Horsford’s Vikings of New England, pt. 3 

by Hannah Goeselt, Reader Services

Continued from Part 1 & Part 2.

(left) Engraving of a stone-block turret, with a small drawing of a man pointing off to the side with a cane to show scale. (right) Photograph of same stone-block tower, with iron grille door swung open, and an inscribed stone tablet imbedded in the front.
“Norse Tower” engraving by Brunner & Tryon (left) & my own visit to Norumbega Tower (see arm at the top), Weston, MA, (right).

In the Preface to the 1892 publication The Landfall of Leif Erikson, AD 1000, and the Site of his Houses in Vineland, Horsford points out “the Committee appointed by the Massachusetts Historical Society to investigate the problem of the Northmen give the following as, in the judgement of the Corresponding Secretary, “the result of the best historical criticisms”: [and here he quotes back the verdict from the December 1887 Proceedings] These authorities seem to have written under the impression that the evidence, if there be any, of the presence of the Northmen at any particular point on the New England coast might be found in print. As they have failed to find it, they have been led to the conviction that such evidence cannot be found.” 

Haynes, as the author of this quote, for his part elaborated on this point in the 1890 Proceedings in that he “was entirely innocent of any intentional disrespect when I ventured upon the unlucky comparison of Leif Ericson with Agamemnon”1, and that the parallel came more from a real belief in the Iliad king rather than skepticism in the existence of the Sagas Vikings. 

Despite this—or maybe in some passive aggressive way because of—the Society’s continued animosity to his theories, Horsford made sure to gift a copy of every one of his published books to the MHS at the earliest opportunity. A closer look at the Society’s copy of The Landfall of Leif Erikson shows it is personally inscribed at the front: “Massachusetts Historical Society / with the compliments of the author / Cambridge Dec. 25. 1891”. 

Within this whole drawn-out affair, we also see the erasure of Indigenous history in the battle for Leif Erikson’s presence in New England, with the most blatant being the memorial committee’s insistence on Dighton Rock2 being somehow of Nordic production rather than created by a group much more local. Horsford’s theory behind a Viking Norumbega follows a similar line of thought, in that he reasoned the word itself must be a bastardization of ‘Norbega’, an archaic wording for Norvega, or Norway. The word “Norumbega” had originally appeared on several 16th century European maps of the American Northeast before the region became New England. Thought to be a mythic city of gold and riches, a bit like its Southern cousin of El Dorado, it is now acknowledged as most likely a misquote of the Abenaki ‘nolumbeka’, a calm stretch of water between two rapids3


Horsford had alluded to the actual site of Leif’s home at Gerry’s Landing (a strip along the Charles in Cambridge) multiple times in previous writings with the intention of eventually publishing an in-depth monograph on it. However, after his death in early 1893, it was his daughter, Cornelia “Nellie” Horsford, who published Leif’s House in Vineland. / Graves of the Northmen later that same year, a posthumous collaboration investigating evidence for Horsford’s other major discovery. The experience of finding archeological “evidence” of Leif Erikson’s home in Cambridge would inspire Cornelia to continue her father’s research, including sponsoring trips to Iceland to visit actual Viking sites and digs. 

In 1895, the Norumbega tower and Leif statue were further linked by the construction of Comm Ave and its new street railway line, the two monuments now situated at opposite ends. Two years later, an amusement park and boating house named after Horsford’s precious Viking city sprung up on the opposite side of the Charles, within site of the tower. The Norumbega Park & Totem Pole Ballroom would become a beloved weekend destination for families and couples well into the 1960s. 

Performer doing a split in the air, suspended by a large ring tied to a support. In the background is a river view with bright colored boats and, in the distance, an old-fashioned single-story wooden structure.
Trapeze Act performed by Baechtold & Abel, with Norumbega Park’s surviving Boathouse in the background, 1 August 2021.

Further Resources

Greis, Gloria. “Vikings on the Charles, or, The Strange Saga of Norumbega, Dighton Rock, and Rumford Double-Acting Baking Powder”, Needham History Center & Museum. 

The Discovery Of The Charles River By The Vikings (Part One), History Cambridge. 

“Series A: Eben Norton Horsford”. Record Group IV: Horsford Family: Sylvester Manor Archive: NYU Special Collections Finding Aids 

“Subseries B: Norumbega Writings, 1871-1892″. Horsford Family Papers (MC5), Guides to Institute Records and Manuscript Collections (rpi.edu)  

Silverstein, Clara and Sara Leavit Goldberg. Norumbega Park and Totem Pole Ballroom. Arcadia Publishing, 2021. 

1 Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series, vol. V (February 1890), p.332-340. 

2 this is explored more in depth in the publication The Place of Stone: Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America’s Indigenous Past by Doug Hunter (Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina Press, 2017). 

3 Nolumbeka Project: The Story of Nolumbeka 

Skating On By

by Brandon McGrath-Neely, Library Assistant

As spring arrives, the world around the MHS becomes full of life. Ellis Hall’s large windows frame Fenway’s new leaves, budding flowers, and traffic of all sorts. Any given day, you can see cars, buses, bicycles, scooters, pet strollers (my personal favorite), and on rare occasions–roller skaters.

Though roller skating isn’t as popular as it was in the mid-1990’s, it remains a popular warm weather activity here in Boston. Largely thanks to the fact that Boston, the second most walkable city in the United States, has plenty of flat, paved surfaces, but perhaps also because the inventor of the modern skate grew up nearby!

