Patriotic Fervor or a Quiet Life? The Siblings of the Otis Family of Massachusetts

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

Today is #NationalSiblingsDay! To celebrate, I took a look into the collections of the MHS to see if there are any historically significant siblings. What I found exceeded my expectations, as the MHS has collection pieces from the Otis family, one of my favorite Massachusetts families of the 1700’s. Specifically I’ll be talking about James Otis, Jr., Mercy Otis Warren, and Mary Otis Gray, three siblings who lived through very interesting times.

The eldest of the three is James Otis, Jr. who was a lawyer, political activist, and legislator in the Massachusetts Provincial Assembly and a mentor to John Adams. Otis is famous for representing businessmen of Boston during the Writs of Assistance case in 1761 where he argued against invasion of property without cause. This case, and the arguments he made, was the basis for the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, since John Adams witnessed the impassioned four-hour speech made by Otis and helped write the Massachusetts Constitution and the Constitution of the United States. Unfortunately, Otis suffered from mental illness and became much more erratic after he was hit in the head during an altercation in 1769. Although he lived during the time of the Revolutionary War, he did not take part, as his family placed him in a friend’s house in Watertown, where he passed in 1783 after being struck by lightning. His sister Mercy later stated that he had said to her: “My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity that it will be by a flash of lightning.”

Mercy Otis Warren, the eldest sister, but younger than James, was a Patriot before and during the Revolutionary War and an author. She wrote pamphlets, poems and plays to further the patriotic cause. She published under her own name, unusual for a woman in her social circle, and wrote one of the earliest histories of the American Revolution, the first authored by a woman. Her brothers and father supported her education as a girl, also, unusual for the time and her social circle, as she was a voracious reader, so she studied with her brothers under a tutor. She was a correspondent and advisor to many political men including Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Alexander Hamilton complimented her plays: “In the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius in the United States has outstripped the male”. However, Warren’s sharp wit criticized John Adams in her history of the American Revolution, “History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution” which many contemporaries read after publication in 1805. These criticisms created a breach of the lifelong friendship she enjoyed with Abigail and John Adams. The friendship was reestablished with Abigail in 1812 just two years before Warren passed at age 86. She was a woman ahead of her time, and I’ve always wondered what she could have accomplished had she lived during our time. The MHS holds Mercy Otis Warren’s papers, mostly her correspondence.

Portrait of Mary Otis Gray
This portrait of Mary Otis Gray was painted in 1763 by John Singleton Copley, whose own sibling story is also very interesting.

Mary Otis Gray did not have the patriotic fervor of her two siblings, she lived a quieter life, despite being “raised in the midst of revolutionary ideals” which influenced her siblings heavily. She married John Gray, a Boston businessman, collector of customs before the war, and owner of the ropewalks made famous by the brawls between soldiers and civilians leading up to the Boston Massacre in 1770. The Grays married when Mary was thirty-one in 1761, older than was customary for the time, and she bore a son, John, in 1763, the same year she sat for this portrait. However, John passed six days after birth and Mary passed later that year. See the image of Mary Otis Gray along with the mourning jewelry made for her and for her son.

The Diary of William Logan Rodman, Part III

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

This is the third installment in a series on the diary of William Logan Rodman at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to read Part I and Part II.

William Logan Rodman of New Bedford, Mass. began keeping a diary just days before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. This diary would become an invaluable document containing an up-close and personal account of some of the most momentous events in United States history. In Parts I and II of this series, I’ve described Rodman’s thoughts and experiences during the turbulent aftermath of that election.

So far we’ve seen that Rodman was a staunch Republican who supported Lincoln and opposed slavery. He had also been raised in the Quaker tradition of nonviolence and didn’t relish the prospect of war. But the secession of South Carolina and other Southern states outraged him, and he vented his anger on the pages of his diary, lambasting the “Traitors” and “Devils of SC” and their “mad schemes.”

Even before Lincoln’s inauguration, Northern newspapers reported rumors of a possible attack on federal forces at Fort Sumter, S.C. Rodman dismissed the rumors on 12 February 1861 (incidentally Lincoln’s 52nd birthday), but there was a part of him that dared the rebels to try it.

This is the day consecrated, so says lasts nights Telegram (or as Prentice calls it tel-a-whopper) to the capture of Fort Sumter by the South Carolina Royalists. I dont anticipate any thing of the kind but […] I almost hope the experiment may be tried. I have a fancy to learn what effect the 10 inch Columbiad will have upon the feelings of the rascally rebels.

