Elijah Winslow disobeyed his sergeant’s orders and went swimming in the Susquehanna River, so he had no one to blame but himself when he drowned. In the summer of 1779, Winslow and thousands of other Continental soldiers assembled in the Pocono Mountains as they prepared to invade the homelands of the Haudenosaunee people. While encamped at Easton, Wyoming, and other mountain villages, American revolutionaries flagrantly defied orders. They deserted camp, plundered the locals, and indulged in swimming in the rivers. Winslow was one such offender. A sergeant remembered that “Winslow asked Leave…Repeatedly both Last Night and this Morning to Go into the River.” After the sergeant denied Winslow’s request, he ventured into the water anyway. By the end of the day, the army determined that Winslow’s death was “entirely Accidental.”
I read this account in the orderly book of the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, one of the many Revolutionary War orderly books at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Orderly books document everyday details about life in the Continental Army—the officers in charge, the placement of troops, accounts of battlefield defeats and losses, etc. For a scholar looking more closely, these records also show enlisted men struggling with officers over the conditions of their service. Officers wanted to secure the compliance of unruly troops, while at the same time rank and file soldiers objected to military hierarchy. Orderly books seethe with conflict between officers and their disobedient men.
The 2nd New Hampshire Regiment’s insubordination leaps off the pages. When the army arrived at Easton, officers ordered soldiers to limit their bathing in the nearby Delaware River. Less than a week later, officers repeated the prohibition, now reporting that some soldiers developed “Intermitting Fevers” on account of their “their too frequent Going into the Water and Remaining too Long in that Situation.” Despite repeated orders against swimming, Elijah Winslow drowned one month later.
Theft was another major issue. When Yankee soldiers arrived at Easton, several of them harassed and plundered the town’s mostly German inhabitants. After Continentals traveled “a Great Distance…into the Country” and robbed the locals, commanders established a half-mile perimeter around camp. The restrictions did not work, and soldiers were soon caught stealing sheep from local farmers. A court martial also found several New Jersey soldiers guilty of “Stealing hoggs” and other property from civilians. In early July, Major General John Sullivan begged his men to not rob the locals’ hay or burn their fences.
Sullivan struggled to stop vengeful troops from taking matters into their own hands. Armed parties departed camp and intimidated disaffected locals. Continentals insulted Native allies (“Warriers of the Anydas [Oneidas] Tuscorara and Stock bridge Indians”) who had recently joined the rebel ranks. How dare soldiers “Ridicule & Speak Contemtably” of the Native troops, Sullivan declared. But over the coming days, the jeering continued and tensions between white revolutionaries and Native soldiers simmered.
In August and September, the Continental Army ferociously devastated Iroquoia. As the maelstrom of Continental predation barreled through the Haudenosaunee heartlands, soldiers burned Native villages, assaulted Native women, and robbed Native gravesites. What can an orderly book tell us about this pivotal invasion? During the weeks before the army entered Iroquoia, officers had been struggling constantly with their troops’ discipline. Soldiers repeatedly violated orders against bathing, stealing, and taunting Native soldiers. The Continentals, it seemed, were spoiling for a fight.
As American revolutionaries destroyed Haudenosaunee villages and farms, they wrote many journals and diaries bragging about the devastation. Their orderly books, however, tell a different story. These documents shed light on soldiers’ numerous infractions and the tensions within the Continental Army. Furthermore, they reveal that soldiers’ acts of plundering and terror began well before the army stormed into Iroquoia. In the Poconos, the Continentals rehearsed the destruction and belligerence that would characterize their invasion of Native lands.
 “Winslow askd Leave…,” entry dated July 6, 1779, Orderly book, Wyoming and Easton, Pennsylvania, 27 May-25 July 1779, 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, Continental Army, recorded by William Mordaunt Bell, Revolutionary War Orderly Books (P-394), Reel 4, Massachusetts Historical Society. (I have modernized the spelling of most entries but included the original text in the notes.)
 John A. Ruddiman, “‘A Record in the Hands of Thousands’: Power and Negotiation in the Orderly Books of the Continental Army,” The William and Mary Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2010): 748.
 Entry dated May 29; “Intermitting Fevors”; “their two [sic] frequent Going into the Water and Remaining two Long in that Situation,” entry dated June 9.
 Liam Riordan, Many Identities, One Nation: The Revolution and Its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 80; “a Great Distance…into the Cuntrey,” entry dated June 7; entries dated June 9, 24, July 5, 12.
 For actions of Sullivan’s men in Iroquoia, see Maeve Kane, “‘She Did Not Open Her Mouth Further’: Haudenosaunee Women as Military and Political Targets during and after the American Revolution,” in Women in the American Revolution: Gender, Politics, and the Domestic World, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019), 83–92.
By Kathryn Angelica, PhD Candidate in History, University of Connecticut
On December 14, 1899, the Massachusetts Historical Society received a collection of papers donated by Boston-born reformer Caroline Dall. An abolitionist, intellectual, suffragist, educator, and writer, Dall had a formidable reputation for speaking her mind. At the age of seventy-seven and living in Washington D. C., she sealed a number of trunks containing her life’s achievements. “At least I have lived to do this,” she wrote in her journal, “whether I shall finish the autobiography is doubtful.”[i] She included several volumes relating to her public career, reams of correspondence, copies of her published works, and “three trunks containing typewritten material, of which no public use [was] to be made until fifteen years after her death.”[ii] Plagued by ill-health, tragedy, and uncertainty for the majority of her life, she took an active role in ensuring the preservation of her life’s accomplishments.
