Teenage Troubles and Worried Grandparents: Abigail and John Adams and William Steuben Smith

By Miriam Liebman, The Adams Papers

Abigail and John Adams became grandparents in 1787 with the birth of their first grandchild, William Steuben Smith, born to their daughter Abigail Adams 2d and her husband, William Stephens Smith. At the time, Abigail and John Adams were deeply engaged in service to the nation with the presidency still to come. Adams Family Correspondence, volume 16, the forthcoming volume in the series, includes the first correspondence between the Adamses and their grandchildren and offers significant insights into their relationship with William Steuben Smith. A previous blog post that focused on Abigail’s relationship with William Steuben’s younger brother, John Adams Smith, can be found here. This post, however, focuses on their relationship with their eldest grandson.

William, who was 17 when the volume opens in late 1804, experienced some growing pains as he neared his twenties. Although many teenagers struggle to figure out their paths in life, some of William’s choices were more ill-advised than others. Growing up in New York City, he visited his grandparents with his mother, Abigail Adams Smith and sister Caroline Amelia, during the fall of 1805, returning to New York that November. A few months later, in January 1806, he became involved in Francisco de Miranda’s failed invasions of Venezuela. While William survived capture and death, his participation had significant consequences for the family. His father’s presumed involvement led Thomas Jefferson to replace William Stephens Smith as the surveyor of the port of New York. His grandson’s actions caused John Adams “great grief” and much concern among other members of the family.

Returning to Quincy and the comfort of his grandparents’ home in September 1807 after the failed mission, William Steuben taught at John Whitney’s school in Quincy. In late March 1808 despite his grandmother’s wishes that he stay longer, he traveled back to his parents in upstate New York. Both of his grandparents worried about his future.

With their many connections to people throughout the country, John wrote to his grandson about different career prospects. Meanwhile Abigail wrote to others about what she thought William Steuben should do next and whether she should write on his behalf for a commission in this army. In a letter to her daughter-in-law Louisa Catherine Adams, she explained her hope that “his engagement with Miranda would be no bar to his employment in the Army.” She continued, “He was under age and was placed with him by those in whom he naturally confided, and knew not Mirandas views.” Clearly having a fond place in his grandmother’s heart, she defended his youthful errors. Abigail described him as having “engageing Manners, and pleasent temper & disposition” and having “a Strict sense of honour and integrity.”

Abigail continued to worry about what her eldest grandson would do. She believed him to be “an amiable modest engageing Youth,” and wrote, “I hope and trust will make his way through the world with honor and integrity.” Given his role in the Miranda Expedition, Abigail blamed William Stephens Smith for ruining his son’s opportunity to be “employd under the present administration.” This only left William Steuben the option of joining his parents in upstate New York to work the land. While Abigail had her doubts that this was right for him, she told his aunt Sarah Smith Adams in early 1808 that, “he appears in good Spirits, pleasent & happy, and assured Me that he did not feel a wish to quit his Situation.”

handwritten letter
The first page of William Steuben Smith’s diary documenting his journey to Russia, Adams Papers.

In July 1809, at the end of this Family Correspondence volume, Smith’s uncle John Quincy Adams prepared to travel to St. Petersburg to serve as the U.S. minister to Russia. William Steuben wrote to him to ask about the opportunity of serving as his uncle’s secretary. After inquiring whether he could choose his own secretary, John Quincy offered his nephew the position. William accepted and remained in Europe until the spring of 1815. He documented his journey to Russia in a diary, held in the Adams Papers at the MHS. This change of fortune and new adventure for William Steuben Smith brought his grandmother “great Gratification.”

True Holiday Spirit: The Boston Common Tree and the Sisterhood of Two Cities 

by Rakashi Chand, Reading Room Supervisor

Every year there is a grand tree lighting celebration on Boston Common. While exciting and fun, it is the tree itself that embodies kindness and unity. The tree is donated by the people of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada to the people of Boston, Massachusetts, USA as a token of gratitude for the rescue mission that went into effect on the day of the Halifax Explosion.

An unimaginable tragedy occurred on the morning of 6 December 1917 when two ships, the Imo and Mt. Blanc collided in Halifax Harbor. The Mt. Blanc was laden with thousands of pounds of highly explosive munitions including picric acid. The ship exploded with a blinding light, sending a shockwave throughout the city that shattered windows 50 miles away. The ship dissolved to molten fragments leaving a horrific wake of disaster. Almost 1,800 people were killed and an estimated 9,000 people were injured in the explosion. Northern Halifax had been flattened and buildings across the city were collapsing or on fire. The explosion caused a tsunami that further devastated the port, city, and bay.  

An hour later after the explosion, news of it reached Boston by telegraph. By 11:00 AM, Governor Samuel McCall wired the reply “Massachusetts stands ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of.” While many of Boston’s trained medical and emergency personnel were in Europe as part of WWI, the first relief train full of medical personnel and supplies left Boston for Halifax that night. 