In fact, as the National Park Service explains in its publication Five Flags Over Fort Sumter, there was a minor incident that night that presaged coming events.

On the night of February 12 a harbor steamer approached a little closer to the fort than the sentinel liked, and he leveled his musket; when the boat came closer still, the private fired into it and drove it away.

Lincoln was inaugurated on 4 March 1861, and Rodman was fulsome in his praise of the new president’s inaugural address, gushing over the “modesty & humility but a determined self reliance” that was evident in both the speech and the man.

Looking back at that address is instructive. In it, Lincoln stated unequivocally that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He refused to march federal troops into Southern states to re-order their “domestic institutions” (even when legally permitted to do so) and declared his support of the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution “with no mental reservations.”

Rodman’s wholehearted agreement with the speech tells us that he, too, while professing to oppose slavery and white supremacy, was willing to look the other way to preserve the Union. Rodman believed that “no government exists without the Union is maintained.” He was not, based on the evidence in this diary, an abolitionist.

In spite of his growing anxiety over tensions between North and South, Rodman was shocked when the Confederacy attacked Sumter on 12 April, two months to the day after he’d dismissed it as an improbability. On 13 April, telegraphs from Charleston reported the news, but it wasn’t until two days later that Rodman was sure.

Tis too true Sumpter has fallen and War has commenced. We know the fact now and altho we cannot comprehend the extraordinary details which reach us […] we accept the fact with mortification and anger. There is no mistaking now the feeling of this section and a severe reckoning must follow.

Broadside probably printed post-Sumter, [1861]
It’s hard to imagine in this age of instant communication what it must have been like to wait, unknowing, for word to arrive via telegraph, letter, or printed page. But once the news was confirmed, reaction was swift, and Northern troops were on the move. In fact, some men had been called up months before. William Cushing Paine, for example, had been sent from New Bedford to Fort Schuyler, N.Y. back in January, “perhaps in anticipation of a further destination,” as Rodman had put it.

Now that civil war was upon them, Rodman described the excitement: “We think of nothing talk of nothing but the War. Each day sees [us] devouring newspapers. Reading & Rereading the same bit of intelligence.” And as troops shipped out of New Bedford and other Northern towns, “Tears rolled down many a rough face. […] We may all have to follow.”

Researching Massachusetts History? There’s a Map for That.

By Heather Wilson, Library Assistant

My colleague LJ wrote a recent blog post on doing historical research during the pandemic. With so many archives and libraries closed, digitized materials are more precious to researchers than ever, and LJ’s post inspired me to write one on digitized historical maps and atlases that researchers can pore over (and zoom in on) from the comfort of their own computers.

On the MHS Online Resources page, you can find digitized maps in our collections by clicking on the “Subject/Era/Medium” tab and then choosing the “maps” button under the “Medium” column. (Here’s a shortcut.) Below, I share a few 18th century maps of Boston to highlight examples of just some of the different types of information the maps convey. There’s so much to explore, but I hope this will whet your appetite!

A plan of the Town of Boston
“A Plan of the Town of Boston.” London: Published by Thomas Jefferys, 1774.

The Maps of the French and Indian War exhibit includes a 1774 map of New Hampshire and Hudson River, with inset map of Boston. As would be expected, the inset of the town of Boston (seen above) identifies the various streets, wharves, and batteries within the city. Its inclusion of the Liberty Tree on the Common adds important context and speaks to the revolutionary era in which the map was made. The atlas also provides geographical information on the city’s twelve wards, each of which had its own “Company of Foot,” and lists the years in which fires destroyed different parts of the city.

Hand drawn map by Jeremy Belknap
Manuscript map of the 1787 fire of Boston, Mass., by Jeremy Belknap, 23 April 1787

In 1787, Jeremy Belknap, who later founded the MHS, included a hand drawn map in a letter he wrote to Ebenezer Howard, describing the extent of a fire that engulfed the city on the night of April 20. Belknap depicts where the fire began and what got destroyed. Though most of the buildings on the map are rendered simply as rectangles, Belknap, a minister, drew a nearby church in recognizable detail. He also labeled homes of a few of the neighbors–perhaps these people were familiar to his correspondent, and helped him place the fire’s setting? Like most of the fires recorded on the 1774 map of the city, Boston’s many wooden structures enabled the rapid spread of this 1787 fire, too.

