“To My Brother Tommy”: John Quincy Adams and His Youngest Sibling

By Lucy Wickstrom, Adams Papers Intern

Like many younger siblings, Thomas Boylston Adams experienced a combination of gratitude and annoyance at his older brother John Quincy’s protectiveness. In the autumn of 1794, they voyaged together to Europe, where John Quincy was to work as foreign minister to the Netherlands with Thomas as his secretary. As they approached the chalky cliffs of Beachy Head, Thomas climbed to the highest part of the ship’s mast in order to get a better view — a stunt the twenty-two-year-old only felt comfortable performing because his brother was not “upon Deck.” In his diary (M/TBA/1, Adams Papers), Thomas confessed, “I should hardly have done it in his presence lest his fraternal solicitude about my discretion and safety” cause an embarrassing scene for them both. Thomas admitted that he felt “grateful for his tenderness…on many occasions,” but could not help but wonder why John Quincy seemed to think he lacked his own sense of “self preservation.”

portrait of a person
Twenty-three-year-old Thomas Boylston Adams in a 1795 miniature painted by a friend named Mr. Parker, while Thomas was in Europe with John Quincy. 

John Quincy’s concern for his youngest brother would not subside. After four years in Europe together, during which Thomas had been his brother’s “constant companion,” the younger Adams sailed back to the United States to resume his law practice in Philadelphia – a decision which his concerned sibling had some thoughts about, as well. “I do not think…his inclination…suited to the contentious part of that profession,” John Quincy wrote to their mother shortly after parting ways with Thomas. He saw in his younger brother an incredible mind and talent, who could be a “valuable…citizen of his Country,” but believed that law may be too fierce a profession for Thomas’s more sensitive nature. John Quincy’s judgment proved prophetic, as Thomas struggled to find much success as a lawyer, instead preferring to spend his time writing and publishing political pieces for Philadelphia newspapers and the literary journal Port Folio. He even wrote to his father, John Adams, on 22 October 1799 (Adams Papers) that he feared his “strong natural want of confidence” in himself ensured his failure in the field of law.

Whether Thomas was ever aware of that prescient piece of “fraternal solicitude” is unclear, but he certainly continued to reap the benefits – and, presumably, the inconveniences – of John Quincy’s anxiety for the rest of his life. And after a varied career in the early part of the nineteenth century that included service in local politics, on the Massachusetts state legislature, and as a circuit court chief justice, the youngest Adams sibling began to give his brother significant cause for worry. “If in any instance I have…wounded your feelings I am sorry for it,” the elder Adams wrote gently in 1818, entreating Thomas “to be kind to yourself.”

Thomas was showing signs of having inherited the same struggle that plagued both his maternal uncle and his brother Charles before him, as alcohol addiction damaged his health and put a strain on many of his familial relationships. The youngest Adams sibling, formerly applauded by relatives and acquaintances for his genial personality, became what his nephew Charles Francis Adams described as “a bully in his family” through the effects of his disease. Disliked, feared, or ignored by many of his loved ones, Thomas retained a consistent ally in John Quincy, who provided financially for not only his younger brother but Thomas’s wife and six children, as well. It was, according to John Quincy, merely his “brotherly duty of kindness.”

One of the first extant letters from John Quincy Adams to his youngest brother was penned in Paris, where the ten-year-old had traveled with their father, and addressed “To My Brother Tommy.” John Quincy reminded his five-year-old sibling that, difficult as it may be to accept, “Providence…has seperated us so that we cannot expect to see one another very soon.” Yet after the separations of their childhood, the brothers were hardly ever apart: partners in business, intimate confidants, close companions — and, finally, provider and dependent.

handwritten text, letter
In his diary entry for 17 March 1832, John Quincy Adams writes of receiving the news that his “dear and amiable brother” had died.

And when, on 12 March 1832, Thomas Boylston Adams died, his devoted sibling — now the only surviving child of John and Abigail Adams, the last remaining member of his famous immediate family — turned to his trusty diary to mourn the “dear and amiable brother” whom he loved.

Lucy Wickstrom interned with the Adams Papers in fall 2021. She is a graduate student at Tufts University, where she is pursuing her master’s degree in history and museum studies, with a special interest in early U.S. history and all things Adams family.

This Week @MHS

Here is a look at the virtual events we have planned this week:

On Tuesday, 18 January, at 5:15 PM: The Emergence of the Marriage Market with Lindsay Keiter, Pennsylvania State University – Altoona, and comment by Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, University of California – Davis.