“At ten o’clock that night the relief train left Boston, carrying the surgeons from the State Guard, and nurses, medical and other supplies and food, all under charge of Mr. A. C. Ratshesky, and accompanied by Mr. John F. Moors in charge of the Red Cross contingent.” (1) 

A blizzard paralyzed the relief train as it struggled to get to Halifax, but they persevered and immediately wired to send more supplies.  

“The relief party which left Boston Dec. 6 arrived at Halifax the morning of Dec. 8, having experienced great difficulties from snow blockades, for one of the severest storms of the winter was encountered. Here they found the streets obstructed with debris and snow, and that theirs was the first medical relief party to arrive. It contained 10 surgeons from the Massachusetts State Guard, 10 nurses, 2 members of the state QMC, and members of the Massachusetts Red Cross.” (“Halifax Relief Expedition.” (1) 

As soon as the train arrived in Halifax, they set up a base camp and hospital. 

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds the diaries of several Massachusetts citizens who noted the Halifax Explosion in 1917.  

Funds were raised by a popular subscription, people across Massachusetts contributed and gathered clothing and other necessities.  A public Meeting was held at Faneuil Hall and recorded by Robert James Streeter, a history teacher, who attended the meeting. 

Robert James Streeter diary, 8 December 1917.

Saturday Dec. 8 1917 

“Went into Boston at 11:00 and attended a mass meeting at Faneuil Hall to hear Gov. McCall, Mayor Curley, Henry B. Endicott, ch. of com. of Public Safety and two other men, speak on the Halifax disaster, & tell what has been done in way of relief. Boston & Mass stand ready to do everything possible.” 

Henry Adams, the son of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., worked in the financial heart of Boston. He recorded the news and impacts of the Halifax Explosion on two consecutive days. On 7 December, he wrote:

Henry Adams diary, 7 December 1917.

Friday, December 7, 1917 

“Halifax explosion is a disaster. 2,000 dead. Town almost wiped out. Munition ship Imo Mt. Blanc rammed by Imo caught fire from a deck load of benzene and blew up in 17 minutes. Much of her cargo was T. N. T. The most powerful ex-plosive known.”  

Georgina Lowell, whose diaries make up part of the Francis Cabot Lowell (1803-1874) Papers,  records reading about the explosion in her diary: 

Georgina Lowell diary, 7 December 1917.

Friday, December 7, 1917 

“Read of Terrible disaster in Halifax, N.S. caused by explosion of munition ship in harbor- report 2000 killed and large sections of city levelled.” 

The efforts to aid Halifax continued well into the next year. While relief came from across Canada and the northern United States, the first responders from Boston will always be remembered.  Each year, the people of Halifax choose a special tree to send to Boston as a special token of the bond between the two cities. The tree on Boston Common is a quiet testament to the both the strength and kindness of humanity, and in my mind, a testament of the true Spirit of the Holidays. 

  1. In: Commission on Massachusetts’ Part in the World War. Report of the Commission on Massachusetts’ Part in the World War. Compiled and edited by Eben Putnam. Boston: Published by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1931. Vol. 1, 53-54.) 

For further reading, please visit Nova Scotia Archives the 1917 Halifax Explosion Nova Scotia Archives – 1917 Halifax Explosion 

For further reading on Henry Adams diary notes on the Halifax Explosion, please see our December 2017 Object of the Month.

Diaries I Have Partially Fallen For in the Past: The Life and Loves of Amy Lee Colt

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

When you think of archivists at work, you probably picture us buried under piles of dusty documents filled with stuffy prose and inscrutable handwriting. Well, sometimes we are. But you may be surprised how often I laugh out loud at something I find in one of our collections. Case in point: the diary of Amy Lee Colt.

Amy Lee was the youngest child of social worker, author, and philanthropist Joseph Lee of Boston, Brookline, and Cohasset, Mass. Her mother, Margaret Copley (Cabot) Lee, was a teacher who founded kindergartens in Chestnut Hill and the Back Bay and served as a director of the Associated Charities of Boston. According to Joseph’s biographical sketch of Margaret, as well as public records, Amy was born on 9 April 1903, although her grave marker bears the date 8 April 1902.

Amy’s diary is part of a collection of her father’s papers here at the MHS. The volume is really more of a combination diary and commonplace-book, with diary entries, original poetry, random thoughts, quotations, lists, and prayers. Unfortunately the entries aren’t dated, but based on internal clues, we can estimate that it was probably kept between 1918 and 1925. Amy was apparently a teenager when she began it and wrote her last entry shortly after the birth of her first child.

The volume begins with this inscription:

Dear little book to thee I impart

The secrets of my beating heart

And if it’s secrets of a beating heart you’re looking for, you will not be disappointed. I knew I was in for a treat when I saw a page with the heading: “Boys I have partially fallen fore [sic] in the past.”

