Investigating Abigail Adams: My Time as a John Winthrop Student Fellow

By Kate Melchior, MHS, and Ella Amouyal

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Students perform historical research and create a project (usually an assignment for class) using materials at the MHS, both in our archives or digitized online. This project can be something assigned in a class, a National History Day project, or something of the student’s invention!  Both student and teacher each receive $350 to support their research. Applications for the 2020 student fellowship are due on 11 February 2020.  Learn more and apply!

In 2019, Ella Amouyal and her teacher Jenna Wolf from the Cambridge School of Weston were awarded one of our student fellowships to research Abigail Adams’ diplomatic mission to France and England in 1784-88. Ella spent several months working in the MHS library with the support of our research librarians and produced an online exhibit. Read Ella’s account of her experience at the MHS, where she describes exploring the collections, speaking with historians, and using a microfilm reader for the first time.

Investigating Abigail Adams: My Time as a John Winthrop Student Fellow
By Ella Amouyal, Cambridge School of Weston

Portrait of Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams (Mrs. John Adams) by Benjamin Blythe, c. 1766

My experience as a John Winthrop Student Fellow in the Spring of 2019 was an incredible learning opportunity. My research focused on Abigail Adams’ time in Europe, and my final project was the creation of an online exhibit, I aimed to produce an engaging, interactive experience that would impact and educate a wider audience.

My exhibit explores Abigail Adams’ time in Europe  through three lenses: patriotism, economics and education. These lenses allowed me to clearly specify the ways Europe influenced Abigail Adams. When I began my research, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of secondary and primary sources; I had so many questions–too many, perhaps. I found that honing in on more concise channels helped me tremendously with scope and organization.

I began the project by reading secondary sources to help frame my research in a broader context. This was first step was key, as it allowed me to understand more about the time and place my topic was grounded in, and exposed me to the questions, ideas and observations of professional researchers. My advice to a future student fellow would be to start by exploring secondary sources already published by the Massachusetts Historical Society. These sources will help you uncover new primary sources during you discovery phase, and they will help you to understand the subject more broadly. The MHS is an institution available to all learners; being a fellow affords you more access to the Society’s incredible collection of materials and helpful experts.

My next step was to attend one of the many lectures the Society offers regularly. You should, too. I had the pleasure of attending a pop-up talk hosted by the head of the Adams’ papers. If you are a fellow, attending a lecture or other event at the MHS is an excellent way to gain access to experts, ask questions, and enhance your knowledge. Talking about your research–and hearing about experts’ research–is one of the most important aspects of conducting research. Historians are tasked with educating, so there is nothing to be scared about. What’s more, they will probably be so excited to see a young scholar interested in the subject. Capitalize on the opportunity and seize it. The process of being a fellow is not just to learn about the past; it is also to learn how to communicate, ask questions, stay organized and do independent research.

As you conduct your own research, remember your work does not have to be limited to primary sources offered by MHS. Your research will become stronger when you explore many routes for learning and balance your evidence–primary sources, secondary sources, their context and analysis. However, finding and analyzing primary sources is the most important part of doing the work. And it’s work.

When you conduct your research using the online catalog Abigail, remember one thing: it has a learning curve. It can be quirky. Some quick tips: I found that looking up specific words and phrases can be confusing and yield thousands of results, which are impossible to navigate. One way to mitigate this potential problem is to search by specific dates; for instance, my research focused on Abigail Adams’ diplomatic missions to Europe from 1784 – 1788, which allowed me to limit the primary sources by the correspondences she wrote during this four-year period.

And while students today have grown up believing the Internet holds the keys to every door, remember that not all of the Society’s holdings are available digitally. This is where the excitement of visiting the MHS came in; I had the opportunity to spend hours pouring over documents in the Reading Room and Library. The Society is a warm, inviting and open environment. I was initially scared to visit because I was unfamiliar with historical archives or larger research libraries. Don’t be nervous. Remember the mission of the Society is to educate, so I immediately felt accepted and invited. In addition, the building itself is a work of art–there is so much to see. Alas, most of my visit was spent with a machine new to me–the microfilm.

This contraption is, quite simply, a film roll that includes photographed versions of historical material. The librarians are extremely nice and helped guide me through the steps of using a microfilm. I previously had no knowledge of microfilm but I think it is an amazing device because it helps preserve the original letters and makes it easier to access the material safely. What’s more, reading the historical handwriting can also be extremely difficult. I asked the librarian if the letters I was looking at had been transcribed, which helped me see them in a more legible, modern font.

