Secrets of the Seals

By Daniel Bottino, Rutgers University

The MHS’s numerous collections of family papers contain folder after folder of 17th- and 18th-century legal documents, often described in collection guides as “estate papers”, “financial papers,” or “deeds etc.” Preserved here are the details of thousands of long-ago business transactions. In comparison with some of the MHS’s high-profile manuscripts—the letters of John and Abigail Adams, the journal of John Winthrop, the papers of Thomas Jefferson—these prosaic documents may seem at first glance to be of little historical value and, frankly, boring. 

Image of a list of signatures and red wax seals. The image is bordered in green.
The seals of multiples grantors on an early eighteenth-century deed. William Hickling Prescott Papers, Box 22, Folder 14.  Deed of 1729

My recent research at the MHS has approached these documents from a new perspective: their wax seals. Throughout the entire colonial era and into the beginning of the nineteenth century, legal records required the imprinting of personal seals for validity. In theory, the imagery of every seal was unique, providing a foolproof verification of identity. This colonial practice of sealing possessed a long historical pedigree—a quick trip down the street to the Museum of Fine Arts reveals examples of ancient Mesopotamian seals more than three thousand years old imprinted into clay. A sealer in colonial New England possessed a stamping instrument or “matrix” into which the image of their seal was carved. In the process of sealing, this matrix would be pressed by hand into hot wax onto the paper, usually next to the sealer’s signature or mark. Matrices could be elaborate pieces of jewelry, carved of gold or silver and adorned with precious gems, carried attached to a watch or as a ring. Or, for people of more modest means, the simplest matrix was free—their own fingerprints. 

Detail of a handwritten document showing a name on the left and a red, wax seal with a fingerprint on the right.
A seal made in the form of a fingerprint. William Hickling Prescott Papers, Box 22, Folder 15.  Deed of 1734.

Why have I chosen to study these seals, finding and photographing as many as I possibly can?  Looking through hundreds of folders of legal records has revealed how integral the practice of sealing was to colonial legal culture, and by extension, colonial society as a whole. The ephemera of sealing culture is ubiquitous in the manuscripts I examine—pieces of broken and decayed seals often fall out when I open a folder, and stray splashes of sealing wax sometimes mark documents, evidence that a sealer’s matrix was impressed with force on an adjacent paper centuries ago. Seals are, of course, an inherently visual medium, their symbology capable of being interpreted even by illiterate colonists unable to read the text of legal documents. Their usage testifies to an often-overlooked element of New England colonial society—the fact that, into the 18th century, especially in rural areas, illiteracy was widespread. In such a society, very different from our own hyper-literate world, visual imagery, the materiality of objects, and ritually spoken words all played vital roles in legal transactions. Paying attention to how seals were used will enrich our understanding of this pre-modern society.

Close up of a black, wax seal that depicts a bird standing over a next.
The seal of Rebecca Winsor of Boston. Barker-Edes-Noyes Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 1.  Deed of 1679.

I am also intrigued by what seals can tell us on a more personal level.  The design of each seal was specifically chosen by its owner to represent him or herself. What can these choices reveal about how colonial New Englanders understood their identities? Early in my research, I was struck by the imagery of Rebecca Winsor’s firmly impressed seal on a 1679 deed. At first, I was puzzled by what this strange looking bird could represent. But I am now confident that this seal portrays a mother pelican piercing her breast to shed blood for the nourishment of her offspring. This mythical behavior of the pelican is an ancient Christian symbolic representation of the sacrificial nature of motherhood. Rebecca Winsor was a mother of eight children whose husband had died shortly before this deed, in which she sold property to one of her sons. The symbolism of the sacrificial pelican is quite fitting for her life experience and was likely chosen by Mrs. Winsor herself. The seal’s black wax, rather than the normal red, is another touching piece of symbolism, for I believe it represents Mrs. Winsor’s mourning of her husband.

This seal is one of thousands in the MHS’s collections, hundreds of which I have photographed so far.  Every seal has a story to tell, and if these stories can be unlocked, we will open a valuable window into a rich world of symbolism, ritual, and beliefs previously hidden from view.

Why is Early American Literature So Sad?