Page from the diary of Amy Lee Colt listing her crushes

Amy not only listed the boys by name, but included a brief commentary on each. She was incredibly funny and had a real knack for description, conveying a lot of information in just a few words. Here are some of my favorites:

“Tad is charming & unique. He puts you on a pedestal & as theirs [sic] not room for two falls off.”

Edmund “had red hair, freckles, blue eyes[,] played the violin. It sounded like the first chapter of a novel & he liked me.”

“I fell rather physically for [Guy] & he kissed my hand & asked the other.” (This entry is crossed out with the word “Bad” written over it.)

Bat Stevens “hated me; but I fell for his looks for a week.”

“I liked [Willie Graves’s] name & he was different from others. He liked me romantically & I him. I thought of him as a rising peasant boy & he talked about me in his sleep.”

All of these boys, however, paled in comparison to the “devilishly handsome & fascinating” Elliot Stoddard. “Great guns when will I see him again? He’s some boy,” Amy wrote. Her most frequent and fulsome descriptions are those of Elliot.

Am I still fallen? I’m afraid so[.] I like him for himself & his reputation. […] I shall never forget the time he bandaged my arm. He was as gentle as the most skilled doctor & as careful as mother. My stomach turned cart wheels, electricity ran all over my body & I could hardly keep from vomitting [sic].

She went on to recount in great detail an idyllic and bittersweet fourth of July watching fireworks with him.

He said he was a little deaf so I had to talk near him. It just occurred to me he might have been lying. I’ve grown blasé & disgusting. I used to be unconscious & trustful. I think he liked me that night. He asked me to come & set fake fire to a barn with him at night – alone – smoking. I said I would; but I didn’t.

I think what I like best about the diary is its organization—or more accurately, its lack of organization. More than your typical diary, arranged by date with prescribed, lined spaces for entries, this volume feels like an organic outpouring of Amy’s feelings, captured in real time in all their messiness. She crossed out passages, skipped pages, and omitted punctuation marks. She composed poems to her mother, narrated adventures with friends, and speculated on religious subjects. On one page she gushed, unable to contain herself:

I’m so excited & am crazie about so many boys & life is just so perfect that I shake like an aspirin leaf with the goo goos. My ears point in the wrong direction & I’m dying of joy.

And just a short while later, she was heartbroken. Under the heading “One Gone,” she lamented the engagement of Elliot Stoddard, “the most honest, straight forward lump of fascination I ever met. […] I must not think about him.”

It took some doing, but I finally found Elliot via print and online genealogical sources. He was born in 1899, the oldest child of Ella (Tilden) and Alexander E. Stoddard. He married Mary E. Coughlin of Charlestown, Mass. on 31 October 1920.

I’d like to tell you a little more about Amy Lee Colt in my next post, so I hope you’ll join me back here at the Beehive.

The Cocoanut Grove Fire

By Rakashi Chand, Reading Room Supervisor

Eighty years ago, on 28 November 1942, the biggest nightclub fire in history took the lives of 492 people. The Cocoanut Grove, a popular Boston nightclub featuring a grand dining room, multiple bars, and live entertainment, suddenly burst into flames. The fire led to news laws and fire codes across the country, advances in the care of burn victims, and updates to emergency responses and emergency room procedures. Growing up in Boston, I knew about the fire. My father always warned me to locate the exits as soon as I entered a night club, theatre, or restaurant because of the Cocoanut Grove.  

In November 1942 the Cocoanut Grove was owned by Barney Welansky, a mob lawyer who bragged about his friendship with the Mayor and local officials. Welansky made the club swankier than it had been before making it a premier hotspot in New England. He also wanted it to make money, so exits were locked to ensure guests did not leave without paying the bill. The only way in or out of the Grove were revolving doors. When panic set in, the doors became jammed with people desperately trying to escape. It is estimated that three times the legally allowed number of people were in the nightclub that night.

The club was elaborately decorated to feel like the South Seas, filled with artificial palm trees and opulent furniture. All were made from highly flammable material. When the fire started, it took all of eight minutes for the club to go from laughter to horrifying screams and eventually the silence of asphyxiation. Emergency responders had been preparing for a potential East Coast attack due to WWII, and all their practice went into action that night. The Emergency response was on a scale never seen before, utilizing police, fire fighters, EMTs, the Navy, the Army, and good people who happened to be nearby that night.  

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds the Papers of one of the victims of the fire, Gilbert Winslow, in the Ruby Winslow Lin Papers.  Lieutenant-Colonel Ruby (Winslow) Linn, U. S. Army dietician, kept the papers of her brother, Gilbert Williams Winslow, born in 1915, a safety engineer and graduate of MIT. Gilbert and his wife Betty Lee (Moment) Winslow died in the Cocoanut Grove Fire. The collection contains essays and projects from school, his graduation from MIT, letters of condolence, and newspaper clippings about the fire.  