When did Americans begin using the term “the marriage market,” and what does that tell us about society at the time? This article-in-progress traces the emergence of the concept of marriage as a market subject to supply and demand to the early nineteenth century. Yet even as they referred to the marriage market, with its impersonal implications, many Americans resisted its complete commercialization. Marriage brokers—professional matchmakers—and matrimonial advertising attracted both clients and controversy. The metaphor of the marriage market reflected the entanglement of the sentimental home created by marriage and the competitive chaos of the expanding antebellum economy. This event is part of the History of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Seminar series. Register for this online event.

On Wednesday, January 19, at 5:30 PM: Exploring American Healthcare Through 50 Historic Treasures with Tegan Kehoe, Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation at MGH

Exploring American Healthcare through 50 Historic Treasures presents a history of health and medicine in the United States, tracing paradigm shifts such as the introduction of anesthesia, the adoption of germ theory, and advances in public health. The book showcases little-known objects that illustrate our complex relationship with health and highlights objects related to famous moments in medicine, ranging from “vitamin D beer” to the discovery of penicillin. Each artifact illuminates some piece of the social, cultural and technological influences on how people approach fundamental questions about health. The program will look at a selection of these artifacts, with emphasis on Massachusetts stories. Register for this online event.

Visit www.masshist.org/events for a complete schedule of events. If you missed a program or would like to revisit the material presented, please visit www.masshist.org/video or our YouTube channel. A selection of past programs is just a click away.

“No election or appointment . . . ever gave me so much pleasure”: John Quincy Adams as a member of the United States House of Representatives, 1830–1838

By Neal Millikan, Series Editor for Digital Editions, The Adams Papers

Transcriptions of more than 2,500 pages of John Quincy Adams’s diary have just been added to the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary, a born-digital edition of the Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The new material spans the period January 1830 through December 1838 and chronicle Adams’s experiences serving in the United States House of Representatives.

John Quincy Adams left the presidency on 4 March 1829 believing that his tenure in public service had ended, yet uncertain how to fill his days. When on 17 September 1830 congressman Edward Everett approached Adams to see if he would again stand for office, the statesman was unsure how to respond. He recorded in his diary: “To say that I would accept, would be so near to asking for a vote, that I did not feel disposed to go so far— I wished the People to act spontaneously; at their own discretion.” Upon learning of his congressional election, Adams commented that “My Election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to my inmost Soul— No election or appointment conferred upon me ever gave me so much pleasure.”

large domed building with people and horses
View of the Capitol of the United States, by Joseph Andrews, 1834.

Adams took his seat in the House of Representatives in December 1831, representing the Plymouth district of Massachusetts in the 22d Congress. During his first years of service in that legislative body, Adams became chairman of the Committee on Manufactures, helping to compose the compromise tariff bill of 1832. He was also involved in the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, producing a minority report in support of the bank after traveling to Philadelphia as part of a House committee to inquire into its affairs. And he became increasingly interested in the Anti-Masonic political party, unsuccessfully standing as their Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate in 1833.

Adams subsequently served in the 23d through 25th Congresses, and it was during this period that he gained the sobriquet “Old Man Eloquent” for the speeches he gave against slavery and the annexation of Texas. He regularly presented antislavery petitions that he received from across the nation. When the House voted to pass a Gag Rule in May 1836 that would table all petitions relating to slavery, he was outraged: “On my name’s being called . . . I answered I hold the Resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States—of the Rules of this House and of the rights of my Constituents.” Although the Gag Rule passed, Adams continued to present the antislavery petitions he received. His actions led southern congressmen in 1837 to draft a resolution of censure against him, the vote of which failed. Adams noted in his diary that his defense of the right of petition at that time so consumed him that it was “The first time for more than forty years” that he had “suffered a total breach in my Diary for several weeks— At one of the most trying periods of my life.”

The other national issue that consumed John Quincy Adams during these years was protecting Englishman James Smithson’s $500,000 bequest to the United States. Adams chaired the House committee that created a bill stating that the national government would apply the bequest to the founding and endowment of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, D.C. He marveled that a foreigner should provide the means to found in America “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” and he believed that this was “an event in which I see the finger of Providence compassing great results by incomprehensible means.”

silhouette of a man
Silhouette of John Adams 2d (1803–1834).

John Quincy Adams lost two close members of his family during these years: his brother Thomas Boylston Adams died on 13 March 1832, and his middle son John Adams 2d passed away on 23 October 1834. After his son’s death, Adams found himself, “In a state between stupefaction, and a nervous irritation aggravated by the exertion to suppress it.” He became the legal guardian of his son’s two daughters, Mary Louisa Adams and Georgeanna Frances Adams, and his pecuniary duties toward his brother’s and son’s widows and children created significant financial responsibility for the congressman.