By Emily “Em” Gates, Georgia State University

Historical Cases of Melancholia and Their Relationship to American’s Literary Beginnings

My dissertation project, entitled “A Young, Sad Country: Melancholia in Colonial New England and Its Impact on Early American Literature” investigates the relationship between historical cases of melancholia, an early name for depression, and the creation of an American literary tradition. I chose this topic because I noticed that in early American scholarship there was less focus on mental afflictions than those affecting the body, and that the general tone of many works of early American literature was very sad in nature, featuring either melancholic characters or tragic plotlines. For this project, I felt it was extremely important to link literary works with archival documents in order to demonstrate how context from the world an author lives in can shape the fiction they write.

I am very grateful to have received the NERFC fellowship, as it gave me access to a treasure trove of archival documents related to the eighteenth-century understanding, treatment, and experience of living with mental illness. The method I use to organize my dissertation anchors works of early American literature to their real-life counterparts through close-reading and comparative analysis, using eighteenth century medical and religious documents to help typify early American literature as narratives exemplifying love and/or religious melancholia1. The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) was particularly useful because it provided sources that relate directly to the literary works I am examining.

One work I explore is Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836), the main character of which is based on Reverend Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody of York, Maine. Moody was a minister prone to bouts of melancholy and Hawthorne effectively captures in language the darkness that surrounded Moody, basing his story on a period where Moody wore a handkerchief over his face, an act that concerned and confused his parishioners. At the MHS, I read Philip McIntire Woodwell’s Handkerchief Moody: The Diary & The Man, which provided effective biographical insight and allowed me to read Moody’s diary in his own words. It is clear from Moody’s diary that religious melancholy pervaded his life, causing him to doubt his self-worth, mental stability, and most importantly, the state of his soul. Moody uses negative language to describe himself, saying he is “of a very inconstant mind2”, feels as though “all my religion has very nearly vanished3” and that his soul is “So deeply insensible4” and “wretched5.” Interestingly, Moody’s language and choice of imagery echoes other historical cases of religious melancholia I’ve encountered, notably Benjamin Lyon of Connecticut and the Reverend Edward Taylor of Westfield, MA, whose diaries and sermons help corroborate my theory of melancholia being a prevalent affliction in early America.

In my dissertation, I also analyze William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789), a dramatization of the scandalous affair between politician Perez Morton and Boston heiress Francis “Fanny” Theodora Apthorp6, and Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1794), which are both examples of seduction novels. Each major historical case I look at shares a fictionalization in early American literature that adds to the mythos passed down through the American media and word of mouth, perpetuating melancholia as a key theme in our earliest works. Additionally, I argue, the subject matter of each narrative also points us towards the need for a closer examination of melancholia as a prevalent affliction across all demographics in multiple colonies—an important context I scrutinize using evidence from medical practitioners’ account books and diaries and religious authorities’ sermons and journals across New England. There is still much more material to sift through and many ideas left to develop, but I am confident, thanks to my time at the MHS and the other NERFC member institutions I visited, that my project will demonstrate the high prevalence of melancholia in New England and its influence on the creation of our nation’s earliest literature.


1. The types of melancholy used in this dissertation, as well as their definitions, come from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).

2. Moody, Joseph. Handkerchief Moody: The Diary & The Man, edited byPhilip McIntire Woodwell. 3 Apr. 1721. Massachusetts Historical Society.

3. ——————. Handkerchief Moody: The Diary & The Man, edited byPhilip McIntire Woodwell. 14 Apr. 1721. Massachusetts Historical Society.

4-5. ——————. Handkerchief Moody: The Diary & The Man, edited byPhilip McIntire Woodwell. 6 Apr. 1723. Massachusetts Historical Society.

6. Morton and Apthorp were brother and sister-in-law and their affair rocked Boston in 1788. The affair resulted in an illegitimate child and led to Apthorp’s suicide. Fanny Apthorp’s suicide note to Perez Morton is available at the MHS and I was able to read it during my time there in August 2022.

“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.

MHS Conference on Underrepresented Voices of the American Revolution

By Kristina Benham, Ph.D. Candidate at Baylor University

With the 250th celebration of American Independence coming up in just a couple of years, scholars and teachers are thinking about how to contribute to reflection on the U.S. national origin story. In this spirit, the Massachusetts Historical Society hosted a joint conference in July 2022 on underrepresented voices in the American Revolution.