To get an understanding of just how many of the city’s structures were constructed of wood, I recommend looking at Clough’s Oversize 1798 Atlas in the Massachusetts Maps digital collection. Samuel Chester Clough (1873-1949) was a draftsman for the Boston Edison Company and Boston Navy Yard. Based on years of research into various city records, Clough reconstructed topographical maps of 17th- and 18th-century Boston. His Oversize 1798 Atlas contains 12 plates that depict the city and its property owners, based on the Direct Tax Census of 1798. (To learn more about Clough’s work, see the collection guide to his research materials.)

Long Wharf
Detail of Clough’s Atlas 1798 Property Owners of the Town of Boston, Manuscript maps by Samuel Chester Clough, circa 1900?

Plate 1 of Clough’s Atlas depicts Long Wharf, much longer then than it is today, and the many bustling businesses located on it. The buildings in pink were made of brick, but those in yellow were all made of wood. Though fire was an ever present danger, Long Wharf and the many merchants located on it connected 18th century Boston to the larger Atlantic world.

Plate 2 of the atlas, also on the coast and depicting part of the North End, similarly details property owners and building materials in that neighborhood. It also includes a nod to the indigenous people otherwise missing from the atlas. At the top of the plate, next to property owned by H.H. Williams, there is a label that reads “Winnisimet Ferry.”

Winnisimmet Ferry
Winnisimmet Ferry

The Winnisimmet Ferry connected Boston to Chelsea, an area which had previously been known as “Winnisimmet.” Like many place names in the Commonwealth, “Winnisimmet” is indigenous. The word, approximately meaning “good spring nearby,” comes from the Massachusett Tribal Nation, whose people at that time spoke an Algonquin dialect. The Massachusett people had used and inhabited the area long before English settler colonists arrived and violently displaced them, and this one place name on Clough’s 1798 map is a testament to that. You can learn more about the Massachusett Tribe–past and present–on their tribal website.

Interested in comparing Long Wharf, the North End, or any other part of Boston depicted in Clough’s 1798 Atlas to the present day? With the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s (BPDA) Historical Map tools it’s easy to do! The BPDA partnered with Mapjunction on a project entitled Atlases by Neighborhood, which allows researchers to overlay historical maps — including Clough’s two Atlases — with more modern ones. It’s a really fun way to see how the shoreline, streets, and neighborhoods have changed over time. The site provides a tutorial and shows you all of the tools you can use as you navigate. I hope you spend some time with it, and with the many digitized maps on the MHS website; every time I look at one I always seem to notice something new!

Lucy Larcom’s Musings on Spring

By Hannah Elder, Reproductions Coordinator

One of the best parts of my job as reproductions coordinator is getting to look through our collections every day, helping our researchers find the materials they need while also happening across some hidden gems inside those materials. Recently, I was photographing the three volumes of the Lucy Larcom diaries when I found some very seasonally appropriate poetry. Larcom was a teacher, writer, and poet whose works involved the themes of morality, religion, abolition, and her life growing up in Massachusetts. Reading through the poems in the volumes, which seem to be transcriptions of earlier drafts, I found that she often used nature as a lens through which she could understand these topics. She also used poetry to understand and celebrate nature itself.

The poem that I’d like to share today is one of those celebrations. In Spring, dated March 1847, Larcom describes some of the pleasures of spring, from the sound of blue birds to deep blue sky. Enjoy!

Spring by Lucy Larcom
Lucy Larcom’s Spring


Have you felt the south wind blowing?
Have you seen the soft grass growing?
Have you heard the blue-birds sing?
Oh! ‘tis Spring! ‘tis pleasant Spring.

In ravines fresh streams are welling.
On the tree-tops buds are swelling.
Warmly glow the cloudless skies
Blue and deep as seraph’s eyes.

Now the frogs begin their tune
Moaning to the stately moon.
And from dawn till twilight’s fall
Sounds the grouse his mournful call.

Merrily the woods are ringing.
O’er the sky gay plumes are winging.
Brightly smile and sweetly sing;
For ‘tis spring! ‘tis joyous Spring!

To keep the spring momentum going, I also pulled some sketches of my favorite element of spring: the flowers! These sketches come from the Minot Family papers and were drawn by my old friend Henry Davis Minot.

Flower sketches by Henry Davis Minot
Henry Davis Minot sketches. Clockwise from top left: Hepatica triloba; “Flowering Wintergreen” (Polygala paucifolia), Green Lily (Clintonia borealis), and Spring Beauty (Claytonia Caroliniana); 4 Painted Trillium (Trillium erythrocarpum), Dwarf Cornel (Cornus Canadensis), Goldthread (Coptis trifolia), and Starflower (Trientalis Americana); White Meadow Violet (Viola primulaefelia), Common Blue Violet (Viola cucullata), Pink Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium acaule); Yellow Mocasson (Cypripedium parviflorum), Wood Violet (viola canina sylvestris), Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens – ? eriocarpa); Common Bellwort (Urularia sessilifolia), Clasp-leaved Bellwort (Urularia perfoliata), anenome (nemorosa), Rue- anenome (Thalictrum anemonoides); Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum), “Pitcher-plant” (Arisaema triphyllum), (True) Pitcher-plant (Sarracenia purpurea).

