Boston Men, Linguists, and the Early American Sea Otter Skin Trade

By Juliane Braun, Auburn University

Between November 1789 and January 1790, the two American ships Columbia Rediviva and Lady Washington arrived in the Pearl River Delta, ready to sell their precious cargo. Captained by John Kendrick and Robert Gray, the two ships had set out from Boston in 1787 to sail to the Pacific Northwest, where they were to acquire sea otter furs furnished by Indigenous traders and hunters. These furs promised to generate significant profits, if Kendrick and Gray managed to bring them to Canton (Guangzhou) unspoilt, and if they succeeded in navigating the ins and outs of the complicated Canton market.

Image of the title page of a book. At the top of the page is an illustration of two sailing ships. At the bottom of the page is several lines of text.
A Voyage Round the World Onboard the Ship Columbia Rediviva and Sloop Washington, Robert Haswell, September 1787-June 1789

The Canton system was closely regulated by the Emperor, and Kendrick and Gray likely relied on reports from Samuel Shaw, a Boston man who had served as supercargo on the first American trading vessel in Canton for insights on how to deal with the Chinese authorities. Shaw had noted how each foreign trader could only sell his cargo if he enlisted the services of a set of government-licensed Chinese agents: The first was a “fiador” or security, who was in charge of collecting port fees once a ship entered Cantonese waters, the second was a “comprador,” who supplied each foreign vessel with provisions and other necessaries, and the third was a “linguist” through whom all foreign trade had to be conducted (Shaw 346-349).

I came to the MHS specifically to learn more about Kendrick and Gray’s endeavor to sell their sea otter skins in Canton, and about the early transoceanic trade between the United States and China more generally. Like Kendrick and Gray, I was initially quite overwhelmed with what I found. The MHS houses one of the largest collections on the early US-China trade in the United States, and even though I had as a guide Katherine H. Griffin and Peter Drummey’s article on the MHS’s China trade holdings, it took me months to fully grasp the wealth of the collections. As I read my way through journals, correspondence, notebooks, accounts, and shipping papers, I became increasingly fascinated with the Canton linguists and their crucial role in all trading activities.

The linguists served as the official mediators of all exchanges between foreign traders and the Chinese authorities. In Kendrick and Gray’s case this meant that they examined the sea otter skins to assess their quality, determined if an offer should be made and at what price, and managed payment (Howay 133-135). They were also in charge of procuring the necessary paperwork and customs seals and they acted as translators. Intriguingly, however, the linguists did not actually speak English or any other foreign language well. Linguists were in fact discouraged from becoming too fluent in any foreign language because fluency indicated that a linguist had become too sympathetic to foreign concerns (Van Dyke 290). How, then, was this trade conducted when Europeans and Americans did not speak Cantonese and Chinese linguists only knew “broken” English? How did linguists and traders navigate language and cultural barriers? And to what extend did misunderstandings, mistranslations, and communication gaps affect the trading activities?

I do not have the answers to these questions yet, but I suspect coming closer to them may involve the notebooks of American trader William P. Elting and the Chinese merchant Houqua, as well as a closer look at the emergence of Cantonese Pidgin English (CPE), an English jargon that linguists and traders alike began to resort to to negotiate their exchanges. Although Kendrick, Gray, and the linguist assigned to them likely already communicated in CPE, they only managed to sell their 700 sea skins with “the greatest trouble and difficulty” (Howay 133). The prices they fetched were underwhelming. Gray returned to the United States in 1790, only bringing back cheap bohea tea, and none of the luxury items and Chinoiserie he and Kendrick had hoped for. He could console himself with being the first American to circumnavigate the globe.


Columbia Papers, 1787-1817. Massachusetts Historical Society. Special Colls. Columbia.

William P. Elting Notebook, 1797-1803. Massachusetts Historical Society. Ms. N-49.19

Katherine H. Griffin and Peter Drummey, “Manuscripts on the American China Trade at the Massachusetts Historical Society.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society Vol. 100 (1988): 128-139.

Houqua Letterbook, 1840-1865. Massachusetts Historical Society. Ms. N-49.32.