The Revolution is no small topic in historical scholarship past and present, nor in the collections of archives, especially in New England. This conference, however, revisited what historians started at the 200th Independence celebration: examining the American origin story as a multitude of stories. The specific focus on continuing to uncover underrepresented voices from the era also lent a timely conviction on current American society. As a junior scholar in the field, seeing a range from graduate students to long-established historians discussing these topics was truly a delight and inspiration. The K-12 Teachers Workshop in connection with the conference was equally rewarding, as all levels of education contribute to our understanding of this celebration.

The first day of the conference took place in the MHS building. The opening panel demonstrated how archives are involved in obscuring underrepresented voices from the past. Then, the keynote panel—featuring Colin Calloway, Kathleen DuVal, and Chernoh Sesay—set the tone for the conference, reflecting on the state of the field of the American Revolution and its implications for teaching, public history, and American society.

The second full day of panels, held on the campus of Suffolk University, presented an array of topics: loyalists in a new light, animals, gendered dynamics, borderlands, southern Black involvement in the Revolution, religion in the era for Jews and African Americans, Native American perspectives, and untold stories in the much-studied New England. Of course, I could only attend some of these opportunities.

The panel on loyalists was of particular interest to me, and I was not disappointed. This is a topic within the American Revolution that my students at Baylor University find surprising and intriguing. Panelists Alexi Garrett, Patrick O’Brien, and MaryKate Smolenski made compelling arguments for continued need for this research. Whether it was the fate of enslaved people and white, loyalist women making property claims (Garrett), the obscured life story of a slave returned to free Massachusetts through a loyalist family (O’Brien), or the hints of a loyalist woman’s life left behind in material culture and merchants’ papers (Smolenski), these presentations showed how complex the terms Loyalism and slavery could be.

The panel on British Imperial borderlands also led to discussion on defining or redefining the edges of the Revolution. Panelists Kristin Lee, Darcy Stevens, and Jaqueline Reynoso challenged assumptions about what is important to history of the Revolution. Lee’s presentation on Captain James Willing’s raid on western British forts with the cooperation of Spanish authorities and his seizure of enslaved people challenged assumptions about the story of the American Revolution as being Anglo-American and always involving full agency. Stevens’s presentation on the fluidity of allegiances in the far northeast raised questions about the binary assumptions of Loyalist vs. Patriot. And Reynoso’s presentation on resistance to local martial law in Quebec demonstrated that parallels to the center of the Revolution, so to speak, are important to the story as well.

I was glad and honored to also attend the workshop for K-12 teachers held in conjunction with the scholarly conference. A couple of scholars remained for this portion, including a presentation by Churnoh Sesay on Prince Hall in Boston. The MHS planned this conjunction of events in order to bring together scholars and teachers on how to engage students of various ages with primary sources from the MHS holdings. Since I have had the great opportunity to teach for the last few years at the college level while finishing my PhD, I found it refreshing to hear about the challenges and creative approaches of teachers at work in regional school systems. Small group discussion over lesson planning brought a much-needed practicality to the examination of underrepresented voices at the conference.

This event was a great personal and professional experience for me. I could not list all the names of the contacts I met who each showed professional generosity and shared enthusiasm for the era of the Revolution. I made my own foray into a topic related to my overall project: Protestantism and the English-speaking Black Atlantic. And the advice and feedback I received was invaluable and representative of the general, kind encouragement at the conference to pursue these topics further. I am grateful the MHS hosted this conference and workshop together, and I look forward to the continued discussion and teaching to come as we approach the celebrations in 2025 and 2026.

Curiosities from Before the Narrative Began

By Brian Maxson, Professor of History and Editor of Renaissance Quarterly

The little-studied 19th-century benefactors Robert Cassie (1812-1893) and Anna Waterston (1812-1899) bequeathed dozens of unpublished European manuscripts, rare incunabula, and early printed books to the MHS around the turn of the 20th century. Although each of these texts holds its own fascinating history for scholars of medieval, Renaissance, and early modern Europe, these dust-covered relics of the Waterston bibliophiles also hold the keys to an untold story in American identity, race, and history. It is a story with far-reaching implications even to this day.