Born in 1828, James Leonard Plimpton showed an early affinity for machinery and invention. His mechanical skills were so strong that at 16, he moved from the family farm in Medfield to a machinery shop in Walpole. By 18, he supervised more than 50 employees at a factory in New Hampshire.[1] A young entrepreneur and mechanist, James was well-suited for the Industrial Revolution underway across the United States.

A tinkerer at heart, James filed his first patent in 1853. The invention was a “cabinet bed,” designed so a bed could be stored and retrieved without much strength or bending over. Sources simply note that Plimpton invented the cabinet bed “to supply a personal need,” but we may be able to guess what this need was. In December 1852, James married the bright, book-loving Harriet Amelia Adams. [1] Perhaps the newlyweds needed to save space or were preparing to add children to the home and needed a bed that would be easier for a pregnant Harriet to store. It is possible that Plimpton, in the words of Ana Ruhl, “loved her to the point of invention.” They would go on to have eight children together; only four lived to adulthood.

Around 1860, James and Harriet moved their family to New York City. The MHS collection has a single image of James Plimpton, probably taken shortly after arriving in the Big Apple. He gives the appearance of a hopeful, determined man. Within a year, James took ill. Consulting a doctor, James “was advised to practice ice skating,” and happily, James “took much benefit from it.” [2] Like many Northeasterners, James grew up ice skating in the winters. (The MHS has many materials about ice-skating, including a heroic rescue.) When spring arrived and the ice melted away, James purchased an early pair of roller skates.

Ambrotype photo of James Plimpton wearing a suit and resting against one arm.
James Plimpton in 1860 (Photo. 2.234)

Yes, roller skates existed before James Plimpton’s came along. The first recorded use of roller skates was “in a 1743 theater production in which actors affixed wheels to their footwear to mimic ice skating on the stage.” [3] Early roller skates were commercially available by the mid-19th century, but they were uncomfortable, awkward, and difficult to turn. They didn’t feel like ice-skating at all. After some experimenting and tinkering, James produced a new set of roller skates with two pairs of wheels, called “rockers” or “quad-skates.” [4] These new skates were more comfortable and far easier to turn. The modern roller skate was born.

Man and woman in 19th century dress skating in a printed advertisement for roller skates.
Advertisement for roller skating in Winslow’s Roller Skate Catalog (Book 1882)

The invention was a giant success. Advertisements boasted that Plimpton’s skates were “the only one upon which all the graceful movements and evolutions of Ice Skating can be executed with ease and precision on a Smooth Floor.” [5] The MHS collection has plenty of evidence of this phenomenon: admittance tickets to roller skating rinks, skate advertisements and catalogues, bookplates, and photos of popular roller-skating clubs. Senior Processing Archivist Susan Martin has written about Great Depression-era debutantes making appearances by skating around town.

Stereograph of a group assembled on the balcony of the Onset Roller Rink.
People gathered at the Onset Roller Skating Rink, circa 1870 (Photo. 11.468)

James Plimpton spent the rest of his life selling, improving, and litigating his patents. Harriet was a caring mother and educator to their children, as well as an irreplaceable business partner. “Her quick perceptions and correct impressions as to social, legal and business points” ensured that she could “give her husband that assistance in the preparation of his patent cases that could not otherwise have been as thoroughly prepared within the time required.” [6] Roller skating was a family business and only possible through the hard work and intelligence of both Harriet and James.

The roller-skating crazes of the late 19th and 20th centuries have come and gone. Hoverboards, Onewheels, and E-bikes have replaced them on the sidewalks of Boylston Street. But occasionally, if you’re lucky, you may look out the windows of Ellis Hall and see a piece of Massachusetts history skate past you.

[1] Chase, Levi B. 1884. A Genealogy and Historical Notices of the Family of Plimpton or Plympton in America, and of Plumpton in England. Hartford: Plimpton Manufacturing Company. 196-197.

[2] “The Father of Modern Roller Skating.” 2023. National Museum of Roller Skating.

[3] Terry, Ruth. 2020. “The History Behind the Roller Skating Trend.” JSTOR Daily, September 7, 2020.

[4] “The History of Inline Skating.” 2023. National Museum of Roller Skating. 2023.

[5] MacClain, Alexia. 2010. “Those Exhilarating Roller Skates.” Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. September 27, 2010.

[6] Chase, A Genealogy and Historical Notices, 196-197.

Horsford’s Vikings of New England, pt. 1 

Hannah Goeselt, Reader Services

Commonwealth Avenue: that grand road snaking its way out of Boston and into the adjoining city of Newton, an eleven-mile stretch of boulevard from the Public Gardens to Auburndale-on-the-Charles, where it abruptly ends at the juncture of I-90 and I-95. At its head is Commonwealth Avenue Mall, a picturesque greenway home to an array of statues of historical figures leading up to the Garden’s entrance. 

Gazing dramatically into the shadows of an overpass, Leif Erikson, dressed in a short chainmail tunic straight from the nineteenth-century imagination, looks practically glamorous posed with fist planted on his hip, bronze locks billowing behind him. Originally marking the end of the Mall, the statue relocated to nearby Charlesgate in 1917, and a stone’s throw from the MHS. 

In our most recent podcast episode, “Events That Did Not Happen”, Peter Drummey and Dr. Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai sit down to discuss the origins of the statue, and how the MHS fits into its narrative. 