Dall in fact lived another thirteen years until 1912, and although never completing her autobiography, was nonetheless able to curate the archive of her life. The Caroline Healey Dall Papers today span twenty four boxes and eighty-one volumes.[iii] Hidden within the collection are a series of annotations that do much to shape the narrative. On correspondence written between June 1834 and February 1863, for example, Dall made sixty-one annotations ranging from brief notes to paragraph-length reflections. One letter from 1842, written to the students of West Parish School while she taught in Washington D.C., contains notes dated 1878 and 1896. Footnotes on this selection of material are dated from 1856 to 1899, suggesting Dall routinely pored over correspondence from decades past, drawing different conclusions.[iv]
Dall’s careful curation of her personal papers reflects her belief in the historical significance of her activism. She debated writing an autobiography for decades. Referring to Julia Ward Howe’s Reminiscences as evidence of “self-conceit,” she was wary of the potential ramifications of revealing her innermost thoughts.[v] Many of her annotations control the narrative of her life. Dall ripped, destroyed, and crossed out material she deemed “uncharitable parts unnecessarily preserved” but once added to the remainder “may it be used if my life is ever written.”[vi] In July of 1869, she indicated that she had censored a collection of letters from 1843-1844 concerning her marriage. Later, she wrote, “I never want my life written – till it can be written as a warning. I despise long lives in general – don’t ask to have any written – only it must be, truly, if at all.”[vii] Dall believed a biography would be written with or without her consent. The proactive decision to send her papers to Boston herself, rather than trust an executor, illustrates how she inserted herself into the archival process.
Annotations offer insights into Dall’s changing relationships with contemporaries like Ednah Dow Cheney, Paulina Wright Davis, and Theodore Parker. Dall and Cheney met in their childhood years, but by 1878, experienced a rift in their friendship. “No act of mine is the cause of Mrs. Cheney’s late demeanor to me. I am told it is caused by envy & jealousy,” Dall scribbled on the back of a letter from Cheney she ultimately discarded, “Alas! what does she envy?”[viii] On a letter from Davis, she admitted that its contents were “discreditable to Mrs. D” but advocated for its preservation regardless. Dall also marked letters to and from Parker with the date ‘May 28, 1898,’ suggesting her intention to organize, review, or publish her exchanges with the radical abolitionist and lecturer. Her annotations reveal her perspective of the era and serve as guidelines for future biographers. She identified letters of “an historic bearing and interest” and remarked on feminist and reform concerns.[ix] On December 5, 1899, days before she sealed the final trunk bound for Boston, Dall penned, “The letters enclosed throw light on my own life from 1849 to 1869 during many dark & doubtful days, when I stood alone as few women ever do … No one may ever care to read them – but they show how groundless many women have been & I think best to preserve them.”[x]
Historians of the nineteenth century rarely get the opportunity to commune directly with their subjects. The annotations within Caroline Dall’s papers offer a glimpse into what she herself viewed to be the pivotal achievements, tragedies, and challenges of her life. Her commentary transforms her writings into multidimensional documents transcending decades and reflecting both her immediate reactions and retrospective reflections. Furthermore, they create an immortal dialogue with the imagined reader. In this way they are living documents, offering both tantalizing possibilities for historical discovery and stark warnings to the intrepid biographer.
[i] Caroline Dall, Journal Vol. 42, December 7, 1899, Caroline Healey Dall Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
[ii]Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series Vol XI 1896-1897 (Boston: Published by the Society, 1897), 333; Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series Vol. XIII, 1899-1900 (Boston: Published by the Society, 1900), 310; Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings October 1909 – June 1910, Vol. XLIII (Boston: Published by the Society, 1910), 38; Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings October 1912 – June 1913, Vol. XLVI (Boston: Published by the Society, 1913), 379. In addition to her personal papers, Dall donated a “rail cut by Abraham Lincoln” and a cabinet table.
[iii] An additional 11.5 boxes, 5 photograph folders, and 1 folio folder of Caroline Dall’s papers are held Harvard’s Schlesinger Library.
[iv] Caroline W. Healey to the Teachers of the West Parish School, September 17, 1842, Correspondence, Reel 1, CHD Papers.
By Jessica Lynn Leeper, DPhil Candidate in History, University of Oxford
Whenever we think about Christmas in the 19th century, we think of the rich aesthetics of the Victorian age which began in the late 1830s. Scrooge’s ghosts made their debut appearance in 1843, President Franklin Pierce introduced the Christmas tree to the White House in the early 1850s, and so many of the carols we associate with the season were being written throughout the 19th century. In the 1820s, John Quincy Adams was at the height of his career, having been inaugurated as the Sixth President of the United States in 1825 after serving as President Monroe’s Secretary of State. St. Nicholas had just begun to appear in children’s literature in the 1820s, after his famous introduction in poems like Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, yet John Quincy Adams – like most of his contemporaries – was entirely unaware that the holiday season was about to be revolutionized over the course of the 19th century. To him, it was a quiet point in his year. It was a time for reflection in his diary; for long hours of fireside reading; and unending (and often political) social visits. He rarely took the day off from his work at the office, but he almost always found time each Christmas for games of chess and whist, for lavish oyster dinners, and sleigh rides with his wife Louisa Catherine.
John Quincy’s diaries throughout the 1820s reveal a deep insight into how he and his family celebrated the Christmas season in the often-forgotten decade between the Early Republic and the Victorian age. Adams wrote daily in his diary throughout his life, and thanks to the digitization efforts of the MHS’s Adams editors, we can easily discover how this fascinating past president celebrated the Christmas season, and how his Christmas entries varied over the course of the 1820s. No Christmas at the Adams house was the same, and it is clear that John Quincy established no family traditions during that decade. There was no exchanging of gifts, but the season was remarkably social and cheerful nevertheless. Most of his Christmas entries read like political newspapers of information and congressional gossip, but there are glimpses into his family life throughout each page.
In the 1820s, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine’s three sons were, at different times, enrolled at Harvard, and the family’s celebratory season began once George, John, and Charles Francis arrived to Washington D.C. after their long and often treacherously icy journey from Massachusetts. For the boys it was an exciting escape from their studies, yet John Quincy interpreted their “winter vacation” as bonus study time. It was hardly a festive way to enjoy the holidays, but it was to some degree a way that John Quincy could connect with his children and measure their educational and personal progression with each passing year. For him, the holidays were a time to review on the year that was ending, much as we create montages of our achievements at New Years. It was important to him that his sons were exposed to an edifying and scholarly holiday, and scholarship was John Quincy’s greatest love. To him, the ideal leisurely day was one spent in his study, pouring over books of great moral poetry or statistics about weights and measures. His perfect holiday was a day of uninterrupted reading. Unfortunately, his family did not quite share his love of perpetual study! On Christmas day 1820, John Quincy subjected his sons to a tediously long reading of Pope’s Messiah, as he put it, “a poem suited to the day, and of which my own admiration was great at an earlier age than that of my Son Charles, the youngest person now in my family. Not one of them excepting George appeared to take the slightest interest in it, nor is there one of them who has any relish for literature.” Perhaps he realized that his sons needed their holiday to be a day of joy, and reading moral literature was not quite what they had in mind.