During the late 1800s and 1900s historians in the United States created a narrative about the history of their country. The United States, in the narrative, became a key part of the triumph of “the West.” The story went that, after the fall of Rome, centuries of despair wracked Europe. Then, the Italian Renaissance revived all that was good about Ancient Societies. Italians passed those ideas onto English Protestants who then carried them over to the original thirteen American colonies. For decades historians of Renaissance Italy have problematized those conceptions of their period while American historians have sought to create more inclusive narratives of the American past. Nevertheless, most people, including specialists, take for granted that the Italian Renaissance played some role in American history.

Yet, that idea only dates to the later part of the 1800s. In the decades before that, most American writers possessed too many Catholic and Italian prejudices to see them as key parts in a western macro narrative. Instead, some historians explicitly stated that history began during the Protestant Reformations. Some thinkers acknowledged that Protestant writers drew upon earlier Italian examples, but they did so with as little emphasis as possible. Before the establishment of the narrative of Western Civilization, Italy was deeply problematic: The art and influence could be prized, but at the same time it was a Catholic, Mediterranean country.

Cover verso of Biondo Flavio, Italy Illustrated, 1482, writing in the hand of Robert Cassie Waterston ca. 1866

It was in that context that Anna and Robert Waterston were buying texts created or about Italian and European history prior to 1600. The Waterstons were well-connected members of New England’s educated elite. In many of their collectibles the Waterstons filled the inside covers with short essays. These essays pertained to the antiquity of the item rather than its actual contents. For example, the Waterstons’ owned a copy of Italy Illustrated¸ a work written by the fifteenth-century Italian Biondo Flavio, published in 1482. In that case, Robert covered part of the inside cover with a history of printing in the late 15th century. He noted that his book, like all printed books of the time, lacked a title page, page numbers or many paragraph indentations. Robert then turned the essay to the book’s context in 1482. After a short list of famous figures and their ages in that year (“Titian was 4 years old.”, “Copernicus was 9 years of age.” etc.), Waterston resituated his entirely Italian book into a new context: “In England, Richard III was in power as the age of 32. The year following (83) the Duke of Gloucester was appointed Protector. In 85 came the Battle of Bosworth field, in which he was killed.” Only the Italian Lorenzo de’ Medici (“the Magnificent”) warranted a mention amidst so many other historical figures. Next, Waterston penned a half page biography of Biondo Flavio before again returning to Lorenzo de’ Medici and Lorenzo’s supposed whole-hearted embrace of print. The page concluded, however, again by returning to the English context: “William Caxton who introduced the Art of Printing into England had been at work there for 8 years…”

Through repeated short essays like these the Waterstons addressed the tension between period perceptions of Italy. Their texts left the Italian context for fanciful, fictional connections with Protestant and English heroes. Eventually, Americans solved the Italian problem by arguing for the pivotal role of the Italian Renaissance as transmitter of Antiquity to the modern age. Before that, the Waterstons tended to think about their Italian books in other, usually English contexts. Through that action the books became artifacts of a time before history: Not parts of a grand narrative, but curiosities from before the narrative began.

The Role of Trade in Chinese-American Relations: A John Winthrop Student Fellowship Project

By Sam S., John Winthrop Fellow

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

This year, John Winthrop Student Fellow Sam S., who attends Nobles and Greenough in Dedham, has created a podcast to talk about the history of trade between China and the United States, focusing on trade relations between 1794 and 1900.

I had been interested in the topic of Chinese-American relations for a while so the opportunity to research this topic in depth was exciting. Once I was accepted I eagerly began reading several books to develop a strong background to help contextualize my later research. During my first meeting with the Massachusetts Historical Society I planned to make an entire series of podcasts covering most of the timeline of Chinese-American relations.

One of the first things I did to find resources from their archives was to search for “China” in their online collection guides. From here I was able to identify the Forbes papers. I brought up these papers in my next meeting with (Asst. Director of Education) Kate Melchior from the MHS where we talked about narrowing the focus of the podcast. She mentioned that the MHS had a podcast where they focused each episode on one specific piece from their archives which made me think that for my podcast I could do the same but perhaps not quite as extreme.

Grand chop of the ship Astrea, January 1790
All foreign traders shipping cargo out of Canton, China, were obliged to observe a complex series of customs. This grand chop states that all proper duties have been paid for the Astrea, enabling the ship to continue travelling down river.

