Guide to the Collection

Collection Summary


This collection consists of the diaries and other related manuscripts of Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), merchant, jurist, and author of several works.

Biographical Sketch and Timeline

Biographical Sketch

Merchant, colonial magistrate, member of the Governor's Council, and diarist, Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) played a major role in the activities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 56 years.

As a merchant, private banker, and property holder in England and in the colonies, he did business with numerous "cousins" in the mother country, spending a year in England from 1688 to 1689, mainly on private business.

As a legislator, he served in the General Court and later the Governor's Council from 1683 to 1725. He was also successively a magistrate, a justice of the Superior Court, Judge of Probate for Suffolk County, and Chief Justice of the Superior Court. His most dramatic service was as a member of the Commission of Oyer and Terminer, appointed in 1692 to oversee the Salem witchcraft trials--a service for which he sought public forgiveness five years later.

In the civic life of the colony, he was manager of the printing press, an overseer of Harvard College, captain of the South Company of Militia in Boston, a pillar of Boston's Old South Church, and a commissioner of the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel. Among his publications, Phaenomena Quaedam Apocalyptica (1697) gives a New England Puritan's vision of the Apocalypse, and The Selling of Joseph (1700) is the earliest anti-slavery tract in the American colonies.

His marriage of 41 years to Hannah Hull produced 14 children, five of whom survived him. He subsequently married twice more, and unsuccessfully courted Katherine Winthrop, until her stipulations on his lifestyle and a marriage settlement caused him to break off negotiations.

Biographical Timeline

Born at Bishop Stoke, Hampshire, England.
Emigrated with his family to Newbury, Massachusetts.
A.B., Harvard College.
Married Hannah Hull, daughter of John Hull (1624-1683), mintmaster of Massachusetts Bay.
Took up residence in Hull's house in Boston and thereafter "followed Merchandize."
Admitted to membership in the Third Church of Boston (Old South Church).
Deputy (non-resident) from Westfield, Hampshire County, to the General Court.
Elected member of the Court of Assistants, a post carrying judicial responsibilities as magistrate, and member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard College.
Captain of the South Company of Militia in Boston.
Traveled in England on business.
Made member of the Governor's Council.
Made one of the justices of the Superior Court of Judicature and served on witchcraft trials. (The Superior Court became the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1782.)
Asked pardon for his role in witchcraft trials.
Published his first book: Phaenomena Quaedam Apocalyptica ad Aspectum Novi Orbis Configurata.
Published The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial, the first anti-slavery tract in America.
Judge of Probate for Suffolk County.
Hannah Hull Sewall, his wife, died in Boston.
Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Judicature.
Unsuccessfully courted Katherine Winthrop.
Married Abigail (Melyen) Woodmansey Tilley.
Sudden death of Abigail Sewall, his second wife.
Married Mary (Shrimpton) Gibbs.
Declined re-election to the Governor's Council.
Died at his home in Boston in his 78th year.

Collection Description

This collection contains the diaries and commonplace-books of Samuel Sewall, 1672-1729, including descriptions of people and events, notes on sermons and books, Biblical quotations, sketches of conversations, and accounts of money received or spent. The collection also contains 22 almanacs with annotations by Sewall, 1681-1729.

Diary entries describe Sewall's service as a fellow of Harvard College; his admittance into the Old South Church; his judicial duties and business dealings; his work with the Company for Propagating Religion among the Indians, including efforts to make treaties; and his service with the South Company of Massachusetts Militia. Other subjects and events represented in the diaries include: the loss of the Massachusetts Bay charter and Increase Mather's trip to England to secure a new one for the colony; relations with governors Sir Edmund Andros and Sir William Phips; the Salem witchcraft trials and executions, including the death of Giles Cory; efforts by Cotton Mather and others to put together an account of the Salem trials; troubles with the French and Native Americans, including an account of a Native American attack in Casco Bay; and Governor Joseph Dudley's political disputes with the House of Deputies. The collection also contains the texts of Sewall's Phaenomena Quaedam Apocalyptica and Talithi Cumi and a few diary entries of Samuel Sewall, Jr., 1702-1722.

Some of the documents from this collection and the Samuel Sewall papers have been microfilmed onto two reels (call number: P-87). See Contents of Microfilm below for a list of the items in the microfilm.

Acquisition Information

In January 1869, the bulk of the present collection of diaries was donated as a gift of members of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Many of the almanacs were acquired by purchase in March 1879 (Savage Fund), October 1905 (Sibley Fund), and January 1927 (Schouler Fund).

Other Formats

The Samuel Sewall diaries were published in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th series, vols. 5-7 (1878-1882); and in two volumes as The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674-1729, by M. Halsey Thomas (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [1973]).

