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)

“‘The Unhappy and Unparalled Defeat at Penobscott,’ and the entanglement of Machias and Bagaduce”

By Darcy Stevens, Phd student, University of Maine, 2020 Society of the Cincinnati short-term fellow

“This native Kansan is going to the Birthplace of the American Revolution!” That was my first thought after I processed the feeling of honor of being named a Society of the Cincinnati fellow. I envisioned long satisfying days in the Massachusetts Historical Society archives then evenings exploring historic Boston. I’d snap selfies in front of Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church. I’d tour the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, and maybe catch a ball game at Fenway (I’m not all nerd). At the end of my fellowship, I would have material for great articles and personal stories alike!

It was not meant to be. Like the rest of the country, I spent most of the last 14 months working from home. There would be no Boston, but thanks to the work of the amazing staff at MHS and technology my fellowship research could move forward remotely.

Readers will have guessed that I study the American Revolution. Specifically, I examine allegiance and neutrality in the Borderlands of Maine – Nova Scotia. My interest is in revealing how inhabitants navigated the contentious social landscape during this period. The Borderlands was home to Loyalists, Patriots, and Neutrals, soldiers and militiamen, Indigenous leaders and politicians. Their interwoven stories illustrate the complexity of living surrounded by friends and foes in wartime.

This was true for the inhabitants of Bagaduce (now Castine). When the British arrived in 1779 there were very few settlers. Patriot forces launched the Penobscot Expedition to rout the British, were soundly defeated, and the British held the region for the remainder of the war. In just a few months the handful the previously isolated settlers were surrounded by Loyalists from distance places, British, Scottish, and German soldiers, and their families. Their lives would become entangled and interdependent. There is much yet to uncover about Bagaduce and I am excited to discover what it will reveal.

While Bagaduce has received most of my attention so far, I have also spent some time examining Colonel John Allan. A Nova Scotian Patriot, Allan commanded the American forces at Machias and was superintendent of the Eastern Indians. In the latter role he worked tirelessly to secure an allegiance with the Wabanaki. He was convinced that without their support, or at least their neutrality Maine would fall to the enemy. His letters give the impression of a self-confident, almost brazen man, who wasted no time on deference and flowery composition. He was busy; he cut to the chase and didn’t sugar-coat the facts. I think Allan and I would have gotten along famously.

The MHS holds a collection of John Allan’s papers and since receiving digital copies I have spent many happy hours poring over them. During my research on Bagaduce and the Penobscot Expedition I had not come across Allan. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find a letter he wrote about the event. Allan reported he received a request from General Solomon Lovell, at Bagaduce calling for reinforcements on 1 August. Allan then detailed the many reasons he was not ready to sail for another nine days. On the same day he received a second message from Lovell asking him to “proceed with all Expiditon & bring as many of the Militia as Could be spared” Allan learned of British ships in the much closer Passamaquoddy Bay.[1] Yet, he delayed his departure for another four days, until he learned those British ships were only trade vessels. Still fearful of an attack on Machias when he finally set out for Bagaduce he took only one hundred men. This was two full weeks after Lovell’s first request. On the fourth day of travel Allan sees great billows of smoke, suspects the settlements were burning, decided he did not have enough men or provisions, and turned back for Machias. Meanwhile, Lovell’s papers are replete with his optimism that Allan was on the way.  Lovell wrote that on 13 August he “every moment expected a reinforcement by Colonel Allan.”[2] But that was the day British reinforcements arrived. Allan still had not left Machias. The next day the last of the Patriot ships were captured or scuttled and the remaining troops went scurrying through the Maine wilderness.

Perhaps the loss was inevitable. The British had a vastly superior navy. Still, reading Lovell’s account next to Allan’s makes me wonder. We will never know. What we do know is that Allan felt no responsibility. In fact, he was decidedly put out by the loss, as if the affair was a major inconvenience for him. He opens his letter to the President of the Massachusetts Council by writing:

The Unhappy and Unparalled Defeat at Penobscott, has put this Department in a most Critical & Dangerous Situation, such as Requires the Vigelant attention for its Preservation—The Various objects I am Compelled to Turn my thoughts & Time to, will prevent my being so Explicite in my Communicating Matters as I would wish.

He goes on to complain of the effect the defeat had on the relationship with the Wabanaki.

 The Dishonorable Flight (permit the Expression without Censure from a feeling of Mortification for the Disgrace brough on the Arms of our Country) of the Americans on the Penobscot River has given a wound to our Indian Affairs.[3]

Well, I said he was brazen.