When I finally visited the archives the librarians there showed me how to view the microfilm that the Forbes papers were copied onto. I used the index of the papers to find the letters and notes within the collection that were most relevant to Chinese-American relations which I took pictures of and transcribed for late use. One specific letter from the mid 19th century from John Forbes, an American merchant, to Houqua, a Chinese merchant, was especially helpful. It showed that early American merchants were able to form strong connections with their Chinese counterparts through trade.

As I was finishing my last book at the same time, it mentioned a lecture given by John Quincy Adams at the MHS itself. In my next meeting with Kate Melchior I brought this up and she managed to find the approximate date of this lecture. When I visited the MHS again, I asked one of the librarians about this and she was able to find an original newspaper that published the transcript of this lecture. This ended up being one of the most important parts of my podcast because Adam’s discussion about the opium wars through the lens of promoting free trade helped highlight the importance of trade to America but also the often self-serving nature of their relations with China. Because of this article I ended up focusing on making the script for one podcast episode on the role of specifically trade in Chinese-American relations pre 1900.

For any students who are interested in becoming student fellows, my main advice would be to make sure you specify your topic over the course of your research, use primary sources to help your argument, take advantage of the check ins, and make sure to put enough time aside if you’re looking at handwriting sources because they take some extra thinking to read. With my podcast I hope to inform people about Chinese-American relations pre 1900 as my topic suggests and I think it also provides a respectable background for learning about and contextualizing relations post 1900.

“The Company We Keep”: Governing Relationships at 19th-Century Female Academies

By Jessie Vander Heide, Ruth R. Miller Fellowship

Writing to her niece Sarah White Shattuck, who was a student at Bradford Academy in Haverhill, Massachusetts in the 1840s, Sarah Baxter advised her niece to exercise caution when forming new relationships at school: “The company we keep is exercising a constant influence over us, how necessary then is it that it should be good. Cultivate the good will of all, the friendship of few.”[1] Shattuck’s aunt was not the only family member who worried about, and offered advice on, Shattuck’s new social situation at school. Sarah’s father Lemuel Shattuck similarly feared how his daughter’s school companions might influence her. Desiring that his daughter “should have as good a companion, and be under as good influence [at Bradford Academy] as is possible to be,” Lemuel guarded his daughter’s social relations. “Greatly concerned” that some of Sarah’s classmates were a “disadvantage” to her improvement, Lemuel instructed Sarah on how to find a roommate while attending school and advised her that he, along with her teachers, would decide with whom she was to room and befriend.[2]

Sarah White Shattuck was one of many middling-class young women who had the opportunity to receive an academy education in the early republic and whose family was concerned about her social development at school. Beginning in the post-Revolutionary era, young women were newly leaving home to attend female academies, escaping parental authority, and establishing their own extra-familial social relations for the first time. Post-Revolutionary women were raised with newly broadened horizons, but new opportunities also posed, according to many adults, new threats to American womanhood. Many parents and educators especially worried that young women’s school attachments might become too intimate and might distract young women from their future civic duties as wives and mothers. My current project examines both the relationships that young women cultivated with one another at school and how parents and educators attempted to guide students’ intimacies. Collections held at the MHS provide a window into 19th-century worries about schoolgirl intimacies and adults’ strategies to guide and guard academy students’ relationships.

To allay fears about young women forming pernicious relationships at school, educators worked tenaciously to create “safe” and “improving” social spaces for students. Educators at reputable New England academies, including Bradford Academy and Abbot Female Academy, promised that they were as invested in young women’s moral and social wellbeing as they were their intellectual development and they instituted designs, rules, and routines that worked to shape and regulate the social activities and relationships of students.