Photograph of bronze statue depicting a man on a stone plinth, taken from the backside view, surrounded by pink tulips. Behind the statue is an overpass with cars
Leif Erikson statue on Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

The Norsemen Memorial 

This all began in December of 1876, during a reception honoring the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull1, in which Rev. Edward Everett Hale proposed a tribute to Bull’s devotion to the city and the formation of a “committee of the Norsemen Memorial”. The goals of the committee were twofold. 1) to erect a monument commemorating the Norse discoverers of America, and 2) the preservation of Dighton rock (including briefly gifting it to Denmark)2. The committee was full of prominent Bostonians such as Governor Alexander Rice and Mayor Samuel Cobb, but the one that would come to be emblematic of this whole affair was Eben Norton Horseford (whose life is better outlined in the podcast), a former chemistry professor made wealthy by his patented Rumford baking powder. 

In 1880, Hale’s cousin, William Everett, brought the matter of the committee and the statue to the MHS: “I desire, sir, to call the attention of the members to a scheme which is assuming somewhat serious proportions; in which, if it is really judicious, the Historical Society ought to help; against which, if it is otherwise, it is our duty to protest. I mean the scheme for erecting a monument to some person called the first discoverer of New England; not, however, John Cabot, or Sebastian Cabot, or Verrazzano, but an indefinite Northman, to whom, if I may be allowed a very bad pun, it is proposed to put up a Leif statue.”3 

The next time the statue was mentioned was at the November 18874 meeting, at which time a committee was selected to have a final word on the validity of the statue, which had by then been unveiled with great celebration the previous month. By December, there was a verdict: “there is the same sort of reason for believing in Leif Erikson that there is for believing in the existence of Agamemnon. They are both traditions accepted by the later writers; but there is no more reason for regarding as true the details related about his discoveries than there is for accepting as historical truth the narrative contained in the Homeric poems.” 

Engraved map of Boston Harbor and surrounding Massachusetts towns, with an x mark next to the river in Watertown
“’river flowing through a lake into the sea” Vinland Map of the Northmen” from Problem of the Northmen (1889); image credit Internet Archive.

To be Continued… 

1 Bull was a strong proponent of Carl Christian Rafn’s theories of Vikings discovering America before Columbus, a theory which had been published earlier in the century to wide interest. Much of Bull’s feelings on the matter are expressed in his memoir written posthumously by his wife, Sara Chapman Bull, a resident of Cambridge (see pp.270-76 of the memoir for details of the statue committee’s creation). 

2 I first saw an account of this in the ‘preface to the new edition’ of Rasmus Bjorn Anderson’s America not discovered by Columbus, 1877, which proved to be interesting on its own, as this particular copy was also inscribed on the front flyleaf: “Mr. Mauk, from his devoted friend and admirer Ole Bull Cambridge Nov 1879”, with a second inscription made “To Francis R[ussell] Hart Esq. With kindest regards Olaf Olsen, Oslo 1930”. 

3 Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society [First Series], vol. XVIII (May 1880), p.79-81. The pun, as best I can tell, is based on an archaic verb usage of the word “leif” to mean ‘willing’ or ‘glad’. 

4 Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series, vol. IV (November-December 1887), p.12, 42-44. 

Women’s Labor and Livelihood in 18th Century Boston Newspapers

Maggie Parfitt, Visitor Services Coordinator

I want you to imagine the work of an 18th century American woman. What is she doing? Is she sewing and cooking and cleaning? Does she leave her home for work?

Now I want you to ask yourself where that image came from—what conjured it in your mind?

In historical anthropological theory there’s a recognition of recency bias—our understanding of the past is informed by our assumptions about our present.  This is complicated in the West by our beliefs about linear “progress.” We’re apt to believe current Western society is “the best it’s ever been” and our modern inequities are deeply rooted in history—progress necessitates as such.

Working in public history I run into the same fallacy again and again, especially when discussing Western women’s lives in the 18th century and earlier. Believe it or not, most strict Western gender roles don’t come from centuries long history of labor separation. Instead, most are rooted in the late 19th and early to mid-20th century (recent, by history standards!). As a quick example: the average marrying age of English women during the first half of the 18th century was 26[1], in 1850 America it was 23[2], and in 1960 it was around 20.[2]  

Now that we’ve reset our assumptions, what can we learn about how and why women worked in 18th century Boston? Newspapers are a valuable tool, giving us a peek into daily 18th century life. Browsing the advertisements in the Harbottle Door Annotated Newspaper Collection reveals many examples of the ways 18th century women supported themselves, their families, and their community. While reading and sorting through clippings I noticed women earned money in roughly three ways: through entrepreneurship, wage work, or indenture.

While outnumbered by advertisements for male-operated businesses, it’s not uncommon to see women advertising their wares, often in their own shops!

Two clippings from the Boston Gazette and Country Journal showing advertisements placed by Rebeckah Walker and Mrs. Mecom for their businesses. Both advertisements include lists of available products.
Rebeckah Walker sells at “her Shop at the Bottom of Black-Horse Lane” a variety of imported seeds The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 8 March 1773, and Mrs. Mecom offers “Sundry Articles of Millenary” and “All sorts of Millenary Work done with Care and Expedition” The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 14 March 1774.

In her study of women’s labor in 18th century cities Karin Wulf found women were more likely to operate businesses relating to “domestic labor” like sewing or cooking. [3] Mrs. Mecom’s millenary business falls into this category. This is not to say that women were confined to gendered businesses—women like Rebeckah Walker operated all kinds of businesses in all kinds of fields. Neither were women limited to retail. Women frequently placed ads for their service-based businesses ranging from teaching to operating taverns and coffeehouses.

A clipping from the Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, where Abigail Stoneman “begs leave to acquaint the public…The Royal Exchange Tavern in King-Street, Boston, New-England, being now repaired and fitted for the Reception of Company, will be opened this day as a coffee-house by Abigail Stoneman from Rhode-Island.”
Abigail Stoneman reopens the Royal Exchange Tavern in King-Street as a coffee house. The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 10 December 1770.