In the following few years, as his life became busier and busier, his Christmas entries reveal that he had become less interested in the festivities of the day, and far more interested in the social meaning behind the day, that is, the morals that one could learn from the Christmas season. In both 1822 and 1828 he wrote on Christmas day about the importance of religious toleration in American society. Though he was a Unitarian, he used the occasion of Christmas day to attend other denominational services, including in two different years mass at the Catholic church near the White House. For him, Christmas day was a day that first and foremost signified universal peace and friendship: “On Christmas day of all others, [those] of every denomination should forget all their animosities and dissensions, and adhere to the Law of Love.” For him, Christmas was not so much about the merriment of the season, the balls and feasts and garlands, but that it was a time to reflect on the morals of his beliefs and what it meant to be a friend to all in the 19th century. The sermons he attended soberly preached Revelations on the day of Christmas, rather than the more uplifting Nativity story, and he returned home from the services clearly eager to write introspective yet hopeful paragraphs in his diary.
Though John Quincy Adams did not celebrate the holiday season quite the way that we do today – there was of course no talk of Rudolph or commercial shopping in his diary each year – we can all perhaps take a cue from his diary entries from each Christmas. He spent each holiday thinking through how best to improve himself and the world around him; how to strengthen his friendships and his relationships with his family; and how to find peace and reflection at the end of each passing year. And, as John Quincy might wish for, we could all use an hour or two after opening presents and feasting to enjoy a good book!
Many of us have heard this common axiom at least once in our lives. For me, it was my grandmother’s constant teasing that one day I very well may transform into a “Sour Patch Kid” myself. But there is a more truthful version of this colloquialism that, if applied to historical research, unveils new avenues for the study of political gastronomy, popular culture, and identity. You bond with whom you eat.
Popular media has done an excellent job of illustrating the bonds of affection that emerge from sharing a meal – from the cacophonous, rowdy, politically charged feast held at New York City’s Life Café in Rent, to the quiet, somber dinner at The Royal Dragon, during which Matthew Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand reluctantly formed an alliance to combat an ancient, apocalyptic evil in Marvel’s The Defenders. Such bonds, however, are not limited to modern fiction.
When I arrived at the Massachusetts Historical Society in July 2018 to research the relationship between affective rhetoric and political identity in revolutionary British America, I did not expect to be struck by the meals which Massachusetts provincials consumed during the Seven Years’ War.
As I combed through hundreds of pages of journals and diary entries, I found a common trend. Most Massachusetts provincials greatly detailed the violence which they participated in or witnessed (be it formal combat or traumatic episodes of corporal punishment, often overseen by British regulars), but otherwise many entries – such as those recorded in Samuel Greenleaf’s journal – contained a single, repetitive phrase which described the day’s events: “Nothing Remarkable.”
Imagine my surprise when I came across Greenleaf’s entry for August 19, 1756, when he recounted a singularly important moment for himself and his fellow provincials: “we had a Very good huckleberry Pye of which I eat harty…” As a shameless fan berry pies myself, this passage struck me as a meaningful expression of acute joy. Struggling to reconcile his incessant boredom with a chronic fear of impending combat with French soldiers and their Indigenous allies, Greenleaf experienced not simply physical gratification, but rather delightful comradery by devouring such a tasty dessert with his fellow soldiers. Despite his “I” statement, it is safe to assume that Greenleaf’s fellow provincials consumed their portions of huckleberry pie with equal heartiness and conviviality. As I read further into the experiences of Massachusetts’ Seven Years’ War veterans, I became aware that such collective pleasures formed combat communities, whose members felt a sense of intimate affection as deep as, if not deeper than, their allegiance to colony or empire.
The joy that arose from feasting on fresh bread, meat, or sweet treats provides a stark contrast to one of the greatest struggles and anxieties for Massachusetts provincials: food scarcity. To avoid starvation the afternoon of February 8, 1758, Rufus Putnam and seventy other provincials reluctantly slaughtered a “large dog,” giving “every man his equal share.” “None can tell what a sweet morsel this dog’s guts and feet were,” Putnam observed, “but those that eat them as I did…” For only those provincials who had felt the desperation of hunger and the subsequent relief of its abatement, Putnam argued, might truly comprehend the deliciousness of such canine nourishment. Albeit a repulsive meal born from unimaginable struggle, this winter dinner only intensified the heartfelt wartime tethers of understanding, sympathy, and affection that Seven Years’ War veterans had developed for one another.
Through Putnam and Greenleaf’s journals, I realized that food – as much as rhetoric – was an essential tool to foster lasting, intimate bonds of both personal and political affection. By devouring such a “sweet morsel” – be it a dog’s feet, a slice of huckleberry pie, a plate of dumplings, or even “thirteen orders of fries” at New York City’s Life Café – strangers and friends alike had the opportunity to cultivate the affective sameness required for forging a shared political identity.
By Michael Khorshidianzadeh, Kass Teacher Fellow, and Kate Melchior, Associate Director for Educator Engagement and Outreach
Every year, the MHS awards the Kass Teacher Fellowship to a K-12 educator to offer them an opportunity to do a deep-dive into a research topic of their choice. Fellows spend 20 days researching in the MHS archives, receiving a stipend of $3,000 and delivering a final report on their findings. Applications for 2024 Teacher and Student Fellowships are now open: learn more and apply at www.masshist.org/teacher-and-student-fellowships!