I don’t know about you, but these items have me even more excited for spring than I already was! May we all look forward to blue skies, bird calls, and fresh flowers.

If you’d like to place a reproductions request and fuel my future discoveries, visit the Reproductions page of our website to learn more.

Stories from the Black Atlantic World

By Samantha Payne, Harvard University, Andrew W. Mellon Short-Term Fellow at the MHS 

In the past year, the MHS highlighted collections that shed light on the history of the Black freedom struggle in the United States. The MHS holds an extraordinary range of documents relating to African American history, including the letters of former slaves like Julia Jarrett, the writings of abolitionists like Maria Weston Chapman, and the diaries of Union soldiers like Dwight Emerson Armstrong.

The MHS also holds collections that can help us explore the history of the Black Atlantic.[1] My dissertation examines the expansion of white supremacist politics across the post-emancipation Atlantic World. At the MHS, the Edwin Atkins Papers proved critical to my study. Atkins was a Boston merchant who owned sugarcane plantations along the southern coast of Cuba. From the 1870s to the 1920s, he wrote continuously to his plantation managers in Cuba. Their correspondence let me glimpse the drama of slave emancipation and anticolonial revolution on the island.

Enslaved people labored on Cuban sugar plantations until 1886. After abolition, plantation owners like Atkins continued to rely on Black labor. In 1911, Atkins observed that “field work in Cuba is done mostly by negroes.”[2] This work was often brutal. Black laborers typically cut sugar cane for eighteen hours a day for a wage of 36 cents.[3]

Worker cutting sugar cane
Worker cutting sugar cane at Soledad, Cuba. 1900.
From The Atkins Family in Cuba: A Photograph Exhibit

Unlike in the U.S. South, however, Black workers in Cuba had the right to vote. In 1908, a small group of Black men in Havana organized the first all-Black political party in the hemisphere—the Partido Independiente de Color (PIC).[4] They hoped to use the party to change working conditions for Black people on the island. Their demands included an eight-hour workday, integrated public schooling, and land redistribution.

Edwin Atkins feared the PIC. On 3 October 1908, he wrote to a plantation manager to ask his “opinion about the negro movement” in Cuba. He worried that “there will be some trouble from this source…sometime in the future.” He was right. The PIC quickly secured a broad base of support. In 1910, the Cuban Congress banned the PIC to stop them from winning national elections. Atkins was pleased. “The negroes [in Cuba] have been given too many privileges,” he declared.[5]

Still, the PIC endured. In 1912, party leaders began organizing Black workers to burn sugarcane fields. On 22 May, Edwin Atkins wrote to the U.S. War Department to ask for help managing an “uprising of negroes” that had begun in eastern Cuba.[6] For the next few weeks, Atkins lobbied for a U.S. military intervention to crush the uprising. He believed that “if a few [PIC] leaders are killed” the movement would “die out.”[7]

Atkins got his wish. Just days after his first request, “marines were despatched” to Cuba.[8] For the next two months, U.S. soldiers guarded plantations while Cuban soldiers massacred Black workers. By the end of July, the official death toll was 2,000.[9]

The story of the PIC is virtually unknown in the United States, but it is an important part of American history. As white mobs lynched African American workers at home, the U.S. military backed the massacre of Afro-Cuban laborers overseas. Through the MHS collections, their stories can be told.

[1] The term “Black Atlantic” refers to the world constituted by the Atlantic slave trade. Between 1600 and 1850, slave traders forcibly transported twelve million Africans to the Americas. The “Atlantic” framework enables scholars to study the experiences of these individuals and their descendants across national boundaries.

[2] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to Osgood Welsh, April 10, 1911.

[3] Louis Pérez, Cuba under the Platt Amendment, 1902-1934 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), 81.

[4] Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carlina Pess, 2001), 4-5.

[5] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to J. T. Witherspoon, June 8, 1912.

[6] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to Major General Leonard Wood, May 22, 1912.

[7] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to J. T. Witherspoon, June 8, 1912.

[8] MHS, Edwin Atkins Family Papers, Letterbooks, Volume II, Edwin Atkins to R. B. Hawley, May 24, 1912.

