The Winthrop Family Papers [Transcripts]: A Modest Treasure

by Peter Olsen-Harbich, Ph.D. Candidate, Lyon G. Tyler Department of History, William & Mary and NERFC Fellow

Among the austere manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection resides an unassuming assemblage. Weighing in at precisely ten boxes, it bears a substantive though middling rank in the vast archival stock of America. An additional marker of ordinary quality concludes the title of the collection: “Transcripts.” These are thus ten boxes of derivative, copied papers—primary documents by proxy only. Yet a full examination of the collection title suggests a content that is anything but mundane, for these are the “Winthrop Family Papers [Transcripts],” also known as Ms. N-2211, a trove of transcribed, unpublished correspondence from the family whose various progeny presided at the very center of seventeenth-century New England’s political orbit.

As I began my research fellowship at the Society, I fully intended to spend my time entirely with original documents, as I felt any proper historian in an archive should. But in surveying the Society’s catalog in search of 17th-century materials on New England’s diplomacy with indigenous nations, it was obvious that dedicating myself to this collection of copies was in fact the most necessary task. The original manuscripts, fully transcribed but never completely published by the Society over its centuries of documentary editing, are almost certainly the largest collection of unprinted personal papers before 1700 in the American archive. The contents of the collection are too numerous to mention, though they generally survey the frontier period of the Connecticut Colony and this epoch’s concomitant conditions of extensive relations with indigenous peoples, agricultural and industrial establishment, and the disordered medical condition of settler populations. Ms.N-2211, then, though modest and unremarkable at first glance, is nothing less than the invaluable treasure of the most significant archival project in early American history.

Much of the Winthrop papers has already been published. Six volumes of records from this collection, inclusive of those documents dated from 1498-1654, were printed by the Society in the twentieth-century in two distinct editorial phrases. The first occurred between 1929 and 1947 and published all the Winthrop family papers dated between 1498 and 1649 in five volumes. It appears that an effort to complete publication of the papers was resumed in the 1960s and ran into the late 1980s, during which time the entire collection was transcribed and partially annotated. These transcriptions were the tireless and diligent work of Dr. Majorie Frye Gutheim, whom former MHS Director of Research Conrad Wright recalls clacking on a typewriter in the Society’s stacks deep into the evenings of his early professional years. One additional volume was produced by this effort in 1992, extending the publication’s chronology through 1654. But Dr. Gutheim’s efforts were far vaster than this single volume: she had transcribed the entire collection, with documents spanning 1655-1741 (bulk pre-1700) across the decades of work. As the publication project faded from active endeavor into a Society legacy, the transcripts remained: ten boxes worth of near-perfect paleographic detours around cribbed 17th-century hand.

Majorie Frye Gutheim Transcription of William Chesebrough [sic] to John Winthrop, Jr., 26 March 1656. Massachusetts Historical Society, Winthrop Family Paper Transcripts, Ms. N-2211. Original Ms. in Winthrop Family Papers Microfilm, P-350, Reel 5.
Dr. Gutheim’s transcriptions make the 17th century accessible to the professional researcher and the curious Bostonian alike. For the likes of the former, the transcripts are an indispensable tool for expediting general scans of the collection’s contents, and for identifying documents of particular significance to one’s project. When scholars wish to verify the content of the transcriptions against the original manuscripts (though, I can assure, they will find this effort generates little), they remain at the Society, and microfilm of them is easily accessible at the Library of Congress and a variety of American universities. In about four weeks’ time, I was able to read the majority of the transcripts and verify the quotations I deemed relevant against the originals, undoubtedly saving months of laborious peering at the originals. For the likes of casual readers, the transcripts offer an unparalleled opportunity for casual access to the cutting edge of unpublished historical knowledge. It is fair, in other words, to say that Ms. N-2211 punches far above its weight. The Winthrop Papers remain exciting and accessible grounds for the excavation of new revelations on early American history.