He and his wife Louisa Catherine Adams welcomed five new grandchildren into their family during this period, bringing the total to six. In his free time, he continued to walk, swim, and garden. He also found time to compose the 2,000-line poem “Dermot MacMorrogh, or The Conquest of Ireland,” which met with lukewarm reception from reviewers. As he entered his seventies, John Quincy Adams came to increasingly rely on his only surviving child, Charles Francis Adams, for financial and familial advice. “All my hopes of futurity in this world are now centered upon him,” Adams wrote.

For more on John Quincy Adams’s life, read the headnotes for the 1830–1834 and the 1835–1838 periods, or, navigate to the entries to begin reading his diary. The addition of material for the 1830–1838 period joins existing transcriptions of Adams’s diary for his legal, political, and diplomatic careers (1789–1817), his time as secretary of state (1817–1825), and his presidency (1825–1829), and brings the total number of transcriptions freely available on the MHS website to more than 8,300 pages.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding for the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary was provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. Harvard University Press and a number of private donors also contributed crucial support.

The Story of Mary J. Newhall Breed: Addendum

By By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

In my last two posts (part I and part II), I shared the story of Mary Breed, as told in an autobiographical manuscript she sent to the MHS in 1933. I can’t in good conscience conclude her story without discussing some particularly interesting passages which relate less to the specific circumstances of her life and more to the history of Lynn, Mass.

Mary was born in 1869. When she wrote to the MHS, she was 64 years old and had lived in Lynn her whole life. Thankfully for us, she devoted the last two pages of her manuscript to describing the dramatic changes she’d seen in the city. She included details of daily life in a 19th-century industrial center, and I think it’s worth excerpting these passages at length.

Many of the Old Houses in Lynn Mass have been razed or destroyed by fire. One of the Oldest houses at the corner of Hesper and Boston Streets No 799 was razed within this year. It was two hundred and seventy eight years old. It was told that our First President George Washington Stopped there for Tea one time, as he was passing through Lynn on his way to Boston. This House was built by one of the oldest of Lynn’s Residents A Mr. Raddin. […]

I could write of many changes in West Lynn Mass, That I know of where acres of land was nothing but fields, and hills, where I used to play when a little girl, is all made into Streets, and houses are built there on Summer St. I rode in the Horse Cars, and the old barges to my work before the Electric Cars were started. Everything is changed now. And when my father was a boy, He said that Lynn Common was nothing but a Swamp and cow pasture. That was 1823 because he was 9 years of age at that time. […]

My father used to walk from Lynn to Boston over the road. So did my Grandfather and my mother when she was only 8 years of age, also to Stoneham to visit her Aunt Ellen. People didn’t mind a ten or twenty mile walk in the days when there wasn’t any cars. Everybody had to walk, except those who could afford to keep a horse and carriage. That was before my time of life.

The MHS holds a number of historical postcards of Lynn, including these:

Street lined with buildings and telephone poles
Postcard showing Market Street, ca. 1900
Park with trees and people
Postcard showing Lynn Common, ca. 1900
tops of trees and buildings
View of Lynn, probably mid-20th century

I also found in our collections a book called Lynn: One Hundred Years a City, published in 1950, which contains a number of “then and now” photographs that give us an idea of the changes Mary was talking about.

buildings in a city scene
Photographs of Oxford Street, ca. 1866 and ca. 1950, from Lynn: One Hundred Years a City

While all this local history is of course interesting to us as archivists and historians, it was personal for Mary. As a child, she had lived on Tower Hill, formerly known as Willis’s Hill according to a county history. Willis’s Hill can be seen on this 1829 map by Alonzo Lewis, which means Mary grew up not far from the Raddin home built in 1655 and demolished in 1933.

It wasn’t just the Raddin family that stretched far back into Lynn history. Mary’s birth name, Newhall, was also an old one in the city. In Lewis’s map, you’ll see that someone named J. Newhall managed a tavern not far from the Raddin home. Mary’s married name, Breed, was apparently even older. The map shows an Allen Breed living on Mill Street in 1650. Other searches for Breeds in Lynn turn up a Breed Square, a Breed Pond, and a Breed Wharf. I wasn’t able to confirm whether Mary and her husband were related to these other Newhalls and Breeds, but it seems likely they were.

Mary may have felt nostalgic about the Lynn of her childhood, but she was certainly right when she said “everything is changed.” The city had undergone tremendous growth during her lifetime. I checked census data, and the population of Lynn in 1870 was about 28,000. By 1930, it had almost quadrupled to over 102,000, its peak. It has taken almost 100 years for the population to inch up close to that number again.

