The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

Boston by Broadside, part I: Prof. G. H. Boulet's Gymnasium

Welcome to my new series here on the Beehive: “Boston by Broadside.” Here I will use examples from the MHS’ collection of broadsides to show various views of our fair city as it used to be. 

 

For the first foray out into Boston-that-was, we begin in Charlestown. This first stop is just to make sure that everyone is physically up to the challenge of navigating the city by broadside. So, let us begin on Washington Street at Prof. G. H. Boulet's Gymnasium, Fencing, Sparring, and Pistol Academy.

While your intrepid guide considers himself to be in passable physical condition, he realizes that his training thus far is lacking in many elements, most notably the swordplay and precision with firearms. There will need to be more work done here in the future.

But now, onto the next stop! Check back soon to see where we land!

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 4 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

Major Samuel Selden’s Powder Horn: A Revolutionary Map of Boston

We expect to see maps on paper, not on animal horns. Maj. Samuel Selden might have thought this as he etched a map of Boston on his powder horn, which is dated 9 March 1776. During the Revolutionary War, soldiers used animal horns to hold their gunpowder. They filled them at the larger end and funneled the powder into their weapons. Not all militiamen had their own powder horns, so men like Selden carved unique designs on them in order to claim them as their own.

Selden was a member of Connecticut's Provincial Assembly and became a major in the colony's militia during the war. He served under George Washington's direction during the siege of Boston. His powder horn depicts the sites of American fortifications as well as the positions of the Continental Army just before the British evacuated the city.

Even if we did not know Selden's background, his carvings convey his allegiances. A ship labeled "Amaraca" displays a Continental Union flag. Another flag depicts the Liberty Tree, the tree near the Boston Common where locals met to protest British rule. Alongside his name, Selden also inscribed the words: "made for the defense of liberty."

Selden's map is a pictorial map rather than one focused on the area's geography. His detailed carvings feature individual ships in the harbor and houses lining the Boston neck. Crosshatching adds depth to the water and makes his lettering stand out. In contrast, a 1775 powder horn housed at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center features a more traditional map of Boston. Instead of pictures, this map traces shorelines. Unlike Selden's, however, a British soldier carved this powder horn. He inscribed the words: "A Pox on rebels in ther crymes [their crimes]."

1775 powder horn

Photo courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

Just six months after Selden carved his horn, the British captured him at the Battle of Kip's Bay during their campaign to take control of New York City. The prison's conditions were poor. Less than a month later, Selden fell ill and died on 11 October 1776.

Selden's powder horn, as well as that of his British counterpart, is currently on display in the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center's exhibition at the Boston Public Library. The exhibition, We Are One: Mapping America's Road from Revolution to Independence, uses maps to explore the events that led thirteen colonies to forge a new nation. We Are One demonstrates that maps, from Selden's carving to early European maps of the new nation, were central to the revolutionary process. The exhibition features maps as well as prints, paintings, and objects from the Leventhal Map Center's own collection and those of twenty partners, including the British Library and Library of Congress. Visit zoominginonhistory.com to explore geo-referenced maps from the exhibition.

The exhibition will be on display at the Boston Public Library through November 29, 2015. We Are One then travels to Colonial Williamsburg from February 2016 through January 2017 and to the New-York Historical Society from November 2017 through March 2018.

The Leventhal Map Center also hosts the NEH-funded American Revolution Portal database. Researchers can access maps from the Massachusetts Historical Society, British Library, Library of Congress, and other institutions in one search. Users can download images for research and classroom use. Access these resources and learn more about We Are One at maps.bpl.org/WeAreOne.

Find out more about the Society's own map collection at their upcoming exhibition: Terra Firma: The Beginnings of the MHS Map Collection, which opens on 2 October. Through 4 September, visitors to the MHS can learn more about the American Revolution with exhibition: God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill.

 

Image 1: Selden, Samuel, 1723-1776. [Powder horn scribed by Samuel Selden.] Lyme, Conn., 1776. 1 powder horn: ivory; 37 x 21 x 13.3 cm. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Image 2: Detail of above.

Image 3: E.B., [Powder Horn with Map of Boston and Charlestown]. [Boston], 1775. Scrimshaw horn, 14 x 3.5 x 3.5 inches. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 8:00 AM

He Said, She Said (Redux)

Three weeks ago, I introduced you to John Egbert Jansen and Margaret A. Wisner of Pine Bush, N.Y. Their papers form part of the Hall-Baury-Jansen family papers and include overlapping diaries for the years 1858 and 1859. One of my colleagues here at the MHS asked me what happened to John and Margaret after 1859, so I did a little more digging. 