In 2023, Michael Khorshidianzadeh of the Victor School in Acton, MA was awarded a Kass Fellowship to pursue research into the Massachusetts home front during World War. Michael discovered so many amazing primary sources that we will share his findings in several blog posts. Read excerpts from Michael’s research experience and his findings at the MHS:
Massachusetts During the Great War: Pacifists, Activists, and People
A collection of record papers, diaries, journals, ephemeral memos, and a scrapbook meant to lend a hand to the future gathered together from the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society all combined into a time machine for me during this research process. I felt part time-traveler and part detective. […] Knowing the larger story sometimes filled me with immense grief because I knew some of their hopes for the future would not come to fruition. Other times, I took joy in just reading about their daily lives as they happened.
I explored 4 journals by Lady Gertrude Codman Carter and they are wonderful in terms of scope, detail, and arrangement. Lady Carter was an architect, artist, and feminist. She was born in Boston on February 6th, 1875 to a well-established moneyed Boston family and died there on November 12th, 1953.
The first journal I reviewed begins with newspaper articles from the beginning of the war. She clipped an article from the Daily Mail titled “General Nogi’s Prophecy” which states the war “will be the last in Europe for many a day, perhaps forever. German states will emerge from this so exhausted and so terrified that they will have no other object than to form some sort of condition that may in the future obviate the recurrence of any such catastrophe.”
Lady Carter’s journals are full of heartfelt, humorous, and tragic observations about life in Massachusetts during the World War I era. Often she would draw her family in cartoon form to illustrate what she was writing about or feeling at the time[:]
Lady Carter attended many lectures to raise money for those who were impacted by the war.
A series of images of her family traveling to the cape. Her dog was named Mrs. Codman and she wrote she was a “Suffrage Dog” which indicates she was for the Women’s vote.
[Here Lady Carter] detail[s the] story of the death of Gilbert Carter. She states that his mother knew almost by telepathy before the message came that her son was hurt and that she also knew he was going to die soon. […] She wrote under the “In Memory” card “ To-day should have alas had a dark cloud had I known it for the war was to cast yet another shadow on our lives.
[Another woman,] Clara Currier’s diaries, provided me with a day-to-day account of what a seemingly everyday young woman experienced while living in Massachusetts. […] Currier spent a lot of time during the war canning vegetables and fruits and knitting or sewing for the Red Cross.
I looked for when the war ended to see if she wrote anything […] The entry surprised me because it started simply “A pleasant day World War ended at 6 a.m and peace declared. Big celebration but couldn’t go out. Went to a bean shelling at Bert Merrills (sp?) and had a nice time. 40 were there and we had coffee, sandwiches, cake and pickles for treat. John+Mabel’s 10 wedding anniversary.” The next entry was about her crocheting. I don’t know what I was expecting […] to some people, major historical events are just another Monday. She was glad the war was over and that was about it.”
Stay tuned for Part II of Michael’s research findings, where he explores competing advocacy for peace and military preparedness efforts, and how agencies collected supplies to assist those in need.
Carter, Gertrude Codman Lady. 1914. “Lady Gertrude Codman Carter diaries, 1915-1920.” Call Number Ms. N-2246 Vol. 1.
Carter, Lady Gertrude Codman. n.d. “Lady Gertrude Codman Carter Diaries 1915-1920.” Call Number # Ms. N-2246 Vol. 2-3.
Currier, Clara E. n.d. “Clara E Currier Diaries, 1918-1932.” Call number # Ms. N-2570 3 Vols. in 1 narrow box.
By Michael Larmann, Doctoral Candidate, University of Montana
The past several years have sparked public debate on monuments and how they tell about our national story. Much of this debate has targeted southern confederate monuments following the American Civil War. While this debate might seem recent, Americans have been fighting over controversial monuments for a long time.
There is a monument in Boston, now largely forgotten, that divided the commonwealth before the Civil War. This bronze statue guards the front of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Avenue. To the right of the main stairs, antebellum statesman Daniel Webster stands on a granite pedestal. In his right hand, the “Great Expounder” grasps a scroll, likely the U.S. Constitution that he swore to uphold during his long career as a congressman and Sectary of State. His left-hand rests upon bound fasces representing the Union he defended. I traveled to the Massachusetts Historical Society because I wanted to learn how this monument became a symbol of political strife during the Civil War era.
As indicated by this invitation issued to textile manufacturer Amos A. Lawrence, Boston was going to inaugurate Webster’s statue with a grand procession outside the State House on September 17, 1859. However, a Northeastern storm forced celebrations inside the nearby Boston Music Hall. The commonwealth re-inaugurated the statue on September 27th before a crowd of ten thousand people. Republican Governor Nathaniel P. Banks and Whig orator Edward Everett delivered speeches on Webster’s distinguished career.
Not everyone in attendance, however, agreed that Webster was worthy of public commemoration. While Everett spoke, local abolitionists circulated petitions through the crowd to secure the statue’s removal. William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Lydia Maria Childs, and many others protested Webster’s late support for the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. A Webster monument, they contended, bestowed “no honor to the state” and was “repugnant to the moral sense of the people.”
According to abolitionists, the Webster monument represented the Cotton Whigs and commercial elites on State Street, who relied on slave-produced commodities. The Webster Memorial Committee included the most affluent and influential men in antebellum Massachusetts. George Ticknor Curtis, the judge who enforced the Fugitive Slave Law against Thomas Sims in 1851, was the committee secretary. He submitted this bound volume of the committee’s records to the MHS which listed the one hundred members and their activities.
Committee members also included conservative politicians such as Edward Everett, textile manufacturers including Nathan Appleton, and banking agents such as Thomas W. Ward. After looking through these individuals’ papers at the MHS, it became clear that the elite’s commemoration of Webster aligned with their conservative politics and economic dependence on slavery. Many of the committee members publicly supported Webster’s “Seventh of March” Speech in 1850 because they saw the Union as essential to their political views and economic interests.
With growing anti-slavery sentiments in the 1850s, it may seem surprising that the Webster’s statue remains standing in 2023. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859, southern secession, and the coming of the Civil War pushed the Webster monument far from the public mind.