Ruby Winslow Lin Papers
Ruby Winslow Lin Papers
Ruby Winslow Lin Papers
Ruby Winslow Lin Papers

The Winslow Family, like so many other families, would never be the same after the fire.  The city of Boston would never be the same. The lessons learned 80 years ago must never be forgotten. 

Further Reading: 

The Cocoanut Grove revisited : U.S. Navy records document how 492 died in deadly nightclub fire 75 years ago by Daniel J. Fleming (Prologue, vol. 49, no. 3 (Fall 2017), p. 6-17.) 

Holocaust! By Paul Benzaquin (New York: Holt, 1959) 

Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston by Stephanie Schorow (Beverly, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions, c2003) 

Early Photography at the MHS

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

Photography is an interesting aspect of art history. Photographs capture real images the way we see them, sometimes even more clearly than the eye alone, or they can be manipulated for creative results using different shutter speeds, reprints from originals, experimentation with chemicals, and today, with Photoshop’s tools. Among the many photographs in the MHS collection, I am highlighting three examples that show photography’s versatility.  

One special feature of photography is to create a plausible image from something impossible. For instance, in the image below a child appears to be happily sitting in midair—impossible! That magical impression is dismissed when we read the picture’s title, “Benjamin Sewall Blake Jumping.”

Benjamin Sewall Blake Jumping; Caption: Benjamin Sewall Blake Jumping, Francis Blake, ca. 1888.

A second aspect of photography is more of a discovery for both the artist and his viewers. Francis Blake (25 December 1850‒20 January 1913) was a Massachusetts inventor who used his ingenuity to make the shutter speeds on his camera faster than most other cameras in the 1880s. With faster shutter speeds requiring less time to take a picture, he could snap people and animals in motion and with clarity. Only one other photographer preceded him in this new advance— Eadweard Muybridge (9 April 1830‒8 May 1904) in England. Between 1878 and 1886, Muybridge took photographs with fast shutter speeds and used emulsifying chemicals that made the images clearer in the printing process. His photography debunked a common belief that horses had a “flying gallop” or a flying superman-like spread of their front and back legs in opposite directions. Instead, his photographs showed that when horses are running and all legs are off the ground, their legs are below them and not spread eagle. Blake knew about Muybridge’s discovery and increased his own shutter speeds in 1888. Muybridge learned about Blake’s work and praised it.

Four images captured by Francis Blake of a horseback rider at Keewaydin, ca. 1888.

The last special characteristic of photography is how decades and centuries later we can connect people outside what we think of today as their historical time. The MHS has an excellent example: John Quincy Adams. This image was printed on paper, but originates from a daguerreotype, which is the earliest form of photography, invented by Louis Daguerre in 1836. By 1839, daguerreotypes were being used worldwide. They were printed on metal and are a positive and negative image at the same time. The Adams image in the MHS collection was taken in 1847, a year before Adams died, and at a time when photography was sweeping the world in popularity. John Quincy Adams may be famously known for his time as President of the United States, 1825–1829, or for accompanying his father, John Adams, to Europe as a young man in the 18th century, but most people today probably overlook his later congressional career in the 1840s, when this image was taken, or realize the print in the MHS collection was created later, in the 1860s.

John Quincy Adams, carte de visite of daguerrotype by Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, [Matthew B. Brady], after 1860.

If you are interested in reading more, you can read an earlier post about how photographs are processed as MHS collection items here and explore a selection of photographs from our collection here.

“Slaves In the Parish”: Historical Memory at Old North Church, Boston

By Dr. Jaimie Crumley, 2022-2023 Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated, University of Utah

The Massachusetts Historical Society maintains and preserves the extensive records of Christ Church in the City of Boston, an active Protestant Episcopal Church. [1] Christ Church, founded in 1723, is known as the Old North Church. Located in Boston’s North End, Old North is the city’s oldest standing church building. In the colonial period, Old North received moral and financial support from members of King’s Chapel, New England’s first Anglican parish,[2] and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). The SPG was a London-based group founded by the Church of England to proselytize the Atlantic World.[3]

In addition to being home to an active congregation, Old North is a bustling historic site on Boston’s freedom trail. Old North joins other historic sites in Massachusetts and beyond that have turned to archival records to remember and confront their complicated past. Many of Old North’s visitors come to learn more about Paul Revere’s 1775 midnight ride. In April of 1775, Revere asked his friends, Old North’s sexton Robert Newman and vestryman Captain John Pulling, to hang signal lanterns in the church’s steeple. Through the lantern signals, they alerted their neighbors that the British troops were approaching “by sea” (across the Charles River) and not by land.[4] Revere’s midnight ride and Old North’s role in it inspire our imaginations. However, a laser focus on that night often leads us to overlook the church’s contributions to histories of race, slavery, sexuality, economics, and religious life throughout the Atlantic World.