I was especially interested in Mary’s description of how modes of transportation had changed. According to my research, horse cars operated in Lynn from 1860 to 1888, with the first electric car appearing in 1887. As for travel outside the city, many people, even children, regularly walked to Boston, which Google Maps tells me is over 11 miles and would take almost 4 hours.

street car pulled by horses and electric street car
Photographs of a horse car and an electric car, from Lynn: One Hundred Years a City

I’ll let Mary have the last word. Here’s an excerpt from the final paragraph of her reminiscences.

Well I would like to have been a writer if I could of had a chance to go around to places and see the Country. I have been to Maine as far as New Sharon and Belgrade Lakes and to Wilton, and North Jay, and Farmington Maine. And To Farmington, Milton, and Union, N.H. Alton Bay on the Lakes, where I have spent my vacations. But now I cannot go anywhere, but stay at home and sew to take up my time. I read a lot of magazines and books.

This Week @MHS

Here is a look at the virtual events we have planned this week:

On 11 January, at 5:15 PM: Seceding from the Sachemship: Coercion, Ethnology & Colonial Failure in Early Historic New England with Peter Jakob Olsen-Harbich, The New American Antiquarian, and comment by Linford Fisher, Brown University.
This paper considers coercive political practices among early historic southern New England Algonquians and their historical function in the success of early English colonies. In the spring of 1623, the settlement of Wessagusset, a rag-tag band of starving would-be fur traders perched on the precarious northern edge of England’s nascent American empire, collapsed in a bloody struggle with its Indigenous neighbors, the Massachusett. This paper asserts that the failure of Wessagusset occurred partially because its inhabitants, unlike those residing in Plymouth Colony, neglected to observe, understand, and diplomatically engage with the coercive political practices of the Algonquian sachemship they abutted. The majority of this paper serves to explain this coercive characterization of Algonquian politics through a reexamination of early historic evidence of corporal and capital punishment practices. Register for this online event.

On 12 January, at 5:30 PMUseful Objects: Museums, Science & Literature in 19nth-Century America with Reed Gochberg, Harvard University.
Useful Objects examines the history of American museums during the 19th century through the eyes of visitors, writers, and collectors. Museums of this period held a wide range of objects, from botanical and zoological specimens to antiquarian artifacts and technological models. Intended to promote “useful knowledge,” these collections generated broader discussions about how objects were selected, preserved, and classified as well as who determined their value. Their reflections shaped broader debates about the scope and purpose of museums in American culture that continue to resonate today. Register for this online program.

On 13 January, at 6:00 PM: Film Club: Glory with Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai and Kevin Levin.
Join Civil War experts Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai and Kevin Levin as they discuss 1989’s Glory. The film stars Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick, and follows the story of the 54th Regiment and Robert Gould Shaw. Watch the film at home and then join us for a conversation about the film. Glory is available through Hulu, Amazon Video, Google Video, Starz, HBO Max, and other streaming sites. Register for this online program.

Announcing the MHS Film Club!

Each month, the MHS will feature a movie and invite experts to lead a discussion about the film. Topics could include historical accuracy, connections to the MHS or Massachusetts, or the impact of the film on popular understanding of history. Participants are encouraged to watch the movie at their leisure and then join us for the discussion. The films selected will be widely available through streaming services. This will be a participatory program and audience members are encouraged to share their thoughts and bring questions.

John Quincy Adams, Zodiac Enthusiast?

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

With the start of a new year, many of my thoughts turn toward the zodiac, since many friends’ and family’s birthdays are around the holidays and early in the new year. And the turn of the Chinese zodiac is on 1 February 2022, beginning the Year of the Tiger. It made me wonder how much people in the Adams’s world thought about the zodiac in the way we, or at least some of us, base life decisions on what the stars tell us.

What I found was surprising! We already know that John Quincy Adams (JQA) was an avid reader and could read in both Latin and Greek. But in 1811, while serving as the United States minister to Russia, he embarked on a reading journey that few today would likely take: reading the books of Roman poet Marcus Manilius, from the first century AD. Here is what Britannica has to say about him: “He was the author of Astronomica, an unfinished poem on astronomy and astrology probably written between the years AD 14 and 27. Following the style and philosophy of Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid, Manilius stresses the providential government of the world and the operation of divine reason. He exercises his amazing ability for versifying astronomical calculations to the extreme, often forcing unnecessarily complex constructions upon his lines. The poem’s chief interest lies in the attractive prefaces to each book and in the mythological and moralizing digressions. The five extant books, consisting of 4,000 hexameters, are rarely read completely.”