Today, security precautions prevent the public from viewing Webster’s statue up close, but we can still learn a great deal from it as a historical source. The monument demonstrates that Americans have been engaging in the politics of commemoration long before us. While controversial statues have become a hot topic, this discussion predates our contemporary political situation. In addition to southern monuments of enslavers and confederate soldiers, there are also problematic statues in the North of individuals like Daniel Webster who made controversial compromises over slavery.
Adding even greater complexity, the Webster Memorial Committee possessed their own political, legal, and economic ties to slavery. The politics of commemoration was not solely about the final product, but also the process of erecting the monument itself. People understood these monuments as reflections of their communities’ values, which often led to conflict. When viewed as historical sources, these statues can reveal the contentious nature of American democracy both past and present.
 “The Inauguration of the Webster Statue,” Liberator (Boston, MA), Sep. 16, 1859.
It was in the Spring of 1855 when James Patterson happened to unknowingly encounter one of America’s most prominent celebrities. Patterson, a Brown University student who was headed home to Ohio, boarded a train at Worcester and sat next to a man with a broad build and grey hair, deep in thought. The fellow passenger was furiously flipping through a large book while taking copious notes on its back page. When he completed the volume, the man took paper out of his carpet bag and maniacally scribbled for over an hour. Patterson had never seen such studious devotion on a train. Eventually, the two struck up a conversation, and the student was surprised by the man’s “gentle voice” and “kindly manner.”
Patterson was so caught up in the invaluable advice that the older man dispensed—advice that would shape Patterson’s life—that he forgot to even ask his name. It was not until later that he discovered the random seatmate was Theodore Parker, Boston’s foremost abolitionist minister during the era.
The starstruck student wrote Parker a letter, bearing his soul and narrating his own conversion to liberal religion. To his surprise, Parker responded. They then corresponded several more times over the next few years.
That Parker would exchange letters with a stranger was not uncommon. He once complained that he spent up to six hours a day responding to people across the globe, with notes from Ohio to Calcutta. But the complaint was a lie: he cherished the connections, relished the friendships, and was addicted to the art of letter-writing.
Shortly after Parker’s death in 1860, his wife, Lydia, became determined to enshrine this part of his legacy. She and an assigned biographer, David Weiss, went through Theodore’s correspondence collection and wrote nearly everyone they could to ask for Parker’s letters. Many, like Patterson, eagerly responded. “I shall never forget that lovely, gentle, kind and therefore noble, white haired man,” he wrote, as the minister had “completely won my heart.” Patterson had even become a minister, just like his idol. He sent Lydia the only two remaining letters he could find—so long as she promised to send them back once she had copied their contents, so that he could keep them as relics.
Lydia Parker and David Weiss eventually collected enough incoming and outgoing correspondence to fill thirteen large volumes, all but two of which are housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society. (The other two are held in the Harvard Divinity School archives.) Each volume, numbering between four hundred and eight hundred pages, features transcriptions of hundreds of letters. Interlocutors include Theodore Parker’s Harvard classmates, rival ministers, adoring followers, and devoted critics. He received letters from worshipful fans who wrote him about how his writings prompted their own spiritual or moral awakening; these converts to “Parkerism” ranged from an itinerant minister in upstate New York to Queen Victoria’s dressmaker in Buckingham Palace.
But perhaps the most revealing exchanges found in these packed volumes concern the intersections of religion, abolitionism, and politics during the decade that America fractured into two. Though a minister, Parker became a prominent leader in the antislavery movement and corresponded with many of the central players in the new Republican Party. William Seward told Parker that he had done more in “the awakening of the spirit of Freedom in the Free States” than anyone else, and plotted with him on how best to oppose the “Slave Power.” Charles Sumner strategized with Parker, his favorite minister, on how to consolidate opposition against the Democrats, and even wrote him mere days before his caning in 1856. William Herndon sent Parker weekly dispatches from the Lincoln/Douglas debates in Springfield. And John Brown coordinated with Parker concerning his attempted raid on Harper’s Ferry.
The Theodore Parker letter books are among the most important manuscript collections to understand the key issues that animated America during the mid-nineteenth century. They are among the most prized gems in Massachusetts Historical Society’s archives, and a testament to how documents can reveal the potency of the past to the present.
Benjamin E. Park is author of American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833 (Cambridge University Press) and Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (Liveright). His next book, American Zion: A New History of Mormonism (Liveright), will appear in January 2024. He is currently working on a new project examining religion and the abolitionist movement, which was benefitted by an MHS research fellowship.
By Ian Delahanty, Springfield College, MHS Suzanne and Caleb Loring Fellow
Much was riding on the cotton crop that flowered on Port Royal Island in the autumn of 1862. Occupied by Union forces since November 1861, Port Royal soon became the focal point of a radical experiment in the employment of free Black labor. One of the people at the center of this experiment was Edward Atkinson, a Massachusetts industrialist and reformer whose status as a wunderkind of cotton textile manufacturing was preceded only by his reputation as a proponent of free labor. By 1857, the 30-year-old Atkinson managed six textile miles in New England. He had also devised a scheme to establish a colony of free Black laborers in western Texas and, in 1859, he would attempt to prove that imported African-grown cotton could supplant slave-grown southern cotton in the American market. Secession and the outbreak of civil war in 1860-61 disrupted those plans.
But in 1862, Atkinson and dozens of other like-minded abolitionists and missionaries in Boston and New York concluded that African Americans’ productive and moral capacities in freedom could be demonstrated by the 8,000 or so newly freed people around Port Royal. In June, they formed The Educational Commission for Freedmen, an organization dedicated to the industrial, social, intellectual, moral and religious uplift of newly freed slaves. As one contemporary put it, “the success of a productive colony there [at Port Royal] would serve as a womb for the emancipation at large.” In October, as boles of Sea Island cotton blossomed around Port Royal, Atkinson looked to have the cotton ginned in a manner that would render it as clean and as valuable as possible. He had one man in mind for the job: Eleazer Carver.
Carver is one of the central figures in my study of New England’s cotton gin manufacturers, which I’ve pursued at the MHS as the 2023-24 Suzanne and Caleb Loring Fellow. By 1862, he had nearly half a century of experience manufacturing cotton gins and was the proprietor of E. Carver Cotton Gin Company in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Having established himself as a reputable gin repairman and manufacturer after arriving in the Mississippi Valley in 1806, Carver returned to his native Bridgewater in 1817 and, with capital invested by the town’s thriving iron manufacturers, incorporated Carver, Washburn, & Co. as New England’s first gin factory.