Unfortunately, none of the rest of the diaries in the collection overlap. We have one more diary kept by Margaret in 1862, but the ink has faded so much that many of the entries are illegible. John kept five more diaries, two before his marriage to Margaret (1860, 1861) and three after (1873, 1875, 1878). So we have to rely almost entirely on him for further details. 

John’s diary entries are short and cryptic. He visited Margaret and thought of her often, and it seems his feelings were reciprocated, but something was apparently delaying their marriage. The fact that we have only one side of the story heightens the mystery and the pathos. We see John pining for Margaret, “living in hopes,” wanting to say things to her but not daring, and parting from her in “affecting” scenes, but her voice is silent. Here are some excerpts from John’s 1861 diary: 

Many wishes I have, but must not express them now, and some inferences to make from former actions. (17 Mar. 1861)

Saw some one in want of sleep as well as myself. I have to think quite little of what I’ve heard lately. (28 Apr. 1861)

The last attempt. […] Not at all afraid. (26 May 1861)

Thinking considerable as to what I must do. (1 July 1861)

Saw one in Church looking sad and lonely. Sorry for that. (24 Nov. 1861)

What the conflict was, I can only guess. There was some discord during John’s visit to the Wisners on 14 Mar. 1861: “Some apparently disappointed in hearing my oppinions of Intemperance as applied to my case.” The day before, he had written: “At home in the evening on account of shame perhaps or the want of a place to go. I dont know what it will amount to. I’ll have to stop after while I guess.” John did take the occasional drink. Did Margaret’s family disapprove? Or was it something else? All we know for sure is that harsh words were spoken, and someone was “very much put out or disgusted.” John felt the sting of “people passing remarks on and about me,” but thought he was “not so bad as I might be.”

His love for Margaret is unmistakable. He referred to her tenderly as “Maggie” and even, in one entry, as his “duckee.” Sometimes he just used a plus (“+”) sign to indicate her, as on 18 Aug. 1861: “Retired early, but could not sleep thinking of the goodness and other qualities of +.” As the year neared its end, with the prospect of their marriage still dim, John was glum: “Dark and gloomy out. Myself dull and lonely. Wonder if any one is thinking of me? Doubts arising.” But on New Year’s Eve, he clung to hope: “As the clock strikes 12 I was happy and alone and may I next New Year’s eve be the same except the alone.”

As I looked through John’s 1861 diary more carefully, I realized that Margaret was not entirely silent after all. At some point, she also read the volume and couldn’t resist adding her own sly comments after some entries. For example, on 7 Oct. 1861, John described an outing with some friends: “Bad companie but hard spoiling me as I am so innocent??” Margaret added a playful: “Poor boy.” (The question marks were also probably written by her.)

We have no diary kept by John in 1862, so we switch to Margaret’s point of view. Her diary for that year, though faded, does contain some legible entries, but their meaning is just as elusive as John’s. The couple had frequent “discussions” and “consultations.” When John visited on 12 Nov. 1862, with nothing decided, the two of them just “sat & sat hoping things would be right.” The wedding was put off at least once, and the next day John was nearly at the end of his rope: “John E. here & to tea. Quite cross when he left. To bad. To bad.”

Finally, on 17 Dec. 1862, John and Margaret were married. Margaret’s entry for that date reads: “Memorable day. Promised much, before many witnesses. Left with My husband […]” John’s later diaries describe the life of a typical New York farm family. The couple had three children: Lewis Wisner Jansen (1864-1925), Elsie (Jansen) Vernooy (1866-1949), and Lt. Col. Thomas Egbert Jansen (1869-1959).

Margaret died in 1923, and John in 1929. They, their three children, and other Jansen and Wisner family members are buried in New Prospect Cemetery in Pine Bush, N.Y.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 21 August, 2015, 1:00 AM

“A good house where we had a good bedroom…”: Edwin F. Atkin’s Travel Diary, 1872

While our mission statement here at the Massachusetts Historical Society proclaims that we hold materials dedicated to the study of the history of Massachusetts and the United States, we also hold materials that may be of interest to scholars researching other countries. As I am returning on a trip to Norway this summer, I decided one day to search and see what manuscripts (if any) we hold related to that country.