[9] Helg, Our Rightful Share, 225.

Pandita Ramabai: Scholar, Educator & Feminist

By Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

“All experience in the past history of mankind has shown that efforts for the elevation of a nation must come from within and work outward to be effectual.”
-Pandita Ramabai

The 2021 International Women’s Day slogan is ‘Choose to Challenge.’ There are generations of women who chose to challenge and fight for equality who have not been celebrated. Though their work went by unnoticed and unacknowledged, knowing that change was coming was enough to fuel their desire to continue. Realizing that you need to change the very society in which you live can be an uphill battle that may not be embraced or applauded. This was the life of Pandita Ramabai.

Ramabai spent her life fighting for women’s rights in India. She fought not only for independence, autonomy, and quality of life but also for a girl’s right to education—an idea that shook the foundations of patriarchal society. Ramabai faced opposition from her own countrymen, friends, and relatives. Yet she persisted on a lifelong battle to fight for what she knew was just and necessary.

Born in 1858 as Rama Dongre, Ramabai was a Brahmin. Her very progressive father taught her to read and write in Sanskrit. He encouraged her to become a Sanskrit scholar (typically reserved solely for men at the time) from whence she was given the title of Pundita. In 1880, Ramabai married Bipin Behari Medavi, a lawyer of a lower caste. To marry beneath your caste was considered outrageous at the time. When her husband’s untimely death left Ramabai a widow and a single mother of a 1-year-old daughter, she moved to Pune where she began the Arya Women’s Association to promote women’s causes.

Ramabai was a scholar, an educator, and a feminist—the opposite of everything she was supposed to be. She travelled across India giving lectures on Women’s Rights and was an outspoken advocate for women’s education:

The lack of education among the women of India can be fairly realized by scanning the report of the Educational Commission for 1883, and the census returns of 1880-81. Of the ninety-nine million seven hundred thousand women and girls directly under British rule, ninety-nine and one-half millions are returned as unable to read and write; the remaining two hundred thousand who are able either to read or write, cannot all be reckoned as educated, for the school-going period of a girl is generally between seven and nine years of age; within that short time she acquires little more than ability to read the second or the third vernacular reading-book, and a little knowledge of arithmetic which usually comprehends no more than the four simple rules…It is surprising how even this small number of women can have acquired the limited knowledge indicated, when we consider the powers and principalities that are incessantly fighting against female education in India. Girls of nine and ten when recently out of school and given in marriage are wholly cut off from reading or writing, because it is a shame for a young woman or girl to hold a paper or book in her hand, or to read in the presence of others in her husband’s house.[1]

In The High Caste Hindu Woman Ramabai exposed the plight of Brahmin widowhood and used the sympathy it ignited to start the first women’s school and home in India. The Sharada Sadan was opened in Mumbai (Bombay) in 1889 as a school and shelter for women, and remains in operation today.

In India, girls were betrothed at a very young age. The very same society that condemned widows would encourage widowers to re-marry. This created a potential for the bridegroom to be many years older than his bride. It also increased the chance of the bride becoming a widow before the age of twelve. Child widows were sentenced to live their lives as ghost-like creatures, looked upon with hatred and disdain. Considered cursed, they were avoided and thought to bring bad luck. It was a sad existence from which there was no escape. Ramabai was determined to not only save these girls from that existence but also to uplift them by providing a safe home to reside, a school to learn to read and write, and employable skills such as gardening and sewing.

The High-Caste Hindu Woman
front face Ramabai F. GUTEKUNST PHOTOTYPE from The High-Caste Hindu Woman

Ramabai’s desire to create a home and school for child widows brought her first to Europe so that she could further her education. From Europe she traveled to America in order to raise funds and find supporters. This resulted in the American Ramabai Association. As a visitor to Boston, she must have made quite an impression. Though a convert to Christianity, she never gave up her customs such as being a strict vegetarian, wearing traditional clothing, and insisting on walking barefoot inside the home. Much of this surprised and even angered some Americans. However, Ramabai was a woman powered by her own determination to improve the world around her.