Old North’s storied past includes Indigenous Americans and people of African descent in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Atlantic World. Without their displacement and unpaid labor, the church building would not exist. For example, the church’s wardens and vestry gifted the “Bay Pew” to a group of logwood merchants from Honduras for their exclusive use whenever they attended Old North. The pew signaled the church’s gratitude for the merchants’ generous gifts to the church. By accepting the logwood for decades, Old North entangled itself with the crises of unfree labor and colonial violence that plague(d) the Atlantic World. [5]

Pew ownership was commonplace in 18th and 19th-century churches. So long as they paid their pew taxes, proprietors and their families had exclusive use of their pew(s). Not everyone who held a pew deed at Old North attended the church, but their proprietorship allowed them to hold leadership roles and participate in church governance.[6] Like other colonial churches in New England, Old North was racially integrated, but seating was segregated by race, age, and social class. Thus, pew ownership in New England often mirrored each town’s geography of unfreedom and entrenched that social geography as both natural and godly.[7]

Handwritten text on sepia-toned paper
Capt. Newark Jackson pew deed, Old North Church Records, 1739.

However, pews were likely a minor concern for Old North’s Black and Indigenous parishioners. In Box 20, Folder 24, of the Old North Church records, there is a historical record that was typed in 1933. The brief index covers topics including how the church attained its bells, the gifts King George II gave the church, and how the congregation formed its Sunday School.[8] One line of the index states, “SLAVES: In 1727, there were 32 slaves in the parish.”[9] The typist gleaned this information from a 1727 letter that Timothy Cutler, Old North’s first minister, wrote to the SPG’s secretary. Among other information about Old North, Cutler reported that “Negro & Indian Slaves belonging to my parish are about 32.”[10] What were the experiences of those 32 souls whom Cutler called “slaves?”

Typed text
The Historical Index of Christ Church in Boston, Old North Church Records, typed in 1933.

Cutler’s use of the word “slaves” as a general descriptor for his Black and Indigenous parishioners offers a stark reminder of Boston’s role in slavery and settler colonialism in the United States and throughout the Atlantic World. His word choice in a letter to the SPG secretary indicates that the British Empire believed that Black and Indigenous people naturally constituted a social and economic underclass. The growth of the Anglican Church in the Americas depended upon racial capitalism.

Old North Church celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2023. Old North’s story parallels that of the American nation-state. In 1775, lantern signals shown from Old North’s steeple lit the way for a people longing for freedom from what they called British tyranny. The story of the lantern signals offers hope to a nation and world that has experienced many dark moments. However, Old North has also participated in settler colonialism, slavery, and racism. Nearly 250 years after the signal lanterns shone from the church steeple, we turn those lights within to examine our history anew.

As Old North’s Research Fellow, my work attends to the lives of the Black and Indigenous peoples who have connected by choice or by force to the church during its 300-year history. Centering Black and Indigenous people’s stories in the history of the British Atlantic World does not undo past harm. However, their stories remind us of our shared humanity and the urgency of making historical memory more inclusive. By cultivating an inclusive approach to historical memory, we create the building blocks of safer futures for Black and Indigenous peoples.  

[1] According to the collection description, these holdings consist of 52 boxes, 75 cased volumes, 6 oversize boxes, and 12 record cartons. The records span the years from 1685-1997. 

[2] See “Laus Deo Boston, New England, The 2nd September 1722.,” September 2, 1722, Old North Church Records, Box 1, Folder 7, Massachusetts Historical Society. The records of King’s Chapel are here. A list of other collections of King’s Chapel records is in the “Related Materials” section.  

[3] In 1754, Old North’s first rector, Timothy Cutler, preached at an SPG gathering. His sermon is in Box 24, Folder 27.

[4] One of Paul Revere’s written accounts of his April 18, 1775 ride is in Box 46, Folder 1.

[5] Ross A. Newton, “‘Good and Kind Benefactors’: British Logwood Merchants and Boston’s Christ Church,” Early American Studies 11, no. 1 (2013): 15–36.

[6] The so-called “Smithett Controversy” in 1854 and the church conflict of 1882 revealed the pitfalls of connecting authority in the church to pew ownership. See Boxes 23 and 24 of the Old North Church records.

[7] See the pew deeds from 1724-1945 in Box 19 and Volumes 41, 42, 43, and 44 of the Old North Church records.

[8] Old North’s Sunday School was established in 1815. It was the first to be established in the region. Although the church was facing financial challenges in the nineteenth century, its members maintained a commitment to being charitable by providing education and clothing to the neighborhood’s children.

[9] “Clerk’s Book/List of Pew Owners, 1933,” Old North Church Records, Box 20, Folder 24, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[10] Francis Lister Hawks and William Stevens Perry, eds., “Dr. Cutler to the Secretary,” in Historical Collections Relating to the American Colonial Church, vol. 3, 1727.

Carl Oscar Borg, Bookplater Extraordinaire

By Klara Pokrzywa, MHS Library Assistant

I first discovered the Ruby V. Elliott bookplate collection by reading a blog post from our cataloger Mary Yacovone. The charming ex libris drawings immediately drew me in, as they seemed a fascinating aspect of book ownership that has largely disappeared among the general public.