Given the amount of work Allan put into wooing the Wabanaki, his complaint seems fair. What struck me, aside from his caustic statements, was the extent to which Bagaduce and Machias were entangled. At Bagaduce original settlers, loyalists, and British troops lived, worked, and socialized together. Their lives were obviously entwined. The same was true for the inhabitants and Patriot soldiers at Machias. Allan’s letter revealed how interconnected these disparate and distance communities were to one another and with the Indigenous communities of the region. This is an important point that I had yet to consider.

I still believe a close examination of these small Borderlands communities will reveal a great deal about the social landscape of the American Revolution. But now I am more mindful of how distant and seemingly unrelated events will impact my Borderlands actors and their decisions about allegiance and neutrality.


[1] John Allan to Jeremiah Powell, President of the Council of the State of Massachusetts Bay. September 10, 1779, Machias. John Allan Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society Collection.

[2] “Addendum To General Lovell’s Letter to Massachusetts Council.” Sept. 3.1779. As printed in General Solomon Lovell and The Penobscot Expedition, 1779. By Chester B. Kevitt. Weymouth MA: Weymouth Historical Commission, 1796. 120.

[3] Allan to Powell

“Captive of the Confederacy and a Continent Touched by War: Lucy Lord Howes Hooper’s Six Days as a Civilian Prisoner of War”

By Cassy Jane Werking, PhD Candidate, University of Kentucky, Andrew W. Mellon Short-Term Research Fellow at the MHS

The ship in the distance gave hope to Lucy Lord Howes Hooper, passenger aboard the American Southern Cross. Her vessel was not lost at sea because civilization was in sight. The ship, however, served as an unexpected reminder of a civilization fraught with conflict—the American Civil War. The feeling of hope felt by Massachusetts natives Lucy Lord Howes Hooper and her husband, Captain Benjamin Howes, quickly vanished as the approaching Confederate ship, sailing under the disguise of the British flag and taking advantage of Britain’s neutrality, announced that all on board the Southern Cross were now prisoners of war for the Confederacy. Hooper watched the Confederate flag quickly replace the English flag and commented, “I had been standing on deck all this time in the rain, watching the proceedings with an aching heart.” [1] The discomfort of the rain falling on her head may have matched the discomfort she felt in her heart about the situation unfolding in front of her eyes and the uncertainty that would undoubtedly follow. Passengers packed belongings as quickly as possible, evacuated the ship, and boarded the Confederate Florida before their capturers burned the American Southern Cross. Hooper served time as a Confederate prisoner of war for six days in June 1863 alongside her husband who was the merchant captain of the Southern Cross. They were on route from Mazatlán, Mexico with a shipment of brazilwood when the Confederates found them. [2] Hooper left the ship she referred to as home in an unusual way. She stated, “I was wrapped in the American flag and lowered over the side in an arm chair into the boat, with one of my cats in my lap.” [3] This unusual scene highlights the variety of forms the Civil War took and the unsuspecting civilians who were caught in the cross hairs.

The experience of Lucy Lord Howes Hooper shows that the Confederacy took advantage of fluid borders in international waters through Confederate privateers with the goal of destroying Union commerce. Hooper’s story provides a female perspective from the southern end of the North American continent to contrast with northern regions that my dissertation explores—the international border between Canada and the United States.  The Confederacy extended its reach beyond the borders of the South and beyond the United States. Hooper’s diary and my dissertation contribute to the more recent trajectory of Civil War scholarship that has involved “internationalizing” the war’s scope. Historians have examined Europe and South America to broaden our understanding. They have also highlighted the importance of Latin American nations to the Civil War Era. Examinations ranged from the escapades of filibusters before the war like William Walker, who led a private expedition into Nicaragua in order to acquire land needed for the expansion of slavery, to the lives of white southerners who did not want to live in the United States during Reconstruction. Yet, North America on a larger scale remains understudied. Analyzing international borders by land, and by water, adds a new dimension to how the scholarship conceptualizes the geography of war and builds on recent studies of borders as contested spaces.