School catalogues and institutional records show that educators used several strategies to govern young women’s relationships. School rules instructed that students were prohibited from entering one another’s rooms without teachers’ or guardians’ approval, and that students could not talk or congregate in school hallways. This meant that students faced difficulty developing relationships outside of more formal, public settings, such as in the dining room or in class (spaces that teachers carefully surveilled and arranged through seating charts). The location and architecture of academies also worked to limit young women’s ability to move about and socialize. Educators frequently built female academies close enough to urban areas that travel to them was convenient, but distant enough from cities that students were not drawn into dangers that they believed lurked there.[3] Students were only granted permission to leave academy grounds when accompanied by a chaperone. Further, most female academies constituted only one or two large buildings, with each structure having a single main entrance and stairwell, a reality which provided students with little escape from watchful eyes and few places of retreat. Finally, academy leaders designed school schedules in ways that limited female students’ abilities to interact socially and/or in private with one another. Students’ daily lives were regulated by rigorous schedules. Sarah White Shattuck and Katharine Lawrence described their daily routines at academies as being so busy that they had little time to do “anything except reading and studying.”[4] Even when students were granted “recreation” time, it was meant to be spent in writing compositions or doing chores such as cleaning and repairing clothes.[5] With such school designs, educators could stipulate with whom, how often, and in what context young women could build relationships (at least without risking punishment!).

To keep anxious parents informed about their daughters’ social and moral improvement, teachers sent home monthly reports that documented students’ behavior and school standing.

Students frequently complained about how academy rules and schedules inhibited their social lives and female friendships. Frustrated that school rules stunted her social impulses, Hattie, a Bradford Academy student in the 1840s, bemoaned to her friend Jennie: “In the evening we are obliged to keep study hours, we cannot go out of our rooms or speak to any of the girls, if we do, it is a violation and we have to hand it in as such.”[6] Another Bradford student complained about being “bound by Bradford rules” and looked forward to “enjoying freedom” when the term ended.[7] With a sense of humor, some students referred to the academies they were attending as “prisons,” “nunneries,” and “asylums.”[8]

Despite the fact that young women felt academy regulations were sometimes overbearing and restricted student social life, many of them considered their schooldays to be some of the happiest in their lives, and they developed deeply intimate bonds with fellow students. Describing her experience at Bradford, Sarah White Shattuck explained “I think I never attended or ever heard of a school where there were so few young ladies you would dislike and where there were so few that you would not wish to associate with.”[9] Similarly praising her experience at Abbot Female Academy, Mary Elizabeth Jenks wrote home: “I do not think it would be possible for me to enjoy myself better any where than I have here.” “Andover,” Jenks wrote, “is certainly the most delightful place in the whole world.”[10]


[1] Sarah Baxter to Sarah White Shattuck, May 6, 1841, Sarah White Shattuck Papers, MHS.

[2] Lemuel Shattuck to Sarah White Shattuck, September 3, 1841, Sarah White Shattuck Papers, MHS.

[3] Susan McIntosh Lloyd, A Singular School, Abbot Academy 1828-1973 (Andover: Phillips Academy, 1979), 100; A Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Gilmanton Academy, 1849-50 (Concord: McFarland & Jenks, Printers), 23, MHS.

[4] Journal of Katharine B. Lawrence, January 23, 1847, Lamb Family Papers, MHS; Sarah White Shattuck, April 24, 1841, and February 5, 1844, Sarah White Shattuck Papers, MHS.

[5] Delia Warren to Samuel D. Warren, February 16, 1839, Warren-Clarke Papers, Box 1, MHS; Hannah Warren to Samuel D. Warren, October 12, 1842, Warren-Clarke Papers, Box 2, MHS; Delia Warren to Samuel D. Warren, November 4, 1842, Warren-Clarke Papers, Box 2, MHS.

[6] Hattie to Jennie, May 5, 1846, as recorded in Jean Sarah Pond, Bradford: A New England Academy (Bradford, MA: Bradford Academy Alumnae Association, 1930), 152-153.

[7] Hannah to Martha Dalton Gregg, December 22, 1843, Martha Gregg Tileston Papers, Box 1, MHS.

[8] Please see, for example, inscriptions in friendship albums: Nancy Richardson Symmes Remembrance Book, 1834-1839, MHS.

[9] Sarah White Shattuck to her parents, May 20, 1841, Sarah White Shattuck Papers, MHS.

[10] Mary Elizabeth Jenks to her mother, July 30, 1835, William Jenks Papers, Box 37, Folder 8, Mary Elizabeth Jenks, Correspondence from Andover, MHS.