Detailed Description of the Collection

I. Diaries, 1672-1729

Diary, 1672-1677 (copy #1)

Inscribed on the title page: "Journal of Honbl Samuel Sewall Esqr. 1672-1677. Transcribed from a Copy of the Original belonging to Mr. (Nathaniel G.?) Snelling of Boston." The original is described as having been lost by fire in the office of James Savage, Esq., of Boston; however, an appended note of 11 Dec. 1857 states that Mr. Savage denies ever having had the original in his possession. The front cover also carries a legend: "Copy of Judge Samuel Sewall's Diary 1672-1677. Also a Copy of four manuscript leaves lent to my father December 26, 1851. And some Memoranda of Sewall, Devereux, Quincy, Henchman, and other Families collected by Samuel Sewall of Burlington."

The main body of text contains two pages of accounts from 1672 and 52 pages of diary entries from 3 Dec. 1673 to 11 July 1677. These cover the period of Sewall's service as a fellow of Harvard College, his only sermon (preached in Apr. 1675), his initial discussions in 1676 and 1677 with his father-in-law (John Hull, mint-master of the colony) and others about becoming a merchant, and a long entry (begun 21 Mar. 1676/7) on his reluctance to "enter into strict bonds with God," followed by his admittance into the Old South Church. The diary makes no reference to his courtship and marriage in Feb. 1675/6 to Hannah Hull. Entries for Oct. 1676 and Jan. 1676/7 show him beginning to do business with his English "cousins," Stephen Dummer and John Hull.

The volume also contains entries of 6 Sep. 1702 through 13 Aug. 1722 from Samuel Sewall, Jr.'s diary.

171.3.2, 017.11
Diary, 1672-1677 (copy #2)

Labeled on the cover: "Judge Sewall's Journal No. I Dup." A note on the flyleaf by C.D. (Charles Deane?) describes it as a copy of the earliest volume of Sewall's diary now (1878) in course of publication by the MHS.

In addition to diary entries apparently identical to copy #1, the diary also contains ten pages listing deposits in the Boston Exchange Office from 1808 to 1815.
Diary, 1685-1703

This disbound volume contains diary entries from 11 Feb. 1684/5 to 8 Oct. 1703. An entry for 1 June 1685 reproduces a "Humble Address" from the General Court to the new king, James II, bemoaning the recent action in vacating the colony's charter. Beginning with the arrival of Sir Edmund Andros as governor (20 Dec. 1686), the diary describes the period of worsening relations with Andros, as well as Increase Mather's secret departure for England in March 1688 to seek a new charter. Sewall describes Mather's efforts at the court (see the journal of his trip to England), the news of Sir William Phips' appointment as the new governor of the Province of New England (Jan. 1691/2), and his arrival in May with the new charter.

Sewall's diary provides only a scanty record of his involvement in the Salem witchcraft trials as a member of the Court of Oyer and Terminer appointed to conduct these proceedings. On 11 Apr. 1692, he reports examining the accused in Salem, with the marginal exclamation "Vae, vae, vae, witchcraft." Entries for Aug. and Sep. record five executions ("Doleful! Witchcraft") and the painful death of Giles Cory, together with discussions with Cotton Mather and others of putting together an account of the trials (later published in Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World). Beginning in Dec. 1698, Sewall notes the efforts of the General Court to force Increase Mather, the second president of Harvard College, to resign as minister of the Second Church and reside at the college.

Among the miscellaneous items in the end papers and extra leaves of the diary are Sewall's speech of Aug. 1686 to the South Company of Militia, resigning his commission, and a letter of June 1686 to Governor Joseph Dudley declining to serve as Justice of the Peace.

Journal of his visit to England, 1688-1690

Diary entries date from Sewall's departure from Boston on 22 Nov. 1688 to his return on 30 Nov. 1689. During his stay in England, Sewall offered his help to Increase Mather in his attempt to procure a new charter for Massachusetts. He also traveled extensively, bought and inspected property, collected rent for his tenement in Lee, bought stockings and cordage, and returned to Boston with a remarkable cargo of food, drink, books, and clothing for sale or use in Boston.

Pages 70-82 of the journal are separately bound at the rear of the volume. They contain listings of accounts from 31 July 1689 through 27 Jan. 1689/90.
Diary, 1703-1712

Dating from 26 Nov. 1703 to 22 July 1712, this section of Sewall's diary covers his middle years, from age 51 to 60. His entries note personal and family matters. During 1703 and 1704, he reports on continuing troubles with the French and Native Americans (in Maine and at Haverhill and Deerfield, Mass.). In the succeeding years, he describes the Governor Dudley's political disputes with the House of Deputies.