Two separate manuscript collections housed at the MHS contain papers of the American Ramabai Association. They present a treasure-trove of 19th century international correspondence and collaboration between India and America. The Judith Walker Andrews Correspondence, 1887-1911, consists of letters from Pandita Ramabai describing her work to care for and educate Child widows at Sharada Sadan and Mukti Sadan as well as other correspondence and accounts. The Daniel Dulany Addison Collection, 1797-1951 also includes reports from the Ramabai Association for the relief of Hindu widows.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a spike in child brides as a result of increased poverty and joblessness in India’s poorest areas. Early and severe lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus led to increased violence in some areas where workers were forced to return home without jobs. The closure of schools has not only ended education for the poor but also the loss of the one government-provided meal. In some cases this has forced families to take extreme measures such as marrying daughters off at younger ages. The authorities are unable to intervene. The thoughts and urgency expressed in Ramabai’s letters and writings are reflected in the current situation.[2]

While change may not come easily, I marvel at these writings and think of how the world can come together in an effort to bring change.

While the two collections at the MHS containing material related to Pandita Ramabai are not digitized, learn about requesting reproductions from the library on our website:

[1] (cited on March 11 2021 The High-Caste Hindu Woman. (

[2] Child Marriage On The Rise In India During The Pandemic : Goats and Soda : NPR

Abigail Adams: “A true friend to Matrimony”

Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

“You know I have always been a true friend to Matrimony,” Abigail Adams wrote to her friend Hannah Phillips Cushing on 1 Sept. 1804. “Upon this principle I last week parted with my most beloved domestic who was to me as a child in sickness and in Health and who had lived 14 years with me.” Abigail was referring to the Adamses’ servant Rebeckah Tirrell who married another longtime servant, Richard Dexter, at Peacefield on 23 August.

Here is where the letter gets interesting. “At the Wedding,” Abigail continued, “amongst other Guests were six couple who had lived with me during her residence with me all of whom had been married from me in that period & all but one married in my family. this I believe is rather a singular instance.”

Besides the bride and groom, the five other couples were Esther Field and John Briesler Sr. (m. 1788), Polly Doble Howard and Jonathan Baxter Jr. (m. 1797), Abigail Hunt and Ebenezer Harmon (m. 1798), Betsy Howard and William Shipley (m. 1801), and Elizabeth Epps and Tilly Whitcomb (m. 1802).

As if this occurrence didn’t have enough Upstairs, Downstairs flavor, Abigail’s letters prove that drama sometimes preceded the marital bliss. The first couple produced by the Adams household—Esther Field and John Briesler Sr.—probably caused Abigail the most grief. Field and Briesler had accompanied John and Abigail Adams to London during John’s time at the Court of St. James. They were married on 15 February 1788 at St. Marylebone church in London. Their daughter was born in May.

A frazzled Abigail confided to her sister, “I have the greatest anxiety upon Esthers account, if I bring her Home alive I bring her Home a marri’d woman.” Abigail stressed that no one outside of the family knew Esther’s situation. “I have related this to you in confidence that you may send for her Mother & let her know her situation. . . . in addition to every thing else, I have to prepare for her what is necessary for her situation.” Abigail wrote that Esther “came in the utmost distress to beg me to forgive her” and added that John Briesler, “as good a servant as ever Bore the Name,” was “so humble and is so attentive, so faithfull & so trust worthy, that I am willing to do all I can for them.”

Doing all they could included going along with a vanished marriage certificate and a revised wedding date of September 1787, according to John Quincy’s 14 Aug. 1838 diary entry.

JQA diary
John Quincy Adams’s diary entry for 14 Aug. 1838.

Abigail was willing to get involved even when propriety was not on the line. Her servant Polly Doble Howard was engaged to her sons’ servant, Tilly Whitcomb. When Whitcomb accompanied John Quincy and Thomas Boylston to Europe, Abigail passed along messages for the lovebirds. “Polly requests me to give information for her that Ten long weeks she has been constant.” (No error here. Howard was indeed engaged to Whitcomb before they broke off the engagement and she married Jonathan Baxter Jr. in June 1797. Whitcomb would marry Adams servant Elizabeth Epps five years later.)

Even in the midst of her time as First Lady, Abigail hosted weddings for her servants. To her nephew William Smith Shaw, she wrote a familiar phrase: “I am a great friend to Matrimony, and always like to promote it, where there is a prospect of happiness & comfort.” After Ebenezer Harmon and Abigail Hunt were pronounced man and wife, Abigail “regaled them with a Glass of wine, & some cake and Cheese.” Abigail went to bed while the guests were still dancing “with the pleasurable reflection of having made Several honest families happy & pleasd.”

Perhaps it was the daily example of America’s first power couple that made the idea of marriage attractive to so many of the Adamses’ servants. Whatever the cause, Abigail reflected, “My Muster role would have been double if I had taken in all those Who had married with & from me Since I became a housekeeper.”