Women most often came business after their husband’s death. Upon being widowed, if the husband’s estate was uncomplicated (which typically included those in the merchant class or lower) the sole ownership fell to their wife, who could then choose to carry on the business.[3]

A clipping the Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal. The advertisement reads “Hannah Watts, Widow of the late John Watts, Master, deceased, hereby informs the public that she carries on the said business as usual. Where all persons who send hams etc to smoke, may depend upon having the greatest care taken of them.
Hannah Watts, widow of John Watts, assures her customers she will carry on his business with the same care. The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 30 January 1775.

The second category of paid women’s work is wage work—what we would probably think of as regular employment or gig work, depending on the situation. Many but not all of these jobs also fell into domestic labor categories including household management, laundry, and wet nursing (which seems to be a whole separate industry![4]).

Three clippings from the Boston-Gazette and Country Journal of advertising four different jobs specifically requesting women. The first working in a tavern, the second and third as a wet nurse, and the fourth tending a shop.
Four separate advertisements from The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal (15 March 1773, 19 November 1770, 15 March 1773) advertising work for women in a tavern, wet nursing, and tending a shop. (Interesting to note the publishers Edes & Gill seem to be doing a lot of leg work facilitating advertisements. I imagine it gets busy in that print shop!)

The third category is by indenture, where women signed a contract and in exchange received wage, food, and lodging. While certainly not all rosy, Kent’s research on female domestic servants in 18th century London suggests some young single women preferred indentured contracts to other forms of wage earning. Women earned about 1/3 the amount a man would earn for day labor, and the pattern holds even when comparing skilled trades, like a mantua-maker (dressmaker) to a tailor (men’s suits and clothes). Non-indentured working women often barely made enough money to cover housing and meals. An indenture contract came with “diet and lodging” included, meaning indentures were one of the few ways women could earn disposable income.[1]

A clipping from the Boston-Gazette and Country Journal. The advertisement reads “to be sold on board the sloop London Expedition, Nicholas Chevalier, Master, laying at Wibert’s Wharf, New-Boston. A Number of Indented [Indentured] Jersey Servants of both sexes: Likewise a quantity of cordage of all sorts, and hosiery.
“A number of Indented [Indentured] Jersey Servants of both Sexes” advertised for sale. The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 23 May 1774.

We can’t talk about the ways women provided for themselves without acknowledging the ways women were denied control of their own livelihood. You cannot look through an 18th century newspaper without directly confronting the flippancy of enslavement and the dehumanization of Black people, free and enslaved.

While beyond the scope of this blog post, I encourage you to learn more about enslavement in Boston by reading Dr. Jaime Crumley’s blog post on the enslaved parishioners of Old North and The City of Boston Archaeology Program’s “Boston Slavery” online exhibit. 

A clipping from the Boston-Gazette and Country Journal. The advertisement reads “Wanted a maid and man servant. Negroes will do.”
Advertisements both selling and seeking enslaved people appear in almost every edition of 18th century Boston newspapers. While unclear if this ad is seeking enslaved workers or paid domestic workers, the advertiser’s racism is clear as day. The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 31 August 1772.

Married women, while part of a partnership, were still subject to the whims of their husbands.

Two clippings from the Boston Gazette and Country Journal. In the first Isaac Kingman “warn[s] all persons not to trust [his wife Ruth Kingman] on [his] account also to forbid all persons trading with her or purchasing any of my goods or chattels of her” in response to her “refus[ing] to remove and live with me as she ought to do.” In the second a husband forbids people from “trusting [his wife Sarah] on [his] account” as she “hath behaved in a vile manner, keeping company with wicked men.”
Husbands frequently placed advertisements asking for credit not to be lent to their wives, for reasons either vague or explicit. The Boston Evening-Post, 11 February 1771, The Boston Evening-Post, 27 August 1770.

While these ads paint a bleak picture, most of the time an 18th century husband was not the sole controller of the household, financially or otherwise. Karin Wulf calls the 18th century urban landscape one of financial “interdependence” rather than independence[3]. Both sides of the relationship entered a marriage with financial value, and both had to work to secure economic stability. Eliza Haywood wrote in 1743/44 London “You cannot expect to marry in such a Manner as neither of you shall have Occasion to work, and none but a Fool will take a Wife whose Bread must be earned solely by his Labour and who will contribute nothing towards herself.[4][1]”

[1] Kent, D. A. “Ubiquitous but Invisible: Female Domestic Servants in Mid-Eighteenth Century London.” History Workshop Autumn, 1989, no. 28 (1989): 111–28.

[2] Fitch, C., & Ruggles, S. (2000). “Historical Trends in Marriage Formation: Perspectives on Marriage and Cohabitation.” In L. Waite, C. Bachrach, M. Hindin, E. Thomson, & A. Thornton (Eds.), Ties that Bind: Perspectives on Marriage and Cohabitation (pp. 59-88). Aldine de Gruyter.

[3] Wulf, Karin. “Women’s Work in Colonial Philadelphia.” In Norton, Mary Beth., and Ruth M. Alexander (Eds). Major Problems in American Women’s History : Documents and Essays. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

[4] Shepard, Alexandra. “Working Mothers’ in Eighteenth-Century London”, History Workshop Journal, Volume 96, Autumn 2023, Pages 1–24, https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbad008

The Case of the Redacted Husband

by Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

While processing the MHS collection of Huse family papers, the following letter caught my eye, for obvious reasons.