But it seems that JQA was ready to take on the challenge of reading all Manilius’s writings. However, he did not like, or agree with, what he found within them. He wrote this in his diary on 28 November 1811:

“After Breakfast I read the second Book of Manilius, which is altogether Astrological— He is continually extolling reason, and her discoveries— Such for instance as the conjunction and opposition of the Constellations— Their trine, tetragon, sextile aspects, their dodecatemories, and octotopes, and especially their undoubted influence on the destinies and Passions of Men— In this Book he unfolds the system of friendships and enmities of all the signs of the Zodiac; How they are alternately of different sexes (which I do not understand considering the two first are Ram and Bull) how they stand affected towards one another— their loves— their hatreds, and their mutual designs of fraud— The system is extremely complicated, and as the translator remarks, abounds with inconsistencies— But the poetry is beautiful—the astronomy is often incorrect, even for the age and place of the writer; and Pingré says it is entirely borrowed from Eudoxus of Cnidos, who wrote more than three Centuries before—”

He continues his reading journey and writes on 4 December 1811:

“Manilius continues a profound and incomprehensible Astrologer— This book laboriously prepares the student of the Stars, for the Art of drawing the horoscope. — As it depends on the state of the Zodiac, he gives rules for ascertaining the time and period of the rising and setting of every sign, throughout the year—”

I think my favorite part of this reading journey is JQA’s droll lamentation that the Americas did not factor into Manilius’s world and as such had no patron constellation. This diary entry is from 6 December 1811:

“I also finished reading the fourth Book of Manilius which contains an account of the influence of each sign of the Zodiac, upon the character of those born under it, and also upon the different parts of the Earth— There is a tolerably minute geographical description of the world then known— But as none of the Signs are reserved for the superintendence of the Terrae incognitae, the American Hemisphere has no patrons or foes among the Constellations—”

The last two entries that I found were a few years later and were much more about observing the zodiac and less about reading a series of frustrating poems. He wrote the following on 18 December 1813:

“I went out on the Square to observe the positions of some of the Stars— The great Bear was as nearly as possible in the Zenith, and I remarked very distinctly all the Stars of the little Bear. I found that the Constellation under which I have for several days observed Jupiter, and which I had taken for Libra, was the Lion. The Calendar marks Jupiter, as being in the Virgin, and I had not recollected the difference between the Signs and the Constellations of the Zodiac— I ascertained by La Lande’s lines Arcturus and Lyra but missed several others— I went out again before Breakfast and saw the Sun rise quite clear, and he has now reached the extreme of his Southern Declination. I remarked also the Moon’s approach to him, it being now the fourth day before the Conjunction— I was in hopes of seeing her to the last day of her being visible; but the sky clouded up again in the course of the day, and I shall not see her again untill after the change.— It was however still clear enough this Evening to shew me Mars in the Meridian, and the Constellation of Aries, with the first star of the antient Equinox— My Observations abridged much of my reading.”

The last writing I found, on 26 April 1816 while he was acting as minister to Great Britain, presents a softer side of JQA, casually enjoying astrology with his son:

“In the Evening the weather being clear, I shewed George the six signs or Constellations of the Zodiac Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo and Libra; with several other Constellations. We sat up to see Antares rise, at about eleven O’Clock— The Planet Jupiter is in Libra. We compared the visible Stars, with the Charts of Bode’s Uranographia.”

Although JQA didn’t plan his life decisions around the zodiac, he did love to watch the stars, which will probably be an eternal occupation for humanity.

The version of Astronomica that is linked in the text is in Latin, but here is a summary of the contents of the five books.

New Year Wishes from the MHS

On 1 January 1795, John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams: “I wish you a happy New Year, and a Repetition of happy New Years as long as Time shall endure…”

text on paper
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1 January 1795

Members of the MHS staff have assembled the following new year wishes, hopes, and reflections for 2022.

“May we continue to strive to be smarter and kinder.”
-Catherine Allgor, President of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“My wish for the New Year is for 2-4 year olds to be able to get vaccinated so I can hug my nephew!”
-Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

“My favorite meme for 2022 is: ‘No one claim 2022 as ‘your’ year! Everyone walk in slow, look around, but don’t touch anything. Be respectful!’ Like maybe if we are all on ‘best behavior’ our world will settle down a bit! I give Beehive readers my best wishes for a perfectly ordinary, plain, uneventful 2022—I think we’ve earned it!”
-Katie Finn, Executive Assistant to the President & Secretary to the Board

“As we approach a new year, I wish for people to be as kind as possible and remember we all share the planet. I also hope people take time to learn about the past and think about the connections between past, present, and future.”
-Nancy Heywood, Senior Archivist for Digital Initiatives