Microfilm reader in use at the MHS
A photo of a letter on microfilm taken during my first visit to the MHS library, photo by Ella Amouyal

Conducting research with the MHS was an amazing opportunity and I learned a lot. I learned about the fascinating intellect and ideology of Abigail Adams and about new historical figures like Mercy Otis Warren–Adams’ friend and confidant–someone previously unknown to me. I also learned that research is not always about sitting in the library, spending hours analyzing an original letter. It’s also about organization, retooling a question or avenue to explore, and most importantly, time management. Research is not always about reading books either; sometimes it entails pouring over transcribed documents online in your pajamas while drinking tea, or even awkwardly learning to scroll through microfilm. But it’s in these moments that you learn and grow the most. This is why conducting research is a rewarding opportunity for every student, even those who do not want to be historians or archivists. Research teaches you skills that are important for every subject and job – skills such as empathy and critical thinking. This is why I am going to propose a mini-unit this Spring to the history department at my high school on analyzing primary sources utilizing the free resource of the MHS Abigail catalogue.

I often wondered what Abigail Adams would have thought about a teenage girl 300 years later looking at the intimate letters she wrote to her friends, family and acquaintances and the letters she received. I wondered if she would have been shocked or perhaps happy. Abigail was always a forceful proponent of female education, one of the many reasons why I find her fascinating and inspirational. Her knowing that women would be able to research her words equally to any man would probably have brought her immense pride and joy.

If you have any interest in history and research, I would highly recommend applying to be a fellow. The John Winthrop Student Fellowship gives you access to thousands of letters and material and is truly a unique, enlightening experience for all students interested in delving into American history.

If you are interested in learning more about the John Winthrop Student Fellowship or any of our other programs, please visit the Center for the Teaching of History website or e-mail us at  We look forward to hearing from you!

Announcing 2020-2021 MHS Research Fellowships!

By Katy Morris, Research Coordinator and Book Review Editor

Have you ever wondered about conducting research at the MHS? If you are a local scholar, you can hop on the T, make your way to 1154 Boylston Street, and browse our unparalleled collections. You might even stay for a Brown-bag Lunch program or seminar session and network with other scholars. The robust MHS community is right in your backyard.

But if you aren’t local, you may know that traveling to an archive can be a financial burden. Research trips often translate to short stints, crammed in between a teaching load, writing, and endless commitments. Does this sound familiar?  This is where research fellowships can be a valuable resource. The precious funds fellowships provide can help you carve a few weeks out of your schedule to focus on research. As a grad student or early-career academic, you likely know the difference it makes to secure funding for these trips. As a scholar at any level, you know how generative that immersive research can be.

At the MHS we are proud to offer more than forty research fellowships for the academic year 2020-2021. These opportunities range from short-term funding (4-8 weeks) to long-term residency (4-12 months). We look for cutting-edge research that makes significant historiographical contributions and that effectively uses our unique collections. To learn more about our fellowship opportunities – including eligibility, application requirements, and past recipients – be sure to visit our website and review the FAQ.

Our new and improved submission portal is now open and accepting applications. We look forward to reviewing your proposals!

MHS Research Fellowships:

The Society will offer at least two MHS-NEH Long-term Fellowships made possible by an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The stipend, governed by an NEH formula, is $5,000 per month (plus an additional stipend for housing and professional expenses) for a minimum of four months and a maximum of twelve months continuous tenure. These fellowships are for scholars conducting research in the Society’s collections who have completed the terminal degree in their field (typically a Ph.D.) by the application deadline. DEADLINE: JANUARY 15, 2020 

MHS Short-term Fellowships carry a stipend of $2,000 to support four or more weeks of research in the Society’s collections. In addition to general awards, short term fellowships include thematic awards, such as those in African American studies, New England history, American religious history, environmental history, military history, women’s history, and the histories of graphic and printed materials. One application automatically puts you into consideration for any applicable short-term fellowships. Graduate students, faculty, and independent researchers are welcome to apply. We will offer more than twenty short-term fellowships in the coming year. DEADLINE: MARCH 1, 2020

For those studying the U.S. Civil War, its causes, or its memory, the Boston Athenaeum and the MHS will offer one Suzanne and Caleb Loring Fellowship on the Civil War, Its Origins, and Consequences. Fellows spend at least four weeks at each institution. This fellowship carries a stipend of $4,000. DEADLINE: FEBRUARY 15, 2020

The Society also participates in the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium. Thirty cultural institutions will offer a minimum of twenty fellowships in 2020-2021. These grants provide a stipend of $5,000 for minimum of eight weeks of research conducted at three or more participating institutions. With an NERFC (or “nerf-c” as it is affectionately known) you will enter the incredible network of New England archives and cultural institutions that will help you make new discoveries. DEADLINE: FEBRUARY 1, 2020