Color photograph of several black ink handwritten letters piled on top of each other. They have oval or rectangular ripped out sections, about the size of one word.
Letter from Elizabeth Sargent to Sarah Fuller, 30 May 1852

This letter was written by Elizabeth “Lizzie” (Fuller) Sargent to her mother Sarah Fuller. For some reason, everywhere Lizzie mentioned her husband Samuel, his name had been physically removed from the letter. “Hmm, that’s interesting,” I thought, and carried on processing. Then I noticed several more.

Color photograph of several black ink handwritten letters spread out in a messy layer. Each one has ovals or rectangles ripped out, the size of one word or one letter. The papers are folded, dirty, and discolored with age.
Letters from Elizabeth Sargent to Sarah Fuller, 1860

Something weird was definitely going on here. Nearly every letter from Lizzie to her mother got the same treatment. For example, “[?] sends his love with mine to you all”; “[?] has gone to meeting at the village this afternoon”; and “This is Saturday evening and [?] is oiling his harness and Sarah is rocking the cradle.” From context, it’s clearly her husband’s name that’s missing, and sometimes apparently just his initial!

I’ve occasionally seen words physically removed from letters, but only by a military censor or an aggressive autograph collector. This is obviously different. My first thought was that Samuel did something that landed him in the doghouse. It reminded me of cutting someone out of a photograph after a bad break-up. Had there been a divorce or separation?

Hoping to solve the mystery, I started researching the family, primarily using online genealogical resources. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find very much. Lizzie was born in 1827, the daughter of Sarah (née Austin) and Thomas Fuller, a Maine shoemaker. In 1849, she married Samuel Winthrop Sargent, who was twelve years her senior. They lived first in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and later in Searsport, Maine.

The Sargents appear to have been a typical 19th-century family. Samuel worked as both a brick mason and a farmer, while Lizzie stayed home with the children. Sadly, of their five children, only two—Sarah and George—survived to adulthood. On 1 July 1861, Lizzie wrote this passage after losing her third child.

It is with a sad and heavy heart that I write you, again. tears almost blind my eyes. Death has visited us once more, and taken our dear little Ella. she died this morning 25 minutes past 4. it seems as if I cannot be reconciled. O pray for me, that I may not lose my reason […] my home seems, desolate now.

As far as I can tell, Samuel and Lizzie never lived apart. He died in 1901, and she lived until 1903. They and several other relatives are buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Searsport.

The collection also contains correspondence from Lizzie’s brother and sister-in-law, Andrew and (yet another) Sarah. Their story is compelling. Andrew, feeling “discontented” and “miserable” and wanting a change, joined the California Gold Rush of 1849. During his absence, his wife was desolate: “There is an acheing void […] I wonder when I eat what he has got to eat and when I go to bed what he has got to sleep on.” Andrew apparently died out west sometime in 1851, but I couldn’t confirm the circumstances. His wife Sarah remarried a few years later—believe it or not, to a man named Samuel!

While I enjoyed learning these details about the family, in the end I found nothing that accounts for the redactions. I don’t even know who was responsible for them. Was it Lizzie? Her mother? Someone else entirely? Did they happen at the time or later? Muddying the waters more, in a few instances, the name of another person was also removed. Perhaps an archival colleague or intrepid researcher out there has seen this sort of thing?

Whatever the answer, these letters are a good example of manuscripts that are interesting not just for their content, but as historical artifacts in and of themselves.

The First Publication of Phillis Wheatley

By Daniel T Hinchen, Reader Services

Recently, the MHS hosted a program called “No more, America,”* which featured a conversation with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Peter Galison, both of Harvard University. In it, the two men reimagined a 1773 debate between graduating Harvard seniors Theodore Parsons and Eliphalet Pearson who deliberated on the compatibility of slavery and “natural law.” In the program, Gates and Galison added a third contemporary voice to the argument, that of the then-enslaved Phillis Wheatley, the acclaimed poet who lived just over the Charles River from the two Harvard students.

Now, just over a week later, we recognize the anniversary of the first publication of one of Wheatley’s poems. “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” appeared on December 21, 1767, in the Newport Mercury, a Rhode Island weekly newspaper. According to Vincent Carretta in his 2011 biography of Wheatley, this poem was not published again during Wheatley’s lifetime.

When Wheatley submitted her poem to the Newport Mercury, she addressed a note to the printer which was to precede the poem.

Please to insert the following Lines, composed by a Negro Girl (belonging to one Mr. Wheatley of Boston) on the following Occasion, viz. Messrs Hussey and Coffin, as undermentioned, belonging to Nantucket, being bound from thence to Boston, narrowly escaped being cast away on Cape-Cod, in one of the late Storms; upon their Arrival, being at Mr. Wheatley’s, and, while at Dinner, told of their narrow Escape, this Negro Girl at the same Time ‘tending Table, heard the Relation, from which she composed the following verses.

On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin

Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind,

As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?

Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow

Against ? or did Consideration bow?

To lend you Aid, did not his Winds combine?

To stop your passage with a churlish Line,

Did haughty Eolus with Contempt look down

With Aspect windy, and a study’d Frown?

Regard them not; — the Great Supreme, the Wise,

Intends for something hidden from our Eyes.

Suppose the groundless Gulph had snatch’d away

Hussey and Coffin to the raging Sea;

Where wou’d they go? Where wou’d be their Abode?

With the Supreme and independent God,

Or made their Beds down in the Shades below,

Where neither Pleasure nor Conten can flow.

To Heaven their Souls with eager Raptures soar,

Enjoy the Bliss of him they wou’d adore.

