It’s been a period of adjustment, but, like many others around the world, the Collections Services department and the MHS as a whole have learned new ways of collaborating. We rely on e-mail, online workspaces, and video conferencing to keep in touch and track workflows. We’ve delegated projects differently and even shared staff between departments.

However, the health and well-being of our community and all other communities around the world are paramount. Take care of yourselves, and we hope to see you soon at 1154 Boylston Street.

Making & Unmaking a Military Myth: John Adams & the American Riflemen

By Thomas A. Rider II, University of Wisconsin – Madison, Military Historical Society of Massachusetts Short Term Fellow at the MHS

Tom is currently writing a PhD dissertation on the Continental Army’s evolving approach to petite guerre or partisan warfare during the American War for Independence. The Adams Family Papers at the MHS have provided important insights into a critical aspect of this evolution – the use of frontier riflemen in support of Washington’s army.

In the early stages of the Revolutionary War, no soldiers recruited in the American colonies generated greater anticipation than the frontier riflemen. Armed with the Pennsylvania rifle, a weapon that in the hands of a skilled marksman was far more accurate than the smoothbore muskets most 18th-century soldiers carried, and skilled in the Native-American way of war, the riflemen seemed to promise a valuable augmentation to George Washington’s nascent army besieging Boston. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that even before the Continental Congress authorized the creation of rifle companies from the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia backcountries that these soldiers took on a mythological status. Congressional delegate John Adams had a role in making these myths and his correspondence offers a unique window into the naive expectations that he and others imagined for the riflemen. His correspondence also shows just how deceptive this mythology could be when the unruly and insubordinate frontiersmen dashed these expectations and instigated innumerable disruptions in Washington’s army.

In the summer of 1775, Adams undoubtedly viewed the riflemen as a godsend. Since the engagements at Lexington and Concord, New England had borne the brunt of the fighting against the British. Adams and other northern representatives in Congress were thus eager for southern troops to both reinforce the provincial army surrounding Boston and to demonstrate inter-colonial support for armed resistance.[1] Adams was undoubtedly thrilled, therefore, to hear southern delegates tell of the exotic frontiersmen and their extraordinary shooting and Indian-fighting exploits.[2] He soon convinced himself that the riflemen possessed all the martial prowess and civic virtue necessary to unite the colonies and defeat the ministerial troops in Boston and made his hopes known in a series of letters back to Massachusetts.[3] To Elbridge Gerry, Adams described the riflemen as “exquisite marksmen,” able “to send sure destruction to great distances.”[4] To James Warren, he lauded the backcountry soldiers as “Men of Property and Family, some of them of independent Fortunes, who go from the purest Motives of Patriotism and Benevolence into this service.”[5] To his wife Abigail, he labeled them “an excellent Species of Light Infantry” and “the most accurate Marksmen in the World.”[6]

Unfortunately, as the riflemen reached the Boston siege lines, they failed to live up to the myths that swilled around them. While the New England regiments had discipline problems of their own, the frontiersmen proved particularly unruly, insubordinate, and even dangerous to the good order of Washington’s developing army. They assumed for themselves a privileged status and refused to perform camp duties. They passed between the lines in defiance of orders to take ineffective pot shots at British sentries. In September, Pennsylvania riflemen staged a veritable mutiny in an effort to break a comrade out of confinement. This mutiny had to be suppressed at bayonet point.[7]

Adams, who had wholeheartedly supported the riflemen, soon received a barrage of letters from New England officers dismayed by the frontiersmen’s conduct. From William Heath he learned that “the Riflemen so much Boasted of … before their arrival, have been Guilty of as many Disorders as any Corps in the Camp and there has been more Desertions to the Enemy from them than from the whole Army Besides, perhaps Double.” Heath tempered his criticism a bit by admitting that there were some good soldiers among the riflemen and that “it would be ungenerous to characterize the Troops of any colony from the conduct of a few Scoundrels.”[8] John Thomas, an experienced veteran of the colonial wars, was less generous. In his opinion, the riflemen were “as Indifferent men as I ever served with, their Privates Mutinous & often Deserting to the Enemy, Unwilling for Duty of any Kind, Exceedingly Vicious, and I think the army here would be as well without as with them.”[9]

Eventually, Washington and his fellow officers got the riflemen under control and developed something of an unwritten doctrine to make use of their unique capabilities. By 1777, Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Corps proved highly effective in reconnaissance and harassment missions against the British in both New Jersey and northern New York.[10] The riflemen, however, never quite lived up to the myths that surrounded them in the summer of 1775 – myths that John Adams helped create.


[1] Among the New England congressional delegation, Adams was hardly alone in his enthusiasm for the riflemen. See, for example, Eliphalet Dyer to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., June 16, 1775 in Paul H. Smith, ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), 1: 496; John Hancock to Elbridge Gerry, June 18, 1775 in ibid., 507; John Hancock to Joseph Warren, June 18, 1775 in ibid., 508.

[2] For the influence of southern delegates on Adams with regard to the riflemen see John Adams to James Warren, June 27, 1775 in ibid., 545; John Adams to James Warren, July 6, 1775 in ibid., 590.

[3] Historian Charles Royster has suggested that in the Revolution’s early stages, Americans believed that superior “virtue,” “benevolence,” “disinterestedness,” and “native courage” when combined with home-grown tactics, would compensate for deficiencies in military discipline and precision. In his letters, Adams seems to describe the riflemen in this context. See Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 11-12, 22-30, 33-35.

[4] John Adams to Elbridge Gerry, June 18, 1775 in Smith, ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1: 503.

[5] John Adams to James Warren, July 6, 1775 in ibid., 590.

[6] John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 17, 1775 in ibid., 497.

[7] For an excellent account of this mutiny see Jesse Lukens to John Shaw, Jr., in Lindsay Swift, ed. Historical Manuscripts in the Public Library of the City of Boston (Boston: Public Library of the City of Boston, 1900), 1: 23-25. Adams learned of the mutiny in a letter from James Warren. See James Warren to John Adams, September 11, 1775, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[8] William Heath to John Adams, October 23, 1775 in ibid.

[9] John Thomas to John Adams, October 24, 1775 in ibid.

[10] For the exploits of Morgan’s Rifle Corps during the 1777 campaigns see Albert Louis Zambone, Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2018), 109-155.