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

The Diary of William Logan Rodman, Part II

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

This is the second installment in a series on the diary of William Logan Rodman at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to read Part I.

A few weeks ago, I introduced you to William Logan Rodman of New Bedford, Mass., whose diary was recently acquired by the MHS.

William Logan Rodman
William Logan Rodman, from Genealogy of the Rodman Family, published in 1886

When we left him, Rodman was describing the remarkable series of events surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election. Rodman, who supported Lincoln and despised Pres. James Buchanan, initially dismissed all the talk of secession in the newspapers. But then the unthinkable happened. On 20 December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.

The secession of South Carolina meant that Maj. Robert Anderson, commander of the federal forces at Charleston, suddenly found himself in the middle of enemy territory. Just six days later, under the cover of darkness, Anderson relocated his base of operations from the vulnerable Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Although the fort was unfinished, it was solidly built and sat in a more defensible position. South Carolinians were outraged when they awoke the next morning to see the U.S. flag flying over Sumter.

 Robert Anderson
Carte-de-visite photograph of Robert Anderson, ca. 1861-1865

Rodman also reacted to the news with anger, but not at Major Anderson. His target was “the imbecile, traitorous [and] cowardly” Buchanan, who had left Fort Moultrie with few troops and provisions. Rodman wrote, “the people are beginning to swear both deep & loud.”

To say tensions were running high would be a profound understatement. Even solidly Republican Boston wasn’t immune. For example, on 24 January 1861, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society held its annual meeting at Tremont Temple. The meeting was disrupted by anti-abolitionists, and Boston Mayor Joseph Wightman, who had denied the society its request for adequate police protection, shut the meeting down and locked the doors. In his diary, Rodman scoffed:

What short sighted babydom prevails in Boston. The Mayor fears Ward [sic] Phillips & the Abolitionists will make a riot and so closes the Anti Slavery Convention. Boston gentlemen or rather Boston snobbery must stop the mouths of the radicals and fanatics because forsooth the Traitors of S Carolina wont like it. Bah. The fools make me sick.

In the four months between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, events escalated at a furious pace. Almost every day brought some new development, faithfully recorded in Rodman’s diary. There was the attack on the ship Star of the West on its way to Fort Sumter with reinforcements and supplies, the resignation of Southern sympathizers from President Buchanan’s cabinet, a rumored plot to assassinate President-elect Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore, and the treachery of David E. Twiggs, commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of Texas, who turned over his entire command to the Confederacy. War was looking more and more inevitable.

Rodman dreaded the possibility of war, but he was also horrified by sentiments such as those expressed by Alexander Hamilton Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, in his “Cornerstone Speech” of 21 March 1861. Rodman called Stephens’ full-throated and unapologetic defense of white supremacy “strange indeed in this enlightened age.”

I would argue that Rodman, in fact, recognized what many of his contemporaries didn’t seem to (or didn’t want to): that no compromise was possible with the perpetrators and defenders of chattel slavery.

Still I am not easy for the Devils of SC may by an attack on Fort Sumter make a new complication. I should like to make some concession to testify my regard for Patriots in the Border States but I dont see how it can be done. Under the garb or style of Compromise we are asked to concede our whole claim and receive nothing in return. It won’t do. Either we are right or we are wrong. If right Lets stick to our position. We are right. So we must stick. Q.E.D.

Like dominoes falling, more Southern states seceded. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated, seven states had left the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

International Womens Day 2021: Meet Maria Weston Chapman

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

“A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.”
– Maria Weston Chapman

Maria Weston Chapman
Maria Weston Chapman, photomechanical, halftone. From Portraits of American Abolitionists (a collection of images of individuals representing a broad spectrum of viewpoints in the slavery debate) Photo. 81.130

On International Womens Day 2021, meet a woman who chose to challenge the practice of slavery in the United States, Maria Weston Chapman.

Chapman and her sisters Caroline and Anne from Weymouth, Mass., were active abolitionists. Through their “kin-work”, the sisters supported each other through family responsibilities in order to take their active public roles. By taking up the cause of abolition they endured pro-slavery mobs, social ridicule, and public attacks on their characters.

Chapman edited and published The Liberty Bell, an annual abolitionist gift book to be sold or gifted to participants in the Boston Anti-Slavery Bazaar, which Chapman lead. This book was published almost every year from 1839 to 1858.

In addition to her work on The Liberty Bell and the Bazaar, between 1835 and 1865, Chapman served on the executive and business committees of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the New England Anti-Slavery Society (NEASS) and the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). She wrote the annual reports of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) and published tracts to raise public awareness.