Had the soft gliding Streams of Grace been near,

Some favourite Hope their fainting hearts to cheer,

Doubtless the Fear of Danger far had fled:

No more repeated Victory crown their Heads.

To see what materials the MHS holds related to Phillis Wheatley’s life and work, you can search our online catalog, ABIGAIL, then consider Visiting the Library, but be sure to consult our online calendar for upcoming holiday closures.

*Watch a recording of the event that took place at the MHS on 12 December 2018.


Carretta, Vincent, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, University of Georgia Press, 2011.

Meet Some of Our Amazing Archivists

By Rakashi Chand, Reader Services

As a part of American Archives Month, we would like to introduce you to some of our amazing archivists! These are the very talented people that make our collections accessible and make our library work so seamlessly from behind the scenes. We are fortunate to have such an incredible, knowledgeable and dedicated staff, and would like the opportunity to acknowledge the contributions they make every day. 

We asked a handful of our archivists to identify their favorite collection/item at the MHS, indicate their area of expertise or interest, and share fun facts about themselves. 

Anna Clutterbuck-Cook
Reference Librarian

What is your favorite collection or item at the MHS? 

 One of my favorite items in the collection is a letter written from Rev. T. M. C. Birmingham to Margaret C. Robinson on 17 May 1923. In this letter, conservative preacher Thomas M. C. Birmingham of Milford, Nebraska, writes to Margaret C. Robinson, the head of the Massachusetts Public Interests League, seeking an ally in the fight against the “radical propaganda” being disseminated through women’s colleges such as Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Wellesley — propaganda turning “wholesome American girl[s]” away from patriotism and the Constitution, preaching “Communist sex standards,” calling the literal truth of the Bible into question, and exposing young women to the theories of Freud and Marx.  The MHS featured this document as one of our Objects of the Month in February 2011. 

Please describe your area of historical interest.

My research as a historian focuses on 20th century American religious and cultural history, particularly the ways in which American Protestants engaged with (and helped to create) new ways of thinking about gender, sex, and sexuality. I am interested in mainline and left-leaning Protestant participation in the feminist and gay liberation movements during the 1970s. I have also become interested in the (not at all unrelated) ways that American reproductive politics have been shaped by conservative Christian and white supremacist ideas about white womanhood and white women’s sexuality, reproductive decisions, and actions. 

What is a fun fact about you?

My first job in public history was volunteering as a tour guide at the Cappon House (Holland, Mich.) a historic home built in 1874 to house my hometown’s first mayor, his second wife, and some of his eleven children! The photograph above is me on my first day as a volunteer in the autumn of 1993, when I was twelve years old. 


Katherine H. Griffin
Nora Saltonstall Preservation Librarian

What is your favorite collection or item at the MHS?  

 Forbes family papers and other China trade collections, plus any ships’ logs.

What is a fun fact about you?

When I started working here, women staff members were expected to wear dresses or skirts always (no pants allowed).


Hannah Elder
Library Assistant

What is your favorite collection or item at the MHS? 

At the moment, my favorite collection is the Massachusetts Audubon Society Records. Mass Audubon was founded in the 1890s by two women, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, who used their social influence to protect birds by encouraging women to stop wearing feathered hats. Their work led to many protections for birds and Mass Audubon is still around today! 

Please describe your area of historical interest.

My historical passion is the Medieval period, but I’m very interested in the American colonial period as well. I also love the study of material culture and the way it can inform our understanding of history. 

What is a fun fact about you?

I spent a semester at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where I learned Scottish Country Dancing! 


Ashley Williams
Library Assistant

What is your favorite collection or item at the MHS? 

My favorite item at the MHS is probably The Identity of Napoleon and Antichrist completely demonstrated… which is an essay we have on microfilm that I wrote a blog about last year. The unknown author sets out to prove Napoleon Bonaparte is the Antichrist by comparing excerpts from Revelations to significant aspects of his reign. 

Please describe your area of historical interest.

My historical interests include French History from the reign of the Bourbons through the reign of Napoleon, WWII history, and Jewish History.

What is a fun fact about you?

I was once in a college production of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.


Brendan Kieran
Library Assistant

What is your favorite collection or item at the MHS? 

I really like Lilian Freeman Clarke’s 1864 diary, particularly her candid entries about and addressed to Emily Russell.

Please describe your area of historical interest.

My interests include late 19th- and early 20th-century U.S. history and the history of gender and sexuality.

What is a fun fact about you?

I contribute 90s music knowledge on my trivia team.


Do you have a question for one of our staff members? Please contact us at library@masshist.org

Every month is American Archives month at the MHS! Continue to celebrate with us throughout the year and join us in thanking our amazing archivists for what they do every day!

Triumph and Tragedy in History

By Kate Melchior, Education

School has started, which means that it is time to start brainstorming for this year’s National History Day  projects!  Each year National History Day selects a theme that is intentionally broad enough so that students can select topics from anywhere and any time in history.  The theme gives students a lens through which they will gain a deeper understanding of history beyond facts and dates, and pushes them to think about perspective, context, and broader impact of historical events.


The 2019 theme has been announced as “Triumph and Tragedy in History.”  While this theme sounds straightforward at first, it challenges students and teachers alike to think about the true meaning of both words in a historical context.  National History Day advises students to begin with the definition of both words: according to Merriam Webster, the definition of triumph is “a victory or conquest by or as if by military force, or a notable success,” while tragedy is defined a “disastrous event.”  While students do not need to necessarily include both triumph and tragedy in their work, many topics will end up including both:  a military triumph, for example, might be defined as a tragedy by the losing side.  NHD then poses the following questions for students starting to select their topics:

“Can one person’s triumph be another’s tragedy? Can the same person or group suffer from tragedy and triumph at the same time? How does one ultimately triumph after tragedy? Can triumph lead to tragedy?”