Confederate Lieutenant John Newland Maffitt treated Hooper less like a prisoner and more like a guest. He offered Hooper his personal room for her to stay in and taught her to play Solitaire. Hooper was from Dennis, Massachusetts and even talked about Cape Cod with Maffitt in which the captain reported that the Cape Cod girls are “great flirts.” [4] Interesting conversations may have briefly diverted Hooper’s attention away from her capricious situation, but she remained uncomfortable because there was no destination or freedom in sight. Hooper demurred, “Still prisoners we are discounted, suffer considerable from ennui, a dull rainy disagreeable day.” [5] Hooper knew that the ticket to her release hindered on the presence of a non-American ship coming in the path of the Confederates. Ultimately, the French ship Fleur De Para unknowingly liberated Hooper, her husband, and a handful of other passengers. The Confederate privateers posing as Englishmen explained that they saved them from a burning vessel, but secretly kept the remainder of the crew as prisoners.

Examining Confederate actions in international waters and the safety of civilians threatened on ships, shows that the Civil War, despite its name, was not a war that transpired only within the borders of the United States, but also on the border, specifically in the “borderlands.” Therefore, a fuller understanding of the war that encompasses all the diverse actors, like Hooper, who were affected and their varied experiences of war requires a reframing of the Civil War that positions it as a fight that played out across North America.

[1] Lucy Lord Howes Hooper, 6 June 1863 [electronic edition], [Page unnumbered; (Page 1 of sequence)], Lucy Lord Howes Hooper diary, 1862-1863,  Massachusetts Historical Society,

[2] This description is from the project: Civil War, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[3] Ibid., [Page unnumbered; (Page 2 of sequence)].

[4] Ibid., 7 June 1863, [Page unnumbered; (Page 3 of sequence)].

[5] Ibid., 10 June 1863, [Page unnumbered; (Page 3 of sequence)].




Rendezvous at the Lines: The Murray Family During the Siege of Boston

By Lauren Duval, NEH-MHS Long-term Research Fellow, Assistant Professor of History, University of Oklahoma

This past fall I was delighted to spend time at the Massachusetts Historical Society as a research fellow. Analyzing British-occupied cities during the American Revolution, my research centers the urban household and examines how civilian families navigated the disruption of occupation and the consequence of this experience, both during and after the war. The voluminous correspondence of the loyalist Murray family proved an exceptional source for examining these dynamics, offering a fascinating glimpse into how one Boston family navigated the hardships of martial law during the early months of the war.

On April 20, 1775, in the wake of the battles at Lexington and Concord, Bostonians awoke to startling news that they were, in the words of one woman, “Genl. Gage’s prisoner[s]—all egress, & regress being cut off between the town & country.”[1] In the months that followed, both the British army and the militia (later Continental army) besieging Boston were hesitant to allow civilians to cross military lines, fearing disease, espionage, and the loss of resources. Some fortunate Bostonians managed to secure passes.[2] Many others, however, lingered in the besieged city (whether by choice or circumstance), where they endured food shortages, disease, plunder, and violence, and struggled to communicate with friends and family outside the British garrison.

The Murray family was stranded on both sides of the lines. Residing in Boston alongside his wife, Elizabeth, and youngest daughter Betsy, loyalist James Murray occupied his time by gardening and reading books, the latter of which he jokingly referred to as “the best friends now left to me.”[3] His sister, Elizabeth Murray Campbell Smith Inman and eldest daughter, Dolly Murray Forbes dwelt at the family’s Brush-hill estate, in Cambridge, surrounded by Continental troops. Later in the occupation, Betsy, to her parents’ distress, would abandon the garrison to shelter at Brush-hill.[4] Crossing the lines was nevertheless a fraught endeavor, even with permission. In the fall of 1775, for instance, Elizabeth Inman was advised to remove into the garrison for safety. She obtained a pass to visit Boston and became stranded there for the remainder of the occupation.[5]

Despite being separated by only a few miles, the Murray family was divided by both wartime circumstances and military boundaries. Obtaining passes from commanding officers, they arranged meetings at the military outposts that separated the British garrison at Boston from the Continental camp in Cambridge. Such conferences permitted them to visit, exchange news, and offer reassurances of safety. But they were far from private. As James Murray explained in July 1776, a British officer would observe the family’s gatherings “to be Eye & Ear Witness of all that passes.” This precaution, Murray explained, was for the family’s protection and he strongly advised “the Ladies . . . to use the same precaution, on their side: the Times require it.”[6] With various family members stranded on either side of the lines, dependent upon the protection of both armies, the Murrays could ill-afford to be charged with treasonous behavior by either faction. Witnesses, both British and Continental, who could attest, if necessary, to the content of the family’s conversation was an important shield against such charges. Still, the Murrays were cautious not to meet too frequently, fearful of raising suspicions among Massachusetts revolutionaries.[7]