She also served as editor to The Liberator in William Lloyd Garrison’s absence, and was on the editorial committee of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the official mouthpiece of the AASS. Chapman was also a member of the peace organization, the Non-Resistance Society, which published The Non-Resistant.

Chapman was a prolific writer, writing most of the content of The Liberty Bell and publishing Right and Wrong in Massachusetts in 1839 and “How Can I Help to Abolish Slavery?” in 1855. Aside from these works, she published her poems and essays in abolitionist periodicals.

Digital Resource Highlight: The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.

By Viv Williams, Processing Assistant and Library Assistant

An MHS-seasoned revolutionary-era researcher may already be well acquainted with The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. The collection was acquired in pieces between 1798 and 2011, and the web page for the fully digitized collection was launched in 2013. The launch announcement can be found in a previous blog post. It consists of four digitized volumes of Boston newspapers and pamphlets spanning 1765-1776. All collected and annotated by a Mr. Harbottle Dorr, Jr.

The homepage notes that Mr. Dorr was a Boston merchant and Son of Liberty whose main intention in collecting these newspapers and pamphlets was to preserve a “political history” that would well-document that riveting and “revolutionary,” if you will, time that he was inhabiting.  Much like Lin Manuel’s Schuyler sisters, Dorr was well aware of how lucky he was to be alive “right now.” Dorr’s closeness with the politics of the time lends a unique and insightful commentary which he left for us in the form of annotations and an incredibly thorough index of the collection. In many cases, he has identified the authors of entries that would otherwise be anonymous. Dorr further explains his motivations for compiling the newspapers in his written introduction to the collection.

This resource has proved to be vastly invaluable to researchers, providing a wealth of insight into not only the way major events of the revolution were being reported, but also aspects of daily life. In fact, one of the more popular uses for the collection is actually seeking out the advertisements. There are many reasons a historian might study advertisements from a colonial newspaper such as accumulating data on the typical occupations of an area or economic status, general cost and use of different materials, dietary customs, tracking the provenance of an item, or tracing the trafficking of enslaved people. At Assumption College in Worcester, MA, students studying Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Research Methods, and Public History have pulled from the Harbottle Dorr Newspapers to contribute to a project called the Adverts 250 Project. This project allows students to study 18th century advertising by sharing and reflecting on different newspaper advertisements on their 250th anniversary of being published.

While vastly invaluable, the collection can also be vastly intimidating to beginner researchers. It is, well… vast… after all. The collection consists of thirteen different titles documenting both Patriot and Loyalist sympathies and sentiments, including: The Boston Evening-Post; The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal; The Massachusetts Gazette: and the Boston Weekly News-Letter; and the The New-England Chronicle: or, the Essex Gazette. There are 805 issues coming out to a whopping 3,969 digital images to browse through. Those numbers could make anyone feel like they need a little hand-holding, but don’t you worry. I’m a reference librarian, and I’m happy to hold your hand through it right after I finish giving a round of applause to our digital team for all their hard work *claps*.

Much effort was devoted to making all 3,969 images easily browsable and searchable. In addition to a content outline of each volume, the collection is also browseable by date, newspaper or pamphlet title, and of course volume. Remember those indexes I mentioned? Well it turns out there are about 5,000 entries, and they are often long-winded. While the website does not necessarily provide a complete list of the 5,000 index terms, the indexes themselves are digitized, transcribed, and searchable by keyword. You can access this function under the “Search” tab found at the top of the homepage. Upon entering a keyword to search, the platform will provide you with two options. You can either click on individual search results which will take you to indexed instances of the phrase within the newspapers themselves or see the place in the index where the searched term is used. Additionally, there will be a double blue arrow that will allow you to preview the search results in case the commitment of leaving the page for the unknown is too much pressure.

For a more exploratory or experimental researcher, you can try out the search function for Newspaper Descriptions. This search function is still in BETA, at the moment, and only applies to 25 newspapers, but allows a researcher to run searches for title information and complimentary summary texts created for some of the issues in the collection.

If you’ve made it this far, I will leave you with a bonus treasure hunt. The Digital Team has hidden a secret web page within the home page. See if you can locate the secret entry. Hint: What is that finger pointing to?

Further Reading

“Glimpses of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.,” by Nancy Heywood

“The Idiosyncratic Index Subjects of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.,” by Peter K. Steinberg

“Mysteries Solved! Using Harbottle Dorr’s Index to Find Missing Pamphlets,” by Peter K. Steinberg

“Digitizing Dorr’s Annotated Newspapers,” by Laura Wulf.