By By Dylan Oesch-Emmel, Megan Cleary, Patrick Cann, and Mari Avola , Stoneham High School
National History Day (NHD) was upon us. The dreaded three-month research project that requires scouring the depths of every database for any primary or secondary source that could help prove our thesis. After many late nights of research, and enough tears (and pizza) to last us a lifetime, we had given up hope in finding any valuable sources. In a time of despair, we turned to the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) for guidance. With a topic like the Boston Post Road, how could it not?
With the help of Mrs. Sampson, our remarkable history department head at Stoneham High, we were able to contact Kathleen Baker and Anna Clutterbuck-Cook. They assisted us in arranging a visit to the MHS, where we were able to meet the rest of the knowledgeable and welcoming staff.
We walked into the MHS expecting to see stereotypical old men with their shirts buttoned to the very top, sitting in the corner of every room we entered, reading large encyclopedias. With this in mind we were prepared to act as proper and professional as we could. Contrary to what we expected, we checked in and quickly realized that MHS was staffed by young, enthusiastic historians. We were welcomed with an informative tour of where everything was located. Although we were entirely new to the MHS, the staff treated us as if we were any other historians. Along with finding great sources, the respect we received from the staff boosted our confidence in our historical research skills.
Now we were ready to find what we really came to the MHS for: colonial newspapers on microfilm!!! Although, the actual letter that started the Boston Post Road in 1672 may also have been important to see. The staff was always ready to help, which made the entire process much easier than anticipated. A few clicks later and we were in! It was incredible to see old newspapers that were transported along the Post Road to relay the world’s current events in the early 1700s, transformed into a computer document and displayed right in front of us. The only thing that could top it was being able to hold the physical letter that essentially started the Boston Post Road. Oh yeah, we did that too! We were guided into a room with rows of tables accompanied by dim lighting as not to fade the age old documents. The woman helping us explained that we were allowed to take pictures of the documents, which we took full advantage of. Although we had to stay quiet and respect the others working, they did allow us to pass the documents to each other. A piece of advice for anyone who will be reading colonial letters: brush up on your ability to read sophisticated cursive if there is no transcript for the particular letter.
We were able to quickly and efficiently find everything we had come for. But beyond the sources and helpful staff, the experience gave us an opportunity to join the professional field of history and make an argument. With our foundation of quality research backing us, NHD was more than a high school project, it was our transition into respectable historians.
**The MHS has awarded the John Winthrop Student Fellowship since 2013. This fellowship encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the Society in a research project of their choosing.