The Massachusetts History Day affiliate recently held an Intro to Mass History Day teacher workshop for educators from BPS, Lynn, and other schools in the Boston area.  To put themselves in their students’ shoes, teachers built upon NHD’s questions about the meaning of “Triumph and Tragedy” and brainstormed their own questions (see image).  Some of their questions included:

  • Can war ever be a triumph?  Is it always a tragedy?
  • How long does triumph last in history?
  • Does triumph always equal tragedy for someone else?
  • Do people learn from tragedy?  Can that lesson be a triumph?
  • Can reform be both triumph and tragedy?
  • Can whether something is thought of as a triumph or tragedy change through history?  Does it depend on who remembers it?

Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, 1811.

Along with many heritage organizations around the country, the MHS Center for the Teaching of History thought about how the NHD theme connects to our own collections at MHS.  We set up a CTH Theme Page with ideas about topics, links to collections, and intriguing objects from our archives that might serve as a launching point for student research into triumph and tragedy.  Suggested topics include early Boston smallpox inoculations, Massachusetts women in WWI, Boston marriages and LGBTQ+ history, Wampanoag and English settler interactions, and Elizabeth Freeman’s suit for freedom from slavery.

Henry A. Monroe, a young musician with the 54th Regiment.

Another example is the history of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised  in the North during the Civil War.  The 54th’s tragic losses at the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863 are also remembered for triumphant bravery shown and for how the soldiers paved the way for numerous other black units in the Union Army for the remainder of the war.  The 54th also fought a lesser-known but just as critical battle against its own government: the fight for equal pay.  African American soldiers in the 54th and other Black units refused pay for 18 months until the government granted them the same pay to their white counterparts.  While the achievement of equal pay is regarded another triumph for civil rights, numerous tragedies shape this story: the hardship of the pay battle on Black soldiers and their families, the immense tragedy of the US Government’s racism and oppression, and the harsh punishments and even deaths of several soldiers for “mutiny” over the conflict.

How do you think that Triumph and Tragedy can act as perspectives for examining history?  What items in our collection do you think connect to the theme?

Sibley’s Harvard Graduates: Determination and Persistence

By Conrad Edick Wright, Research

One of the happy consequences of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s centuries-long institutional stability has been its ability to carry out extended projects. It is not that we actively try to transform small, modest undertakings into ones that never end, but that we see our commitments through to their conclusion. Determination and persistence are our watchwords. The time horizon of most businesses is usually a matter of a few weeks, months, or years. Even well-endowed educational and cultural institutions rarely project their plans decades into the future. One of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s signature projects, however, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, a multi-volume collected biography of the college’s alumni, has a history more than a century and three-quarters long, including more than 130 years as a formal MHS activity.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, no one expected that work on Sibley’s Harvard Graduates would still be underway today. To say that Sibley has proceeded by fits and starts would be a triumph of tact. Whether one dates the series from 1842 (the year that Harvard assistant librarian John Langdon Sibley [1804-1885] began to collect source materials for the series), 1859 (when he wrote the first entries), or 1873 (when he published the first volume), the undisputable fact is that the project has been underway for a very long time.

It goes without saying that everyone involved would prefer a more rapid rate of publication. The series was an ancillary responsibility when Sibley began to work on it some 176 years ago, however, and an ancillary responsibility it has remained. One of his many duties as assistant librarian was to maintain an up-to-date record of Harvard’s alumni. The college began no later than 1674 to publish an annotated broadside list of its graduates, Catalogus eorum qui in Collegio Harvardino . . . alicujus gradus laurea donate sunt, so in 1841, when President Josiah Quincy asked (or really instructed) Sibley to add the preparation of the list to his library responsibilities its form and nature were well established. The broadside appeared once every three years. To the extent possible, it included the Latinized names of the known graduates of the college—thus William Ames, A.B. 1645, became Gulielmus Amesius. Graduates who had achieved such honors as elevation to a major public office or admission to a significant cultural institution qualified for appropriate abbreviated notes recognizing these distinctions. When a graduate died, he did not disappear from the list; instead, a star next to his name marked his passing.

As Sibley accumulated reams of biographical information on Harvard men, friends began to urge him to make more of this data than the restricted space of the triennial broadside allowed. There were already models of collected biography to draw on, notably Athenae Oxonienses: An Exact History of All the Writers and Bishops Who Have Had their Education in the University of Oxford from 1500 to 1690 by Anthony Wood (1632-1695), but, model or not, preparing volumes of Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, later known simply as Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, still proved to be a time consuming task. Shortly before Sibley’s death in 1885, he completed his third and final volume; he had taken his story from Harvard’s first graduating class in 1642 through the class of 1689. All told, he had written entries on 301 graduates. Some sketches, on subjects about whom little was known, were only a few paragraphs long. In contrast, the entry on the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, A.B. 1678, no doubt colonial America’s most prolific author, ran 153 pages, including a list 117 pages long of his 456 works.

John Langdon Sibley and his wife, Charlotte, lived with unusual frugality; at his death, after providing for Charlotte, he pledged to the Society about $150,000, to that point its largest bequest. Although the legacy could be used for a number of different purposes, the continuation of Sibley’s Harvard Graduates was the closest to his heart. Nearly half a century passed before another scholar, Clifford K. Shipton (1902-1973), resumed the series. Between 1930, when Shipton began the work, and the posthumous publication of volume 17 in 1975, he prepared fourteen volumes of sketches, a massive achievement that carried the project from the class of 1690 through the class of 1771. After a sixteen-year pause, work on the series resumed in 1989. Volume 18 appeared in 1999. Publication of volumes 19 and 20 is in progress, and research and writing for volume 21, which will take the series through the class of 1784, is far along.