Frederic W. Howay, ed. Voyages of the “Columbia” to the Northwest Coast, 1781-1790 and 1790-1793. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1941.

Samuel Shaw and Josiah Quincy. The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, the First American Consul at Canton, with A Life of the Author, by Josiah Quincy. Boston: Crosby and Nichols, 1847.

Samuel Shaw Papers, 1775-1887. Massachusetts Historical Society. Ms. N-49.47.

Paul Arthur Van Dyke, “Port Canton and the Pearl River Delta, 1690-1845.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Southern California, 2002.


Robert Haswell. Voyage Round the World on Board the Ship Columbia Rediviva and Sloop Lady Washington, 1787-1789. Massachusetts Historical Society. Special Colls. Haswell.

More Secrets of the Seals

By Daniel Bottino, Rutgers University and MHS Society of Colonial Wars in Massachusetts fellow

Read an earlier post about the Secrets of the Seals at the MHS.

A notice printed in the Boston Gazette dated December 13, 1736, reads, “Lost a silver seal from a man’s watch, coat of arms on one side, CMH cypher and sloop cut into other side.”[1]  Perhaps it slipped from its attachment to a watch chain during a walk or horseback ride through the city streets.  We do not know if this small item was ever located or returned to its owner—it may be that it still lies where it was lost, waiting for a future archeologist to unearth it and return it to public sight.

This misplaced item, referred to as a “silver seal,” is a stamping instrument or “seal matrix” used to create an impression in wax or paper.  Although thousands of colonial era New England seal impressions, usually in wax, have survived to the present day, surviving colonial seal matrices are much rarer.  This makes sense, for one matrix could produce hundreds of seal impressions.  Furthermore, wax seals are attached to documents—legal papers and letters—which have often been preserved for their written content.  Conversely, personal seal matrices are small, as they were meant to be used by hand, and thus easily lost or destroyed over the passage of centuries.  As the practice of sealing began to fall out of fashion in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is possible that many of these colonial era matrices, once carefully passed down through the generations, were discarded as useless relics of a bygone era.

Yet, to gain a full understanding of the material history of sealing in colonial New England, matrices must be studied as well as seal impressions. The collections of the MHS hold many surviving matrices—illustrated below is a matrix bearing the arms of Cotton Mather, certainly an illustrious resident of Boston.  Yet this particular seal was made by silversmith Nathaniel Hurd (1730-1777) who was born after Mather’s death in 1728.  Perhaps this seal was fashioned by Hurd for one of Mather’s relatives.  Like the seal in the lost notice, this seal is a fine and valuable piece of jewelry, its handle made of ivory and its design carved in silver.  Besides serving its basic purpose in creating seal impressions, such a precious object was likely also a status symbol and marker of wealth.  After its owner’s death, a seal made skillfully of silver or gold stood a good chance of preservation as a family heirloom before, perhaps, an eventual donation to an archive or museum. 

Color photo of a gloved hand holding a small, rounded object showing the arms of Cotton Mather.
Matrix bearing the arms of Cotton Mather
Seal matrix

On the other hand, most colonists in New England clearly could not afford to purchase precious seals made by prominent artisans.  Their humbler matrices likely were made of more common metals such as brass, their handles perhaps made of wood rather than ivory.  I have not found any of these more “ordinary” seals during my research at the MHS thus far—it is likely that few, if any, have survived through the centuries, although I remain hopeful. 

For those colonists who desired a cheaper option, their own fingers could serve as matrices.  While prominent New Englanders such as Cotton Mather and John Adams almost certainly would not have wanted to forgo their finely made matrices and instead press a finger into hot wax, I have nevertheless discovered many wax fingerprint impressions in the MHS’s collections.  All of these “fingerprint seals” date to the 18th century.  I believe it likely that most employers of fingerprint seals were of lower social status than those sealers who used metal matrices.  Confirmation of this hypothesis will require research into the identities of the hundreds of individual sealers in the documents I have encountered—I hope to complete this project in the coming months.