“I wish that everyone would get vaccinated, boosted, and stock up on at home tests! I wish that any time they need a PCR test they will find a nearby location with no lines. And I wish that travel and gathering resume again.”
-Victoria McKay, Associate Director of Development

“I hope the New Year will bring us peace, health, and hope. May we all have more time to create and less time spent worrying in 2022.”
-Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

“I wish for peace on Earth and good will among people.”
-Katherine Griffin, Nora Saltonstall Preservation Librarian

“My New Year Wish for myself is that I would have time to do All the Things for which I am responsible and those that I care about deeply. My New Year Wish for the world is that we could figure out how to prioritize doing the things that matter for the well-being of populations around the globe and the planet (which, of course, is also for those populations).”
-Ondine Le Blanc, Worthington C. Ford Editor of Publications

“I’m hoping that 2022 will be the year when traveling and spending time with friends and family are once again things we don’t think twice about and are free from worry.”
-Tess Renault, Assistant Editor & Primary Source Cooperative Logistics Coordinator

Wishing everyone a safe, happy, and healthy New Year !

Dear Santa: “I am impatient for it”

By Heather Wilson, Library Reader Services

On 22 December 1874, two sisters wrote to Santa Claus from Columbus, Georgia. Lucy and Judy Caldwell attended the Claflin school, which was run by the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society and had opened in 1868. The New England Freedmen’s Aid Society was founded in Boston in response to an appeal from Edward L. Pierce on behalf of 8,000 formerly enslaved people at Port Royal, S.C. The Society was active from 1862-1874. Like other schools the Society operated, the Claflin school educated African Americans, and the Society provided teachers and additional funds. Students paid tuition to attend. Most of the teachers were white Northerners; one exception was Reuben Matthews, who had been a student at the Claflin school and then became the school’s only Black teacher. Judy and Lucy wrote to Santa on paper their teacher, Caroline Alfred, gave to them.

I first located the sisters in the 1870 United States census. Living in Columbus, Georgia, Lucy Caldwell, 9, and Judy Caldwell, 8, both Black, were listed as being born in Alabama. In the 1880 census, Lucy was still in Columbus and was listed as 20 years old and born in 1860, though her place of birth is listed as Georgia. In her letter, Judy says she is 12, which fits with the 1870 census record. Lucy would have been 13 or 14. I didn’t find Judy in the 1880 census. During Reconstruction, Black families in Columbus, GA lived under the constant threat of violence from white vigilante groups. Reading the Caldwell sisters’ letters to Santa provides a small glimpse into the lives of two Black girls, who hoped for a happy Christmas.

In her letter, Lucy, the elder sister, gives the impression that she only wrote because her sister asked her to do so. Lucy doesn’t ask Santa for any specific items; instead, she writes, “I have not much to say but I hope you will remember me and Judy also of what she says.” Lucy hopes Santa will bring her something (“remember” her), but mostly she writes to ask him to give Judy what she wants. And, in fact, Judy is very specific.

Judy wants a wax doll. The heads of wax dolls were made of – you guessed it! – wax, and they became popular in the United States in the 1870s. The bodies could be made of cloth. In her letter, Judy mentions she’d had a “China doll,” which had a head made of porcelain and was very delicate. A wax doll would have been sturdier. As I researched wax dolls from the 19th century, I only saw examples of white dolls. As I read Judy’s letter I found myself hoping not only that she got to unwrap a wax doll on Christmas morning, but that the doll would be Black like her.

letter with text
One page of Judy Caldwell’s letter to Santa, 1874

Writing letters to Santa was a growing trend in the 1870s, and in their letters, children sought to assure Santa of their good behavior. Lucy and Judy specifically chose to write about their school conduct. (Perhaps they knew their teacher would also read their letters, and so wrote with two audiences in mind.) Lucy wrote that she was “promine[n]t in my studies although I have been absent a great many times.” Judy admits to having whispered once, but she provides many more examples of her hard work and dedication to school. She says she does her best at school “if nowhere else” and, because she is only twelve, knows Santa “can afford to bring me” a doll. By the end of her letter, Judy is at her wit’s end. Feeling she has made a strong case for the doll, she doesn’t know what else to say. Her words and punctuation become more adamant and she ends the letter by saying she “will be so glad to get it.” After writing so persuasively, how could anyone refuse her?!