Carver-made gins set the industry standard in antebellum America. In 1853, the New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, a sequel to London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, awarded its second-highest highest honor to Carver’s gin. Alluding to a model of the gin patented by Eli Whitney in 1793 that stood at one end of the exhibition’s arcade, the prize jury noted that Carvery’s gin failed to win its highest recognition “only because Whitney did not leave room for improvements worth that reward.” This would have come as news to Carver, who over the previous quarter century had in fact patented numerous improvements on the cotton gin.
Thus, with Sea Island cotton waiting to be ginned in October 1862, Edward Atkinson instructed one of the Port Royal colony’s superintendents to “have Carver … engaged to attend to the gins.” Upon learning that another official contracted to have the cotton ginned in New York, Atkinson was perplexed by this “adverse decision” and urged one of the colony’s superintendents to arrange for Carver to ship gins to Port Royal. Unfortunately, Atkinson’s papers yield no further information on whose gins cleaned the Sea Island cotton crop of 1862.
Why was Atkinson so intent on having cotton gins made in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts shipped to Port Royal, South Carolina? Part of the reason was that ginning the 90,000 pounds of cotton in New York at a premium of two to three cents per pound amounted to a loss of roughly $2,250.00 in profits. Then too, once the cotton was shipped to New York, the seeds separated from the fiber by the gins—seeds prized by Sea Island planters who knew the fickleness of long-staple cotton—could not be planted for next year’s crop.
But Atkinson’s hopes of procuring gins specifically from Carver’s factory in East Bridgewater are also telling. As Atkinson noted in a May 1862 letter to one of the colony’s superintendents, the longer fibers of Sea Island cotton were prized by lace and muslin weavers in Britain. But those fibers were severely damaged by the saw gins typically used to deseed the short-staple upland cotton that grew across most of the American South. Perhaps Atkinson planned to have Carver produce roller gins that, while less efficient than saw-toothed gins, left intact the longer fibers that were so valued by the agents of British muslin and lace factories.
Admittedly, this is speculation. But we do know that by the end of the Civil War, the E. Carver Cotton Gin Co. was producing roller gins. In fact, in April 1866, as 81-year-old Eleazer Carver gazed out of his bedroom window at the mill he had built, he asked an employee when a certain new roller gin model would be completed. Informed that it would be finished within a week, Carver replied, “I can live but a little longer, but do wish very much to see its operation.” He died the next day on April 6.
 Frederick Law Olmsted to Edward Atkinson, May 5, 1858; Edward Atkinson to Thomas Clegg, April 20, 1859. Ms. N-298: Edward Atkinson Papers, Volume 1: Letterbook, 12 April 1853-28 December, 1860. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
 Circular, “The Education Commission for Freedmen” (June 1862). General Correspondence, 1819-1920. Carton 1: 1819-1871. Ms. N-298: Edward Atkinson Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; quote in Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1964), 31.
 M.C. McMillan, “The Manufacture of Cotton Gins, 1793-1860,” Cotton Gin and Oil Seed Press 94, 10 (May 15, 1993), 6-8.
New York Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations, Official Report of Jury D: Machinery and Civil Engineering Contrivances (New York: DeWitt and Davenport, 1854), 12-13. Box 1854. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; Angela Lakwete, Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 80-92.
 Edward Atkinson to Edward Philbrick, October 14, 1862. Ms. N-298: Edward Atkinson Papers. General Correspondence, 1819-1920, Carton 1: 1819-1871. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, 204.
 Edward Atkinson to Edward Philbrick, May 19, 1862. Ms. N-298: Edward Atkinson Papers. General Correspondence, 1819-1920, Carton 1: 1819-1871. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
 D. Hamilton Hurd, History of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men (Boston: J.W. Lewis & Co., 1884), 866.
By Kathryn Lasdow, Assistant Professor of History, Suffolk University, Boston
It might surprise readers of this post to learn that women played a significant role in Boston’s late-colonial and early-national real estate market. Who were these women, and what kinds of properties did they own or rent? What impact did they have on the evolving cityscape of the bustling port? The traditional narrative of Boston’s urban development has mainly focused on the contributions of men—businessmen, merchants, and craftsmen—who envisioned, funded, and built the city. However, what has intrigued me most about Boston’s evolution is the involvement of women as property owners, renters, and occupants. As a NEH Long-Term Fellow, I uncovered this hidden history while undertaking revisions for my forthcoming book Wharfed Out: Improvement and Inequity on the Early American Urban Waterfront. Here are two stories drawn from MHS collections that shed light on the presence and influence of women in Boston’s early real estate market.
Hannah Rowe’s Wharf: Inheritance and Financial Know-How
In 1787, Hannah Rowe inherited waterfront real estate valued at $20,000 from her late husband, John Rowe. As a widow, Hannah no longer faced the legal constraints of coverture, which stipulated that a woman’s property became her husband’s upon marriage. The wharf once synonymous with his successful merchant business now belonged to her, making her one of the most economically powerful waterfront real estate owners in early national Boston.
When looking for Hannah Rowe in the archive, I delved into sources left behind by her husband to uncover evidence of her proximity to merchant business. John’s diary, a meticulous but concise record that he kept in the 1760s and 1770s, corresponded to Hannah’s life in middle age. John frequently mentioned counters with “Dear Mrs. Rowe” and his business associates as they navigated the economic challenges posed by the American Revolution and its impact on the wharf. Hannah was present for many of these conversations and likely listened to and participated in them. John mentioned how she “assisted [him] very much.” [See Fig. 1]
However, it was Hannah’s real estate transactions during her widowhood, spanning approximately eighteen years from her husband’s death in 1787 to her own death in 1805, that truly showcased her financial skill. I examined both the Samuel Chester Clough Atlases and the “Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston, 1630-1822” (Thwing database) to uncover Hannah’s strategic purchase of various properties. [See Fig. 2] Hannah engaged in at least twenty-four property transactions, managing a diverse portfolio that included parcels of undeveloped land, homes, warehouses on Merchant’s Row, the Lamb Tavern, and water rights along the harbor. She used mortgages as an investment opportunity and a means to safeguard her funds through real estate holdings.