Image of a handwritten document with three red wax seals in the lower right corner. Names appear next to the seals.
Fingerprint seals

There is no evidence that the legal authority of fingerprint seals was ever looked down upon by colonial society.  Indeed, as a seal’s primary purpose was to serve as a unique symbolic representation of its possessor, the fingerprint seal can be seen as the perfect seal.  As was undoubtably understood by colonists, each person’s fingerprints are unique.  Accordingly, when used as a matrix, a sealer’s finger produced an impression unique to the sealer, created not by a skilled engraver but rather by their own body. Ultimately, no matter what form they took, matrices were an integral part of the ritual of sealing in colonial New England, and a close consideration of their materiality will prove to be of great value in the historical study of colonial New England society.

[1] My thanks to James Kences for finding this notice.

Wompatuck’s Lease: Tribute, Tobacco, and Land in Colonial Massachusetts

By Nathan Braccio, Assistant Professor, Lesley University

“A pound of Tobacco yearly to be paid.” Starting in 1657, for the next one-hundred years, this is what Richard Thayer and his heirs owed the Massachusetts sachem, Josiah Wompatuck. The payment was due on “the first or second day of the first month.” 

Image of six lines of handwritten text on sepia-toned paper.
JosiahWompatuck, Thomas Thayer, [Lease of Land to Richard Thayer], 1657, A.E. Roth Collection, MHS. The deed was likely written by Thomas Thayer or John Niles, who signed it. 

These lines were neatly written within a 1657 “deed,” now part of the A.E. Roth Collection of the MHS. Strikingly, Wompatuck was not selling land, but leasing it to Thayer with a number of stipulations. While stories, many true, often present manipulative colonists as cheating Indigenous people out of their land, Wompatuck was no naive negotiator and this was not his first land deal. 

Image of a sepia-toned page of handwritten text.
JosiahWompatuck, Thomas Thayer, [Lease of Land to Richard Thayer], 1657, A.E. Roth Collection, MHS. While this is a clerical copy of the original deed, it contains reference to some of the history of the document. This includes a “confirmation of this my lease” by Wompatuck and his “wise men.”

Josiah Wompatuck was a sachem (leader) of the Massachusetts people. Like his predecessor Chickabut, he was an ally of the colonists and over his life gradually sold settlement rights to colonists in the area that today makes up metropolitan Boston. Today, a state park in Hingham bears his name. A man who lived within twenty miles of the heart of the English colony of Massachusetts Bay for the majority of his life and regularly negotiated with the settlers was not likely to be duped by their machinations to seize land. 

Instead, in this deed and others, Wompatuck carefully worked to ensure that the document reflected a negotiation between aggressive colonial demands and the interests of his community and himself. Here, while Wompatuck did ultimately provide the colonists the land they sought for farming and settlement, he ensured that Richard Thayer produced a document acknowledging Wompatuck as his “land lord.” If Thayer, or his heirs, ever failed to pay, the lease would be “void and of none Effect.” This document, combined with the payment, created an unambiguous record of Wompatuck’s retention of political authority over the land. Sachems in New England had an established practice of collecting tribute from their people in exchange for rights to farm or hunt on land. The tribute was generally paid annually, and often in deer skins. This established a reciprocal relationship between sachem and subject, reflecting the authority of the sachem. While not paying in deer skins, Thayer’s payment of tobacco fits into this Algonquian practice of tribute. Ultimately then, Thayer in this “deed” became a subject of the sachem Wompatuck and his heirs. In Algonquain political culture, Thayer’s ability to occupy the land relied on the continuation of Wompatuck’s sovereignty.

This is not to say that Wompatuck, like so many other skilled New England Indigenous leaders, was not a victim of colonial chicanery. Both during and after his life, colonists over decades slowly and steadily took land, reneging on agreements across New England when it suited them. Still, Wompatuck and other sachems creatively resisted and found ways to navigate a rapidly changing world. Wompatuck not only convinced colonists to acknowledge his rights in English documents, he made agreements with the English that benefited his community. For example, in the 1630s, he and his predecessors established an alliance with Massachusetts Bay in a long-running struggle with Narragansett sachems. Wompatuck’s deed stands as a testament to the persistent authority and importance of Indigenous leadership in 17th century New England.

Secrets of the Seals

By Daniel Bottino, Rutgers University and MHS Society of Colonial Wars in Massachusetts fellow

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.