Judy’s letter brims with personality and she makes a compelling case for the wax doll she wants! Here is a transcription of the letter in full:

Columbus Ga Dec. 22d. 1874

Dear Santa Clause I seat myself to ask you to please bring me a wax doll. I would like to have one very much. I never have had one, and I would be very pleased if you would bring me one. I have had a China doll, but I want a wax one. My teacher gave me this sheet of paper, so that I could write to you. I am only twelve years old so I think yo[u] can afford to bring me one. You may bring me anything else that you want to bring me, but bring me the doll. I have not failed this term, and have only whispered onec [sic]. I have got eight books out of the libary [sic], I do not want to have another bad mark, for I am going to study with all my might and will, and try to keep my lips closed. I have not been sent to my seat about my lessons, an [sic] I have always tried to do my best at school if nowheres [sic] else. I love to go to school, and I love to please my teacher. Now please Santa Clause bring me the wax doll, for I am impatient for it. I don’t know what to say all I want is you to bring me the doll. ! I will be so glad to get it.

Judy Caldwell



The New England Freedmen’s Aid Society Records, 1862-1878, have been digitized. You can read Lucy and Judy Caldwell’s letters here. You can find the collection guide, and links to all of the digitized material, here.

The Story of Mary J. Newhall Breed, Part II

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

A few weeks ago, I introduced you to Mary Breed of Lynn, Mass. and her fascinating family history. Now I’d like to continue her story, as told in her own words in a 12-page manuscript at the MHS.

When she wrote this manuscript in 1933, Mary was 64 years old. She had lived in Lynn her whole life, but now she and her husband Mayo were out of work and wanted to relocate to Boston. Not only would employment opportunities be more plentiful there, but Mary had ties to the city going back generations, and the move had been the express wish of her late grandfather John Bemis Ireland, a Boston blacksmith and wheelwright.

Mary hadn’t actually known her grandfather for the first two decades of her life. After his wife Nancy’s death in 1866, John moved to Boston and, for reasons that aren’t clear, “lost all track” of his daughter and her children. Then one day in 1888 (or 1889, Mary is inconsistent on this detail), John was strolling down a street in West Lynn on his way to a job, and “it just happened that they met each other.”

The family relationship reestablished, John began to visit the Breeds every week. Mary was obviously a fan of her newly discovered grandfather, writing, “we were glad and happy to meet him. I have his Photo now. Also a pair of fire tongs that he made when he was 21 years of age.” She bragged that he had “helped make the iron and steel works in Bunker Hill Monument, and the iron works in the old North Station and other places.” And according to her account, “he said he would have taken us all to Boston to live with him. He said he was sorry he hadn’t met us years before that he could have helped us out a lot.”

Unfortunately, this happy interlude didn’t last long. John died in November 1889, the day before the Great Lynn Fire. In one version of Mary’s timeline, this was only a month after their reunion.

In November 1933, Mary’s circumstances were dire. The country was in the depths of the Great Depression, her husband Mayo was unemployed, and she had been laid off from the shoe factory where she worked because of her age. She was also, incidentally, disabled since birth, “with a deformed left leg.” The only accommodation she asked for was a job she could perform sitting down. She had worked for 47 years and declared that she still could. Seeing her bold, clear, insistent handwriting, it’s easy to believe her.

She addressed her appeal to “To the Societys of Boston Mass. And The Historical Society,” hoping that some organization would help her to find work, possibly as companion to an elderly couple. Mayo could take care of the couple’s house. And surely the fact that her mother’s family hailed from Boston—not to mention that her grandfather had literally contributed to the city’s infrastructure—must count for something.

I love Mary’s spirit. She wrote, “I have lived a good respectable life and I have worked hard.”

Its pretty hard luck when I am able to do a good days work as ever before and I cannot work and help out a little. I am willing even now anytime to work if I could get something I could sit down at. I am pretty handy at anything I undertake to do. I make most of my own clothes by hand, I have never run a sewing machine. I have made Patchwork Quilts and sold quite a number. I love to sew and make pretty things that are usefull.

Mary’s only living relative was a brother in Maine. Mayo had a daughter from his first marriage, but she didn’t earn enough from her work as a housekeeper to support them. Mary complained that no one in Lynn cared about them except for one kind friend who sometimes gave her money for clothes. Some people, Mary said, would rather send them to the Poor House. Her frustration at the injustice is palpable.

They are not interested in anyone unless they are young. Those, they will try and help. The poor old has beens can beg or starve or be evicted from their tenements as I have been only a month ago.

One page is written directly to the reader.

Please don’t destroy this story. […] But I hope somebody will have a kind heart, and help a poor unfortunate Sister in need of work, and a permanent home where I can settle down and not have to worry anymore.

Image of a handwritten page
One page of Mary J. Breed’s manuscript, 1933

Mary’s plea was ultimately unsuccessful. She and Mayo didn’t relocate to Boston, at least not permanently; both died in Lynn, in 1950 and 1954 respectively. And while the MHS and other “Societys” could not or would not help Mary 88 years ago, we can at least share her story now.