When I began looking through the bookplates, I was struck by how complex and personalized each design was. Some bookplates incorporated aspects of the owner’s name, interests, or profession, while others seemed more opaque, although just as unique. A few bookplates I examined at random seemed to share a common style, and I quickly noticed that these were all done by the same artist, Carl Oscar Borg. There’s even a bookplate he designed for himself that depicted a man drawing on a cave wall, which seemed like an appropriate design for an artist.

A picture of a bookplate reading “Ex Libris” and “Carl Oscar Borg” around a black and white drawing of a man painting figures on a cave wall.
Carl Oscar Borg’s personal bookplate (Ruby V. Elliot Bookplate Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society)

Borg’s work is noted in the Elliott collection’s finding aid, and with good reason – there is a whole slew of Borg-designed bookplates in this collection. Many of them share the same basic layout: large sans-serif text with the owner’s name and “ex libris” framing square woodcut-style drawings of realistic scenes. Others riff on this formula a little, playing with font size or combining multiple symbols in composite images that represent different aspects of their owners’ lives. Two of my favorite bookplates in the collection are designed by Borg: one for Madeline Borg, which depicts a cute little cat on a bookshelf, and one for Reginald Stanley Lawson, which depicts a huge planet suspended in a starry sky. Not only are these designs particularly beautiful, but they also indicate a very contemporary taste for cats and space in booklovers of the past!

A picture of a bookplate reading “Ex Libris” and “Madeline Borg” around a black and white drawing of a cat sitting on a bookshelf, surrounded by books.
Madeline Borg’s bookplate (Ruby V. Elliot Bookplate Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society)
A picture of a bookplate reading “Ex Libris” and “Reginald Stanley Lawson” around a black and white drawing of a planet surrounded by comets, stars, and clouds in outer space.
Reginald Stanley Lawson’s bookplate (Ruby V. Elliot Bookplate Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society)

I turned to the Library and Archives at the Autry in Burbank, California, which holds Borg’s personal papers, to learn more about him (the finding aid for his papers is available through the Online Archive of California). According to the Autry, Borg was a Swedish-born artist who moved to the US and received patronage from Phoebe Hearst. Hearst paid for his artistic education, which allowed him to study and move all over the world. Borg’s true interest, however, was in depicting the American West. A large portion of his artistic output was the result of his time living in California’s Navajo and Hopi communities, whose cultures made a deep impression on him.

So how did Borg, a Swedish artist who lived in California, end up at the MHS? The answer is in the collection itself: a 1950 letter to Ruby Elliott from Bill Blachshear, a bookseller in California, provides a record of Blachshear sending many of Borg’s bookplates to Elliott for her collection.

A photograph of a typewritten letter on letterhead from the Oxford Bookshop in Santa Barbara, California. The letter lists several bookplates Blachshear is sending to Elliott along with the letter.
Bill Blachshear’s letter to Ruby Elliott, detailing the Borg bookplates he sent her (Ruby V. Elliot Bookplate Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society)

The letter elucidates Borg’s relationship to some of the people he made bookplates for, such as his marriages to first Madeline Borg and then Lilly Borg (previously Lilly Lindstrand; Borg made separate designs for her before and after their marriage to reflect the name change). Blachshear also documents some colorful details about the man who gave him Borg’s bookplates, calling him a “carming [sic] ‘Ne’er Do Well’.” It’s great to see that this document survived and stayed with the collection – it makes the bookplates that much more alive and personal!

I’ll finish this by including a final bookplate of Borg’s: the one he designed for Lilly Lindstrand before marrying her. This plate seems particularly symbolic and personalized: a graceful woman is surrounded by lilies and reading a book. What better way to represent Lilly, who must have loved to read?

A picture of a bookplate that reads “Ex Libris” and “Lilly Lindstrand” around a black and white drawing of a woman reading a book and standing in front of the night sky and a large arrangement of lily flowers.
Lilly Lindstrand’s bookplate (Ruby V. Elliot Bookplate Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society)

The Backwoodsman and the Artist

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

Today (2 November) would be the 288th birthday of Daniel Boone. According to the theme song of the 1960s television show, he was the “rippin’est, roarin’est, fightin’est man the frontier ever knew.”

What does Daniel Boone have to do with the Massachusetts Historical Society, you ask? Well, the MHS holds the only known portrait of Daniel Boone painted directly from the subject himself.

Daniel Boone, oil painting by Chester Harding, 1820

The story of how this portrait came to be sounds like the premise for a movie. In 1820, Chester Harding was a 20-something self-taught journeyman portrait painter living in St. Louis, Missouri. He’d been raised in a large family in Massachusetts and upstate New York and had known real financial hardship, as described in his autobiography My Egotistigraphy. He’d tried his hand at various trades and, almost by chance, learned he had a gift for portrait painting. Thus began what would become a long and illustrious career.