“What then are our Lives and Lebeties worth”: The 18th Century Kidnapping Case that Shook Boston

By Benjamin D. Remillard, University of New Hampshire, Benjamin F. Stevens Fellow, MHS

Seeking opportunity and community following the War for Independence, growing coastal hubs like Boston became attractive destinations for free people of color. Many of these residents and recent migrants were engaged members of their communities. Cato Newell, for instance, was a twenty-three-year-old baker from Charlestown, MA, when he enlisted alongside the rebels after the violence at Lexington and Concord.[1] Boston’s Wenham Carey was a bit older by comparison, enlisting multiple times for short periods when he was already in his thirties.[2] Luke (or Luck) Russell, meanwhile, while not a veteran, is believed to have been a member of Prince Hall’s growing African Freemason Lodge.[3]

Life after the war, however, did not come without risks. Newell, Carey, and Russell discovered this for themselves when they were hired by a man named Avery to make boat repairs in February 1788. They travelled to Boston Harbor’s Long Island, where their employer directed the trio below deck to begin their work. After locking away his human cargo, the ship’s captain set sail for warmer waters.

It was not long before word of the abduction reached the men’s families. Writing from Charlestown, they decried the capture of those “three unhappy Africans,” and insisted that their loved ones were “justly intitled” to “the protection of the laws and government which they have contributed to support.”[4]

The news “roused the spirit of all consistent advocates for freedom.”[5] Heeding the outcry, Gov. John Hancock and Philippe André Joseph de Létombe—the French Consul at Boston—alerted governors around the Caribbean and the South of the crime. Other civically engaged Bostonians similarly sprung to action when the Quakers, about 90 clergymen, and Prince Hall submitted petitions to the Massachusetts legislature.

The clergymen’s petition was couched in the Revolutionary era’s language of “universal liberty.” They were especially interested in banning American involvement in the international slave trade, framing it as an “inglorious stain upon our national character.”[6]

Hall’s petition, meanwhile, was personal, asserting that this was not the first time this happened. He claimed that “maney of our free blacks that have Entred onboard of vessles as seamen and have ben sold for slaves,” and that only “sum of them we have heard from.” Fearing similar fates, “maney of us who are good seamen are oblige to stay at home.”[7]

While Jeremy Belknap referred to Hall’s petition as an “original and curious performance,” they and the Quakers’ combined efforts produced a change.[8]  On March 26, 1788 an act passed “to prevent the Slave Trade, and for granting Relief to the Families of such unhappy Persons as may be Kidnapped or decoyed away from this Commonwealth.”

Meanwhile, the kidnapped Bostonians arrived at Saint Barthélemy, in the Caribbean, and protested to anyone who would listen that they were free men. Perhaps miraculously, Governor Pehr Herman von Rosenstein interceded to stop their sale into slavery. Unfortunately, the island’s laws were “greatly to their disadvantage in all kinds of Disputes between them and White Persons.” Despite those restrictions von Rosenstein was “obliged” to detain (and thus save) the Bostonians until they “procured sufficient and authentic proofs of the Right of their Cause.”[9]

Hancock’s initial efforts came to fruition in the ensuing months, finally reaching von Rosenstein. Massachusetts’s governor assumed the costs to return the kidnapped men home in July 1788, and Newell, Carey, and Russell were welcomed home to a “jubilee.”[10] After surviving the threat of enslavement, the three understood as well as any how precarious life could be on the margins of early American society. The support they garnered from Boston’s different communities, however, also documents the growing wave of abolitionism and support for free Black Americans spreading across the Northeast.

[1] Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, v. 11 (Boston, MA: Wright & Potter Printing Co., State Printers, 1896-1908): 345 [MSS], MHS.

[2] MSS v. 3: 179-180, for the entries for Cary, Windham/Wenham/William.

[3] Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), 209.

[4] James Russell, Richard Cary, Elipha. Newell, “Advertisement,” The Massachusetts Gazette, 7 March 1788, AHN, though the piece was written 20 February.

[5]  Belknap to Hazard, 17 February 1788, in Jeremy Belknap Papers, Part II (Boston, MA: Published by the Society, 1877), 19-20, MHS.

[6] Belknap to Hazard, 2 March 1788, Belknap Papers, II, 21-3, MHS.

[7] Hall to the Massachusetts General Court, February 27, 1788,

[8] Belknap to Hazard, March 2, 1788, Belknap Papers, II, 22, MHS.

[9] von Rosenstein to Hancock, 6 July 1788, Miscellaneous Bound 1785-1792, MHS.