Hannah Singleton’s Plight: Boarding House Keeping and Renting
For women of modest means, the journey to property ownership was more complex. Financial precarity often pushed women to rent rather than shoulder a mortgage burden. This was certainly the case for Hannah Singleton, a widow who leased a house from merchant Francis Cabot Lowell and struggled to run a boarding house. In the Francis Cabot Lowell Papers, I unearthed a letter she wrote to Lowell in September of 1805. [See Fig. 3] “I’m very sorry,” Hannah wrote, “it is not in my power to pay the rent immediately.” She assured him that she would have the money in a few days and pleaded with him to allow her “to remain in the house until [she could] get another.” Aware of Lowell’s position as her landlord, Hannah implored him not to “distress” her.
In this brief exchange, we see Hannah Singleton attempt to navigate the fluctuating real estate market while beholden to a male landlord. The sources do not reveal her fate, but she may have remarried. The 1806 tax assessment lists a woman named Hannah Doane on Nassau Street, the same street where Hannah Singleton’s boarding house was located.
The stories of these two Hannahs in early Boston demonstrate that women found ways to work within and transcend societal expectations regarding female financial behavior, making their own significant impact on the waterfront and the urban landscape.
 See multiple entries for Hannah Rowe in “A Report of the Record of Commissioners of the City of Boston, containing the . . . Direct Tax of 1798” (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1820).
 Deed between Hannah Rowe and Perez Morton, May 12, 1787, SD 160:115; Deed between Hannah Rowe and Isaiah Doane, May 12, 1787, SD 160:118; Deed between Hannah Rowe and Thomas Bulfinch, August 2, 1788, SD 163:115; Deed between Hannah Rowe and Samuel Cookson, July 11, 1788, SD 163:133; Deed between Hannah Rowe and Ezra Whitney, August 24, 194, SD 181:91, Thwing Database.
 Hannah Singleton to Francis Cabot Lowell, September 14, 1805, Francis Cabot Lowell Papers, Ms. N-1603, MHS.
A couple of years ago, I worked with a group of researchers to digitize a post office account book from Revolutionary-era Newport, Rhode Island. The book is a dataset in manuscript: it accounts for every piece of mail delivered to Newport residents by the colonial postal system between 1771 and 1774. This account book contains a wealth of information about life in colonial British North America in the years leading up to the American Revolution: about trade patterns, the dissemination of information, postal demographics. As a literary scholar, I had hoped that this dataset would shed light on the reading habits of Newport Residents during a moment of political upheaval. Did Newport’s postal users read more or differently in these final years of British colonial rule? What can we learn from these communication trends?
I put together a transcription team—(Thank you, Katie Reimer, Taylor & Katie Galusha, Melissa Lawson, and Sam Phippen!!)—to translate this book-based accounting system into a twenty-first century dataset. The work entailed entering the date of arrival, name of recipients, along with postage into columns of a spreadsheet. Such transcription requires a squint—eyestrain to make out the eighteenth-century handwriting. Once in a rhythm with transcription, there’s room for your mind to wander, to notice patterns in the text, and to speculate on the circumstances of postal use. It didn’t take long for our team to identify Newport’s postal “super-users”—George Rome, Aaron Lopez, and Simon Pease—men who received multiple pieces of mail every week. As we typed their names, we imagined their lives: were these men printers or preachers? Merchants, farmers, or teachers? Did they use the mail to incite Revolutionary fervor? Were they corresponding with friends or family at a distance? We wondered: how and why were these men using the mail every day?
The names we learned best—Rome, Lopez, Pease, and roughly 20 others—were all merchants, men with ships in a port city, sending banknotes and receipts through the mail. Roughly half of the mail that arrived at the Newport Post Office was addressed to the same top twenty-five postal users. These “super-users” were all men, and most built their wealth to some degree through the slave trade. They used the colonial postal system because it was the safest way to send large sums of money over long distances. In aggregate, the account book tells a simple truth: the colonial postal system largely abetted the economic interests of elite colonial subjects, fueled the slave trade, and only sometimes worked in the service of everyday Americans. This data-driven picture of the postal system appears much less democratic, and far from Revolutionary. The postal system was a tool for and network of the wealthy and powerful in early America.
When I started this project, I had hoped to find evidence of Obour Tanner in the pages of the Newport post office book. Tanner, a Newport resident, was the friend and lifelong correspondent of Phillis Wheatly (Peters). Tara Bynum, whose scholarly work introduced me to Tanner, describes the women’s letters as a source of joy, profound connection, and pleasure (see Reading Pleasures for more on their correspondence and networks—it’s an enlivening and important book). Though Tanner and Wheatley were enslaved at the time of their correspondence, both women found ways to bridge the gap between Newport and Boston through the exchange of letters.
And yet, they did not exchange their letters through the colonial mail. The Newport Post Office accounts contain no relevant entries for their letters during the period of their known correspondence. Few women appear in these pages at all (out of the over 8,500 pieces of mail that came into the office, only 125 items were addressed to women), and most of these women were white widows. No one in Tanner’s orbit received any mail by colonial post in the months of Wheatley (Peters)’s letters to Tanner. Instead, as usual, the colonial mailbag into Newport was largely filled with banknotes, receipts, and newspapers addressed to local merchants.
Meanwhile, outside of the colonial postal system, Obour Tanner and Phillis Wheatley (Peters) relied on their networks of friends and allies for the transmission of their letters. When she asks Tanner to send a reply to Mr. Whitwell’s, or to John Peter’s home, or by way of Rev. Samuel Hopkins, she “contextualizes and places herself as a friend, servant, slave, and woman in New England and the greater Atlantic world” according to Tara Bynum’s Reading Pleasures. When we read Wheatley’s letters for their postal systems, we see her integrated within a broader community of mutual aid: friends and allies who carried letters for one another.