From time to time, scholars and administrators at other American colleges have toyed with the possibility of undertaking their own counterpart to Sibley and two institutions have produced valuable reference tools. Between 1885 and 1912, Franklin Bowditch Dexter (1842-1920) brought out six volumes of entries on Yale alumni from the school’s founding in 1701 through the class of 1815. At Princeton, between 1976 and 1991, a team of scholars issued five volumes of sketches of that college’s graduates and non-graduates through the class of 1794. In 2005, the MHS and the New England Historic Genealogical Society brought out a CD-ROM, Colonial Collegians: Biographies of Those Who Attended American Colleges before the War for Independence, that collected all the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton entries through the class of 1774, together with parallel material on the graduates of William and Mary, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Dartmouth, Rutgers, the medical schools at Penn and Columbia, and William Tennant’s Log College, a Presbyterian seminary.

Recent Sibley volumes, both published and in the works, as well as Colonial Collegians testify to the Society’s belief that even after well over a century it has not quite satisfied its commitment to John Langdon Sibley and his Harvard graduates. In the coming years, look for more Sibley volumes in print, including those now in press. And look for Colonial Collegians, currently available in our reading room as a CD-ROM, to be accessible one day as a free reference source on the MHS’s website.

Travel Without Moving : Adam Matthew Digital and the History of Tourism

By Katie Loughrey, Reader Services

As summer draws to its inevitable end, I am somewhat grateful (In case you haven’t noticed, it has been a hot one!) and somewhat wistful. Although I’ve been privileged to take several trips this season, I am someone always thinking of the next place left to explore, even if that place is as close as downtown Boston or a small piece of New England I haven’t yet seen in my lifetime of living here. Luckily, as a library assistant here at MHS and an aspiring archivist, I do always have an option to turn to when needing to be transported to a new place: the archives.

Quite the useful tool in my vicarious travels has been the Adam Matthew Digital online database Leisure, Travel and Mass Culture: The History of Tourism. This digital collection – available by subscription – highlights materials from several contributing institutions around the world, including the Massachusetts Historical Society, revolving around the birth and growth of travel and mass tourism between 1850 and 1980. The collection is made up of all sorts of ephemera from photographs, travel brochures, and ads to promotional tourism films. One can explore the collection by curated themes, country or region, contributing institution, or even within a set chronological timeline. It can be accessed online here at the MHS, or within any contributing or subscribing library.

Below I’ve highlighted a few items from our collections available on this database, and how they contribute to our understanding of how Americans traveled and toured New England in the past two centuries.

Many of the more eye-catching items are those tourism guides and brochures by transportation and tourism companies trying to entice consumers to be whisked away on a seasonal adventure of a lifetime. A prime example is this guide, Outdoors in New England, published in 1909 by the Boston & Maine Railroad General Passenger Department.


Inside this colorful volume, are nearly 50 pages of enthusiastic prose on the many leisure activities in the different states of New England, “the ideal, the perfect resting-up section of America.” Accompanied by both photographs and tri-colored illustrations of serene activities like boating and fishing, it captures the ever increasing narrative of the commodity of vacation as a respite from the tedium and stress of work and everyday life that was becoming available to the average American as railroads commercialized.


As the next decade approaches, more of these brochures became geared toward automobile travel, such as Real Tour to the Berkshires, published by the Real Tour Association of Lenox, MA. Including a fold-out map of the routes, the guide provides a detailed description of a scenic drive from New York through Connecticut and into the Berkshire area of western Massachusetts, with suggestions of accommodations and activities along the ride.



Aside from brochures and advertisements, a large part of our travel related collections on this database, and in general, are travel diaries. The diaries of Eva E. Blackwelder record her travels through Boston and surrounding towns, from winter 1938 to spring 1939. Eva’s entries are quite thorough, noting the weather, the sights seen, town histories learned on her tours and the quality, or lack thereof, of food at each of their accommodations. Not unlike myself, Eva seems to have kept most of the brochures, maps, photos and newspaper clippings collected along her journey to remember these places by. A notable realization as one leafs through these pages is how most of the sites she visited nearly a hundred years ago – the many stops of the Freedom Trail, Plymouth village, the House of Seven Gables in Salem – remain the draw for many tourists to this area today due to eastern Massachusetts’ historic past.

Eva E. Blackwelder Scrapbook [8], c.1938-1957.


Eva E. Blackwelder Scrapbook [Brochures], 1935.


Eva E. Blackwelder Scrapbook [Brochures], c.1938-1957.

Here’s a final nostalgic image from Eva’s journal – soon to be just a faint memory for Massachusetts travelers – physical turnpike tolls. On her way back into Boston at one point she writes:  

The toll houses were constructed with large gates which swing across the way as reminders to the traveler that he must help pay for the road.

The toll rates for passing over the turnpike were 25 cents for one person with a carriage of 4 wheels drawn by four horses. Carts and wagons with 2 horses paid half this amount… horse chaise, 10 cents. A man on horseback 5 cents. Cattle one cent and sheep and swine 3 cents a dozen. According to the general turnpike laws no toll could be collected from a passenger on foot; nor could toll be collected from those going to or from public worship within the limits of any town.

It’s hard to decide which is more surreal – a 25 cent toll or dozens of sheep on I-90! Either way, I hope this post inspires you to venture out on one last day trip before it’s too late.