Daniel Boone, on the other hand, was 85 years old and quite literally nearing the end of his life. He was a folk legend even in his own time, a frontiersman, surveyor, veteran of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, and leader in the white colonization of Indigenous lands in Kentucky. I won’t attempt to dissect Boone’s problematic legacy with Indigenous and enslaved people (he himself was an enslaver); that is being done by others much more qualified. But in 1820, his fame was probably unparalleled.

You wouldn’t have known that, though, from Chester Harding’s description of his first meeting with Boone. The painter, in his autobiography (pp. 35-6), gives us a brief look into the notorious frontiersman’s unassuming retirement.

In June of this year [1820], I made a trip of one hundred miles for the purpose of painting the portrait of old Colonel Daniel Boone. I had much trouble in finding him. He was living, some miles from the main road, in one of the cabins of an old block-house, which was built for the protection of the settlers against the incursions of the Indians. I found that the nearer I got to his dwelling, the less was known of him. When within two miles of his house, I asked a man to tell me where Colonel Boone lived. He said he did not know any such man. “Why, yes, you do,” said his wife. “It is that white-headed old man who lives on the bottom, near the river.” […]

I found the object of my search engaged in cooking his dinner. He was lying in his bunk, near the fire, and had a long strip of venison wound around his ramrod, and was busy turning it before a brisk blaze, and using salt and pepper to season his meat. I at once told him the object of my visit. I found that he hardly knew what I meant. I explained the matter to him, and he agreed to sit. He was ninety [sic] years old, and rather infirm; his memory of passing events was much impaired, yet he would amuse me every day by his anecdotes of his earlier life. I asked him one day, just after his description of one of his long hunts, if he never got lost, having no compass. “No,” said he, “I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”

He was much astonished at seeing the likeness. He had a very large progeny; one grand-daughter had eighteen children, all at home near the old man’s cabin: they were even more astonished at the picture than was the old man himself.

Daniel Boone died just a short while later, on 26 September 1820. To me, this portrait is an artifact of what must have been a series of fascinating meetings between one man at the beginning of his career and another at the end of his.

Harding made a few replicas of the painting, but Leah Lipton, in her very helpful 1984 article in The American Art Journal, shows that the portrait here at the MHS is the unfinished original painted from Boone himself. Harding gave or sold the painting to George Tyler Bigelow, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who donated it to the MHS in 1861.

The MHS holds a number of other portraits painted by Chester Harding, including the following.

Paul Revere, oil painting by Chester Harding after Gilbert Stuart original, ca. 1823
Rachel Walker Revere, oil painting by Chester Harding after Gilbert Stuart original, ca. 1823
David Cobb, oil painting by Chester Harding after Gilbert Stuart original, 1822 or 1823
Leverett Saltonstall, oil painting by Chester Harding, ca. 1836

We hope you’ll stop by and see them in person!

The Horrors of Misinterpreting Archival Documents

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

Every week I spend time reading MHS’s online archives to find quotes, images, and interesting stories for the Society’s social media and e-newsletter. I have gained a general knowledge of US and colonial history that has helped me interpret letters, diary entries and other materials found in archives. At times I’ve become momentarily horrified by what I’m reading, either because I don’t know the background of the author, or the style of writing is confusing. I’d like to share one of my “archival horrors” and my delight with its outcome with you this Halloween. The letter begins emotionally:

Dear Sir,

I Rec’d yours dated July the 21 &c., at the opening of which, I was not a little suprized; to see your sweet Name, affixed at the bottom of the Lines, wrote to me; to tell the truth, I could hardly Keep in my jumping heart, for it skipped like Lambs upon little Hills, but when I cam to understand the weight and solidity of the same, the wings of my Enthusiastick flame dropt off, and I was then so calm and sedate, that I could read with tears in my Eyes for desire of seeing the author of it and the weighty matter of them &c.

Letter from Israel Cheever to Robert Treat Paine, 11 July 1749

Cheever addresses Paine in a loving manner which was normal for his time—men wrote to each other using sweet language intended to convey loving, loyal friendship. But in this letter, the message begins to sound, well, a little…sexy‒ “have not the fashonable People of the world to converse with, nor no sweet Chum to confabulate with upon a Bed of Ease…” True, Cheever could mean no opportunity for a relaxed time together at a club, where cultured and privileged men of the era went to socialize with each other. Before that suggestive passage, he also notes he is in “eremo subobscura” (hidden in the forest), meaning Wrentham, Mass. where he had moved recently for a job.

The next line made me think I was reading a letter between lovers: “But I cant help letting you Know one thing, and that is I have no bosom friends in the Night upon my Lodgings. You may give a very good guesse at wt. I mean.” The line that followed dispelled my suspicions: “But for fear you should be put to trouble (Bed buggs).” I was hopeful for possibly discovering a love letter, and was disappointed when it was not.