The Trees That Marked America

By Jamie M. Bolker, MHS-NEH Long-term Fellow

When English and European colonists arrived in what is now New England, they were overwhelmed by what they perceived as tractless wildernesses. Far from the cultivated cities and
manicured countrysides of England, what they saw were dense forests populated by immense trees. As colonists continued to overtake lands inhabited by Native Americans, they altered the
landscape to suit their needs for the sake of agricultural, industrial, and national progress. In reviewing field books kept by land surveyors in the eighteenth and nineteenth century at the
Massachusetts Historical Society, it becomes clear that trees of numerous varieties played a surprisingly large role in laying out the geographical shape of the United States. Surveyors
tasked with measuring and marking the boundaries of personal estates, roads, towns, cities, counties, states, and nations in early America would choose natural landmarks not only to help
them mark the bounds of the land they were surveying but also to find themselves in space. Surveys might start at a building, a heap of stones, a wooden stake, or quite often, a tree.
Surveyors and citizens of early America had a strong knowledge of trees so as to be able to identify them quickly by sight, as these collections show.

Image of land survey notes
John Selee Papers, 1780-1846, MS N-266, Folder – land survey notes. Note how Selee has written out “White Oak” and “Buttonwood Stump” and included small drawings of trees as
major points of measurement on his survey.

In town records for Sandisfield, Massachusetts from 1794-1819, the surveys of roads were described in detail: landmarks like Beach and Oak trees, and even the stump of a Hemlock tree were identified. [1] Thatcher Magoun, in his surveys of towns in eastern Massachusetts from 1811-1813, wrote that in marking a survey of Zachariah Shed’s Farm in Waltham, MA, he at one point travelled South 36 degrees to a “Small Peach Orchard.” [2] Benjamin Shattuck, who surveyed the western boundary line of the Cherokee nation in 1823, describes his movements in the survey as they were oriented around such trees as Cottonwood, Gum, Sycamore, and Hickory. [3] Because trees were subject to any number of natural or human events and activities, these surveys retain a strong sense of ephemerality and hyperlocality, offering a detailed snapshot of a piece of land at a very specific time. The role of trees in a land survey could sometimes be even more literal. Such was the case when Charles Turner recorded the minutes of an Allotment Survey of Mars Hill Township in Maine in 1804 on birch bark. Though his writing is now only partly legible, Turner has noted the surveyor’s movements and the mile markings he made on trees: “half a mile on a Spruce,” “2 half mile on a Fir,” “1 half mile on small Maple,” “the 4 th half mile on a Yellow burch [birch],” and “3 1/2 miles on Cedar,” for example (11). [4]

An image of a page with handwritten text
Allotment survey of Mars Hill Township, Me., 1804, Ms. S-219

Not only did the trees serve to mark boundaries and provide the material surface for surveys, so too did they track environmental change over time. Lines of demarcation between states, for
example, would need to be renewed and resurveyed, and old landmarks like trees, stakes, heaps of stones, and bodies of water were sometimes seen to register the advance of the colonization of
North America. In “An Account of the Boundary Lines of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Samuel Williams recounts the history and renewal of state division lines in Massachusetts. Williams discusses a prominent landmark found during a renewal survey in the 1780s which was used in original surveys of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies in 1638: “A Tree which has long been known by the name of The Station Tree is still standing; and by measure was found to be 120 rods distant from the Station where the several colony lines were set off.” He continues, remarking that other aspects of the place have changed: “But the southerly branch of the [Charles] river from which the mensuration was made is now become but a small brook. Such streams must naturally have decreased as the woods were cut down and the country laid open: an event which… [takes] place with the cultivation of a country.” “This station,” established by the previous surveyors Nathaniel Woodward and Solomon Saffery, “is not now distinguished by any nature, stones, or monument,” Williams wrote. [5]

The Station Tree still stands in Natick, MA, as per an update from the website Waymarking.com in 2019. The White Oak tree is estimated to be nearly 500 years old. What would Samuel Williams have to say about the state of Massachusetts that surrounds the Station Tree today?

A picture of a tree-lined street
The Station Tree


Image of a map

[1] Southfield (Mass.) town records, 1794-1819, Ms. N-869, MHS
[2] Thatcher Magoun notes, 1811-1813, Ms. SBd-174, MHS
[3] Benjamin Shattuck diary, 1823, In Caleb Davis papers (Box 20), Ms. N-1096, MHS
[4] Allotment survey of Mars Hill Township, Me., 1804, Ms. S-219, MHS
[5] Samuel Williams papers, 1731-1787, Folder 3, Ms. N-476, MHS