Like inhabitants of occupied cities throughout British North America, the Murrays struggled with the lack of private communications. They lamented the necessity of leaving letters unsealed for inspection and bemoaned the uncertainty of conveyance. The Murrays, with their regular visits at the lines, were in some ways, more fortunate than those families who had to settle for letters or word-of-mouth reassurances of safety. When possible, the Murrays used private channels, entrusting their missives to neighbors who had obtained passes to cross the lines. Such conveyances were nevertheless circumspect; nothing of consequence could be committed to paper, lest the letter be intercepted.[8] Occasionally, the Murrays sent letters and goods via servants and enslaved messengers, whose roles as laborers permitted them to more easily traverse military lines.[9] Such mobility could, however, be perilous. Enslaved laborers were routinely plundered and kidnapped. Disease flourished near military encampments. Like white civilians, the enslaved could become trapped within the garrison, far from their own families and where they encountered far more difficulties in learning about their loved ones’ well-being. Proximity to the British army nevertheless offered a chance for freedom, and approximately twenty thousand self-emancipated men, women, and children made their way to the British lines during the war.[10]

Despite scrupulous planning, miscarried letters, delayed passes, and other mishaps disrupted the Murrays’ meetings.[11] Weather could deter visits, especially in the frigid winter months.[12] Wartime circumstances introduced additional fears; in the midst of civil war, surrounded by two armies, safety was no guarantee. Hinting at the strain of nine-months-long separation, in January 1776, James Murray wrote to his daughters, requesting them to “bring with you as healthy & chearful Countenances as you did at our last [meeting].” “Your very looks will be a feast to your old Father tho not a Word pass,” he assured them.[13] But even as such glimpses fortified the family for the hardship ahead, the long period of separation exacerbated other worries. Parted from his grandsons for several months, James Murray and his wife Elizabeth worried that “they will have quite forgot us.”[14] Each time the family sent off a letter, they worried, as Dolly expressed to her father in May 1775, that “it may be the last time we can hear from you.”[15]

Although only one facet of the wartime disruption that Bostonians faced in the early years of the war, the experiences of the Murray family underscore the deeply personal and intimate ways in which the war affected American families. Residing between two armies, the challenges that the family faced speak not only to the hardship that civil war inflicted on civilians residing in and around the Boston garrison, but also illustrate in vivid detail the consequences of these circumstances on daily life and familial relationships. As Dolly Forbes feared, the separation from her parents did become permanent. Like many Boston loyalists, James and Elizabeth Murray evacuated Boston with the army in March 1776. They eventually settled in Halifax, where James died in 1781, far from the family that he had valiantly struggled to keep unified during the war.[16]

[1] Sarah Winslow Deming Journal, April 20, 1775.

[2] Permit to pass through British lines, May 1775, Miscellaneous Bound Manuscripts, 1774–1775.

[3] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes & Betsey Murray, October 2, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2 (garden); James Murray to Elizabeth Inman, May 23, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2 (quotation).

[4] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes & Betsey Murray, October 2, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[5] Memorial of Dorothy Forbes of Milton to the Honble. Council & House of Representatives of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay, December 12, 1775, Murray Robbins Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 4.

[6] James Murray to Elizabeth Inman and Dolly Forbes, July 26, 1775, Murray Robbins Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 4.

[7] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes & Betsy Murray, Feb 10, 1776 (James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[8] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes and Betsy Murray, November 6, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[9] For a few examples, see James Murray to Elizabeth Inman, May 17, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2; James Murray to Elizabeth Inman, Boston, Thursday, May 18, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2; Elizabeth Inman to Ralph Inman, 29th & 30th May 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2; Elizabeth Inman to Dorothy Forbes and Betsy Murray, October 28, 1776, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[10] Cassandra Pybus, “Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly 62, no. 2 (2005): 261.

[11] Letter to Betsie Murray, February 23, 1776, Murray Robbins Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 5, (miscarried); Elizabeth Inman to Ralph Inman, Sunday April 30, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2 (delayed).

[12] James Murray to Dolly Forbes and Betsy Murray, February 14, 1776, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[13] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes & Betsy Murray, January 10, 1776, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[14] James Murray to Dorothy Forbes and Betsy Murray, November 6, 1775, James M. Robbins Family Papers, Box 2.

[15] Letters of James Murray, Loyalist, ed. Nina Moore Tiffany and Susan Inches Lesley (Boston, 1901), 199.

[16] James Henry Stark, The Loyalists of Massachusetts and the Other Side of the American Revolution (J.H. Stark, 1907), 258–60.