The previous lines are not the horror that I promised at the beginning. Here is where my horror started to grow. Cheever writes:

And as for my Brood, they are like to grow, by feeding of them with tender meat. In Number I have had thirty seven, but I have constantly but about 17. How many more are a coming out of the Eggshels I know not, some of these have not yet got them off their Backs.

Several thoughts came to me at once—what did Cheever do for a living? Raise livestock or chickens? If not, had I missed mention of his having children? And so many—37?! And why only 17 of them constantly with him?! And why would the children have eggshells on their backs?

Luckily, the letter’s digital transcription has notes at the end it, making my horror short-lived. The notes indicate that Cheever had taken a teaching position in Wrentham, explaining, to my relief, that his “brood” wasn’t animals or his own offspring but his students! As it was July, many of these students probably worked on their family’s farms, reducing attendance at school. The eggshell comments probably means that he thinks many of his students are very young for the classroom and does not want to guess at how many more students he will later teach.

If you were startled with a bit of horror as I was upon first reading this letter, I hope you’ve enjoyed how it turned out. Happy Halloween!

“To the Farthest Gulf for the Wealth of India”: Firsthand Experiences of American Travelers in India

By Nikhil R., John Winthrop Student Fellow

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students as recipients of the John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages students to make use of the nationally significant collections of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Applications for the 2023 Student Fellowships will open in December 2022. Learn more and apply! 

This year our John Winthrop Student Fellow is Nikhil R., who attends Acton-Boxborough Regional High School. 

As someone of Indian heritage and interested in researching history, I found the John Winthrop Fellowship to be an opportunity to explore something that I found goes under the radar: the connection between India and America throughout the centuries. From what I had learned previously, that connection was thought of as beginning in the late twentieth century with immigrants, but there is a much more rich history dating back centuries unknown to most people from both continents.  

In summary, my essay analyzes the experiences of Americans in India from the colonial period to the emergence of the United States as a nation in the 18th century and further into the nineteenth century when the nation consolidated its identity on the world stage. I trace these three periods in the joint history of America and India through the life and travel writings of a few key figures. Through the letters of Nathaniel Higginson, the Salem-born man who eventually became Governor of Madras in 1692, I discovered the social and political dealings of a New England based administrator in the colonial era. In the second period, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, there is a great interest in India from a newly formed United States that can be seen in the exploits of American travelers such as Bartholomew Burges. In the nineteenth century there was a further escalation of the ties between India and America that is seen in the story of Calvin Smith, a civil war veteran who traveled to India and worked in the then popular ice trade, sharing his perspectives and experiences of living in India for five years. Finally, in the mid to late 19th century, evangelical America and the Liberal Christian movement spread Christianity to other nations through missions, reaching India. 

The accounts and candid perspectives of these American travelers were available in the MHS in the form of mostly letters, travel writings and memoirs, and I also consulted various books for context and background information. I examined the triangular relationship between India, British colonial rule, and American merchants/travelers. What I discovered was that while Americans adhered to the hierarchies created by the British, they still offered a variety of perspectives, including a few who challenge the stereotypes of Indians. 

To begin my work, I looked through what the MHS library had to offer in order to get a better sense of some resources I could use in my project, to better inform my proposal. I started with the online catalog, ABIGAIL, and found many items of interest, ranging from financial records of American ships that traveled to India to correspondences of missionaries working there. Simply entering the keyword “India” brought hundreds if not thousands of results, so I started with a selection of a few that caught my eye and organized a narrative of what I could research. 

Like many of the student fellows, this was my first time engaged in hands-on archival research. Nonetheless, on my first day, I was greeted by the friendly librarians who showed me the ropes: using the scantrons, submitting reading room requests, and guiding me through the many facets of using the library. While I was in awe of the vast amount of resources available, I slowly began down my list of items, and started with a box of logs from a ship on a trip to India. I opened the folder, and examined the old journal, but to my surprise, it wasn’t what I had expected it to be from reading the catalog. Instead of a gripping story of exotic experiences, I was only met with a description of weather, breezes, and latitude. Feeling somewhat defeated, I finished off the book, but at the end I found a section on how to calculate logarithms and some practice problems, which was very interesting.  

From this, I started to understand the components of academic historical research, including the disappointment of not finding anything after hours of reading, but also the excitement of discovering a hidden gem where I didn’t expect it. As I got deeper into my research, I realized the wide net I had cast over centuries proved too much to refine into a cohesive project, so I seized the opportunity to focus on the people themselves, which ultimately proved more rewarding to me. I learned that it is important to allow your project to morph as you discover new things and change your perspective on the research. Finishing my research paper initially proved to be a monumental task, but sticking through it and completing it gave me pride in my work. Overall, the student fellowship taught me valuable skills like critical thinking and patience, and vastly improved my ability in reading messy handwriting. It’s an incredible experience for a student to learn what it means to be a historian, and reinforced my desire to pursue history further academically.