I was especially interested in reading about other travelers’ impressions and thoughts on the country, and so I chose to look through Edwin F. Atkins travel diary of what seems to be his first solo trip through Europe, at the age of 22 in 1872. He starts off with writing of how hard it was to say goodbye to his mother and sisters in Arlington as he left for Boston, first traveling by train to Providence and then onward to New York City, where he boarded a steamer bound for Plymouth in the United Kingdom. After a rough day at sea he writes “I think that I never again will travel by sea while anything remains to be seen in my own country.” Looking closer at the Atkins family papers, I did learn that Edwin did travel abroad again, many times to Cuba to visit his plantations there.  Apparently he either got used to sea travel, or decided that some discomfort was worth the rewards of travel. 

Reading through his diary, I started to make connections between a travel diary of the past and how we keep track of journeys today - often through a blog or social media. Similarities end there though, because travel journals in the 19th century were not intended to be shared in the same public way a travel blog is shared in the 21st century. A diary was kept mainly for yourself, to remind you of places you visited, how the food was, and to record interesting tidbits about your day. Reading each page of Edwin’s diary puts me in the mind of someone recording their thoughts so he could then recall what happened each day when choosing to share the trip with other people. For example, most of his daily entries are similar to this entry from 10 August 1872 “At Christiania [which is now Oslo, the capital of Norway] we went to Victoria House, a very good house we had a nice room and a good supper.” He was not one to speak in superlatives, often just noting the “fine scenery” and “clear weather.”

Because of his usually reserved writing, when he writes in great detail I knew he was writing of something special. On 20 August 1872, Edwin is on a steamer sailing through the Sognefjord, which he noted had “scenery of the finest kind.” He decided to spend the night sleeping on the deck: “We made a landing which woke me up; we were among scenery of the grandest - snow covered mountains just above us; from here we ran to Andal down a fjord where the rocks rose some two and three thousand feet right out of the water. Coming back through the same branch of the fjord, we entered another leading to Gudvangen more beautiful than the other with many beautiful waterfalls coming down from the rocks above more small villages…” Having been on a very similar ferry ride through the same fjord, I can completely understand his awe at the beauty surrounding him.

Edwin’s journal goes on to detail his travels around Norway and then into Sweden, and abruptly ends upon his entry into Germany. His last full entry is dated 2 September 1872 and while the next page holds the date 3 September, nothing else is written. I’d like to imagine that Edwin, like so many other travelers (myself included), was so caught up in his travels that he had no time to jot down his memories. If you are interested in reading travel diaries from faraway places, be sure to check out ABIGAIL to discover our collections here at MHS!

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 8 August, 2015, 8:00 AM

The Stamp Act and Liberating Knowledge

This August marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of the first part John Adams’s “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.” This rather arcane title can obscure the profound message that his essay brought to that colonial resistance to the Stamp Act that had been imposed on the colonies in the spring of 1765 by the British Parliament. In this four-part series published in the Boston Gazette from August to October 1765 in the flush of opposition to this new tax, Adams attacked the Stamp Act from a different angle than simply opposition to “taxation without representation.” It was not merely the fact of a tax, but what Britain taxed: “it seems very manifest from the [Stamp Act] itself, that a design is form’d to strip us in a great measure of the means of knowledge, by loading the Press, the Colleges, and even an Almanack and a News-Paper, with restraints and duties.”

Adams, ever the lawyer, looked back over history and examined the two major legal systems that had ruled much of Europe up to the modern age—the canon law, the law of the Roman Catholic Church, and the feudal law, the law of medieval governments. In both of these legal systems, Adams saw a systematic attempt to keep knowledge from the people. In the first part of his essay, he explained how “the great” worked “to wrest from the populace, as they are contemptuously called, the knowledge of their rights and wrongs, and the power to assert the former or redress the latter. I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government—Rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws—Rights derived from the great legislator of the universe.” In England, an alliance between these two systems had formed and it “was this great struggle, that peopled America. It was not religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal Liberty, and an hatred, a dread, an horror of the infernal confederacy, before described, that projected, conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America.”

In the final installment of his essay, Adams’s rhetoric soars as he calls for Americans to look into and stand up for their rights. They should use this moment when the British attempted to subjugate America and oppose their efforts through education. “Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil.” And Adams argued that just as the reigns of James I and Charles I produced some of the greatest British statesmen, “The prospect, now before us, in America, ought in the same manner to engage the attention of every man of learning to matters of power and of right, that we may be neither led nor driven blindfolded to irretrievable destruction.”

John Adams’s continued commitment to education as an essential component in a free society was evident in his draft of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which included a chapter specifically calling for “The Encouragement of Literature” within the commonwealth.

If you want to learn more about the Stamp Act and the coming of the Revolution in Boston, a couple weeks are remaining to view the MHS exhibit, God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 7 August, 2015, 1:00 AM

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