[10] Belknap to Hazard, August 2, 1788, Belknap Papers, II, 32, MHS.

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 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

“Who thought then of civil war?”: Antebellum Activism, War, and Memory

By Evan Turiano, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, MHS African American Studies Research Fellow

The activists and politicians who made up the Boston Vigilance Committee—an interracial organization committed to securing protection and legal aid for fugitives from slavery—appeared confident in their work. After a man named Joe, who escaped slavery by stowing aboard a ship from New Orleans, was discovered in South Boston and forcibly returned to slavery, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch welcomed movement leaders including Samuel Gridley Howe, John A. Andrew, and Elizur Wright to his home for a discussion of how to mobilize the public outcry over Joe’s re-enslavement most effectively.[1]

Photograph of Henry Ingersoll Bowditch
Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. From: Massachusetts Historical Society, Portraits of American Abolitionists, Photo 81.63

They called a public meeting at Faneuil Hall, over which the infirmed former president John Quincy Adams presided, and from that meeting mobilized Boston’s Black and white abolitionist leaders to provide legal aid to accused fugitives from slavery and to petition the Massachusetts legislature for stronger protections against rendition and kidnapping. It was, according to historian Manisha Sinha, an example of how “fugitive slaves fostered abolitionist organization.”[2] Boston would play host to many of the most dramatic, high-profile battles over fugitive slave rendition in the 1850s, events that radicalized the northern public and painted a picture of abolitionist hostility for southern slaveholders. From a twenty-first century perspective, it is easy to imagine this Boston abolitionist vanguard as ready for anything the struggle could bring, war included.

When Henry Ingersoll Bowditch revisited his records of the Faneuil Hall meeting and the movement it precipitated forty years later, in 1886 at the age of 77, he viewed those fights of his (relative) youth differently. In the margins, below the meeting minutes, he scribbled a note: “Who thought then of civil war? We were no prophets & could not see the doleful extremities to which we were tending.”[3] In the fall of 1846, for context, David Wilmot had just introduced his antislavery proviso for new lands claimed in the ongoing war with Mexico to be free of slavery, a proposal that would demonstrate the feebleness of the second party system in face of sectional discord.

1886 margin note
1886 margin note in Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records. From: Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records, Box 1, Folder 9, Vol. 9, Vigilance Committee, 1846-1847, Massachusetts Historical Society, p.7

Looking back, Bowditch knew the landscape of the struggle over the status of accused fugitive slaves and the future of American slavery, had a long way to go in the next 14 years. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law would change things dramatically. While the fugitive slave crisis of the 1850s may have rendered war evident to some, it clearly was not so for those activists in 1846.

And yet, in the face of all that unfolded in the two decades following the formation of the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League, Bowditch did not express regret. Instead, he was glad that their resistance unfolded without any clarity about impending war. “It is well we were not able to foresee this,” he wrote, “for if the people had clearly seen the consequences of opposition to slavery, I fear that they would have shrunk from view.” Southerners, the author knew, would not have shrunk—“The South would have had its way, with liberty crushed and slavery rampant.”[4]

This last clause of the 1886 marginalia is telling. Even when Bowditch feared that knowledge of war would have softened northern resolve and led the antislavery masses toward acquiescence, he knew what most northerners knew before the war: that the proslavery elements that guided southern politics would not flinch at the threat of war. The North had balked first in 1820, again in 1850, and, as Kenneth Stampp showed some seventy years ago, were by and large unwilling to fold again.[5]

So yes, as Bowditch looked back on a nation turned upside down by a war that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives, those years of struggle on behalf of freedom seekers must have looked naïve and short-sighted. Recollection of the past is often inflected with the profound knowledge of one’s prior ignorance. But Bowditch and his colleagues were, in many ways, more steeled for war than he knew in 1846 or in 1886. Decades of struggle had prepared them well.

[1] Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History pf Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) 391-393.

[2] Sinha, The Slave’s Cause, 393.

[3] Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records, Box 1, Folder 9, Vol. 9, Vigilance Committee, 1846-1847, Massachusetts Historical Society, p.7

[4] Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records, Box 1, Folder 9, Vol. 9, Vigilance Committee, 1846-1847, Massachusetts Historical Society, p.7

[5] Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950)