A letter from October 30, 1773 offers special insight into Wheatley (Peters)’s approach to long distance correspondence. The letter’s cover is spare—addressed simply “To—Obour Tanner in Newport,” folded, and sealed with red wax. As this letter was not sent through official postal channels, there is no postage denoted on the cover (and this letter long pre-dates envelopes, postage stamps, standardized cancellations, and other recognizably postal features).
Wheatley (Peters)’s closing note to Tanner offers a glimpse into its delivery. She writes: “the young man by whom this is handed you seems to me to be a very clever man knows you very well & is very Complaisant and agreeable. – P.W.” The letter was delivered by a friend, a man they mutually respected and admired for his intelligence, kindness, and demeanor. Phillis Wheatley (Peters)’s note on the letter’s delivery works to fortify and celebrate their friendship and mutual esteem. Was the clever letter-carrier close at hand when the poet finished her letter to Tanner? Did she read the line aloud to him with a smile and a wink—before folding and sealing the letter? Did this near-flirtation and unequivocal praise from a celebrated poet cause the man to blush? Or beam with pride? A letter delivered under these terms—directed through a statement of friendship and admiration—enlivened and encouraged community. Honoree Jeffers’ extraordinary scholarly and creative work in The Age of Phillis wonders whether this letter carrier might be John Peters, the man Phillis Wheatley would later marry. These letters testify to and were carried by people who cared for one another.
The colonial post office never delivered for Phillis Wheatley (Peters); but her friends did. First, during her lifetime, by establishing their own postal networks in which travelling friends and allies carried letters for one another. Then, Obour Tanner delivered Wheatley’s letters a second time—when she archived them with the Massachusetts Historical Society—thereby forwarding them to generations of readers and researchers.
When I started my fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I was motivated by Wheatley (Peters)’s long distance correspondence tactics, Tanner’s archival efforts, and I was skeptical of overly celebratory narratives of postal history. While my book-in-progress studies the United States Post Office Department rather than the colonial-era system, the mailbag’s mercantile allegiance endured throughout the nineteenth-century, as did the mail’s race and gender-based exclusions.
In the archive of the Massachusetts Historical Society, I encountered historical materials that further attuned my thinking about the allegiances and exclusions of the US Post Office Department. When I read the enormous 4-page broadside “Proposals for Carrying Mails in the United States” I was first struck by the sheer size of postal operations in 1824. The Postmaster General advertised contracts for mail carriers on nearly 400 routes throughout the country—each printed in small font covering every inch of the oversized pages. Each route paid a sizable sum: an amount the USPOD presumed would cover the operating expenses for a stagecoach line (which contractors would then supplement by selling passenger tickets and by carrying small freight). Each contract was an avenue into middle class life, geographically distributed throughout the length and breadth of the country. And yet, “no other than a free white person shall be employed to carry the mail,” the broadside advertises. Not only were these nearly 400 lucrative contracts awarded on a whites-only basis, the lower paid postrider and mailcoach driver positions were likewise closed off to Black Americans. The formal exclusion of Black labor from the postal system further extended to local postmasterships and clerkships. This racial exclusion existed until the end of the Civil War, and had a profound influence on the distribution of wealth along racial lines in the nineteenth century. In this period, the US Post Office Department was the largest employer in the country, and it only handed out jobs to white people. I was left with enduring questions about the broader social effects of this policy—would white postmasters serve Black correspondents? In what ways would a postmaster’s surveillance curtail textual expression, connection, and circulation?
Later, when scouring every detail of the photo “Country Post Office,” I wondered about the locks and the highly-specialized leather portmanteau hanging on the wall behind the women reading their letters. The Post Office Department commissioned state-of-the-art locks and distributed the keys only to local postmasters. The leather portmanteaus worked in tandem with the locks to secure the mail and protect the contents from water. When read in tandem with the photo’s more central figures—the reading women—I’m reminded of the ways the post office in the nineteenth century worked on behalf of some Americans and worked to lock-out others. The post office delivered for these women—it offered a place of respite where they could read, warm themselves after their walk to the local office. At the same time, the locks are testaments to the exclusionary nature of the postal system in the nineteenth century—a network that both shaped and constrained communication.
These archival encounters helped me reframe my longstanding postal research to be better attuned to both the possibilities and prohibitions of the mail. Postal Hackers—the project’s new title—tells the stories of the nineteenth-century outsiders who laid claim to postal resources and sometimes broke the system that structured their exclusion. The project is motivated by the ingenuity of hackers like Henry “Box” Brown who used a private express company to mail himself out of enslavement; and by Harriet Jacobs whose letters conveyed by hand from a tiny attic crawlspace and put in the mail in Northern cities (thereby receiving location-based cancellation stamps) convinced her enslaver to seek her out in the North. Brown and Jacobs’s strategic use of the postal system allow them to find spaces of freedom and safety on their own terms. My book project also highlights the petition of Mary Katherine Goddard—Baltimore’s revolutionary era postmistress, who was fired for being a woman in 1790. Though she never got her job back, Goddard’s textual campaign—a petition signed by 250 men from Baltimore, a letter of support from George Washington, and her own newspaper writing on the matter—measure important changes in postal power in the early national period. Taken together, these stories help measure the particular nature of postal authority; the economic allegiances of the Post Office Department, as well as the social and literary effects of postal incorporation.
Thinking through the collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society was integral to this project. The collections helped refine and clarify my understanding of the nineteenth-century postal context. Just as powerful was the effect of drafting Postal Hackers from the same building that houses Phillis Wheatley’s writing desk and her unstamped, community-building letters. These materials testify to the limits of state postal systems—as well as the fortitude and creativity of Black letter writers who relied on their own networks for the exchange of letters.
Bynum, Tara. Reading Pleasures: Everyday Black Living in Early America. University of Illinois Press, 2023.
Bynum, Tara, Brigitte Fielder, Cassander L. Smith, eds. Special Issue “Dear Sister: Phillis Wheatley’s Futures,” Early American Literature 57.3 (2022).
Jeffers, Honorée Fanonne. The Age of Phillis. Wesleyan University Press, 2022.