The flyleaf of the manuscript carries an item of 18 Jan. 1703/4 on a Native American attack in Casco Bay and, on the verso, a list of funerals at which Sewall was a pallbearer from 1706/7 to 1713.
Diary, 1712-1729

This volume contains diaries dating from 25 July 1712 through 13 Oct. 1729. Much of the early portion of the diary concentrates on Sewall's domestic life, including Samuel Sewall, Jr.'s marital problems which led to a three-year separation from his wife and to uneasy relations between Sewall and her father, Governor Dudley. In 1717, entries note Sewall's visit to Harvard to discuss the addition of a new building (Massachusetts Hall) and, following the death of his first wife, whether he should consider marrying again. The diary also gives a detailed account of his famous courtship of Katherine Winthrop (30 Sep.-7 Nov. 1720) and his courtship of Mary Gibbs (Jan. 1721/2). In his final entry of 13 Oct. 1729, he notes that he has given consent to the marriage of his granddaughter Hirst to a young Harvard lawyer.

171.3.18, 017.20
Diary, 1714-1729

This volume contains a miscellaneous group of entries dating from 1714-1729, including abstracts of sermons, sketches of conversations, events picked up later in his regular diary entries, references to court cases, and accounts of money received or spent. The first 72 pages cover a trip by Sewall and Penn Townsend to Martha's Vineyard from 2-14 Apr. 1714 as agents for the Company for Propagating Religion among the Indians, to dispose of land on the Vineyard purchased for the service of the Native Americans there. Also noted is a trip by Sewall on court business from 10-19 May 1714 to Kittery, Portsmouth, and Ipswich.

Use microfilm, P-87, reel 1.

171.3.11, 017.17
Diary, 1717-1726

This volume contains entries dating from 1 Aug. 1717 through 17 Aug. 1729. The first 14 pages contain entries of 1-16 Aug. 1717 concerning a trip to Arrowsic Island in the Kennebec River, Me., to make a treaty with Native Americans. Other entries from 28 Apr. 1718 through 26 July 1726 concern Sewall's court duties. A separate set of entries (in the rear of the book) from 4 Aug. 1717 to 17 Aug. 1729 contain notes on sermons, books, church assemblies, and an occasional amount paid or received.

Use microfilm, P-87, reel 1.

Commonplace-book, 1677-1698

Containing entries for 2 Apr. 1677 through 13-15 Jan. 1697/98, this volume includes 322 pages of Biblical quotations and extracts from books ranged under appropriate headings with cross-references. Also included are 20 pages of scattered miscellaneous diary entries dating from 2 Apr. 1677 through 11 Jun. 1694.

Use microfilm, P-87, reel 1.

Folder 1171.3.9
Manuscript fragments from commonplace-book, 1698, etc.

Use microfilm, P-87, reel 1.

171.3.7, 017.13
Diary and commonplace-book, 1675-1721

Inscribed on the flyleaf: "Samuel Sewall Sept. 15, 1676. Bought of Edward Ranger." Also inscribed on the cover: "Diary and Common Place Book 1675-1738," an obvious error since Sewall died in 1730.

This volume contains miscellaneous entries dating from 1675 through 1721 on books of European history, sermon notes, legal items, accounts owed and paid, and the texts of his Phaenomena Quaedam Apocalyptica and his Talithi Cumi discussing women's admission to heaven. A few diary-type entries concern mainly the roster, watch procedure, and training days (1679-1696/7) of the South Company and other units of the Massachusetts Militia.

Use microfilm, P-87, reel 1.

Memoranda from the diary, 1685-1728

This volume contains entries for 25 Mar. 1685 through 26 Dec. 1728, mainly one-line notations on marriages, burials, ordinations, sermons preached, appointments to state and local offices, shipwrecks, etc.

II. Almanacs, 1681-1729

Arranged chronologically.

This series consists of interleaved almanacs by various authors. Each almanac contains some amount of Sewall annotations, and each listing indicates the extent of those annotations.

Box 1Folder 1-2
John Foster, An Almanack of Celestial Motions, Boston, 1681

Minimal annotations.

Box 1Folder 3
William Brattle, An Ephemeris of Celestial Motions, Cambridge, 1682

Moderate annotations.

Box 1Folder 4
Benjamin Gillam, Boston Ephemeris, Boston, 1684

Minimal annotations.

Box 1Folder 5
Noadiah Russell, Cambridge Ephemeris, Cambridge, 1684

Minimal annotations.

Box 1Folder 6
Nathanael Mather, Boston Ephemeris, Boston, 1685

Very minimal annotations.

Box 1Folder 7017.23
William Williams, Cambridge Ephemeris, Cambridge, 1685

Extensive annotations.

Box 1Folder 8
Samuel Danforth, New England Almanack, Cambridge, 1686

Minimal annotations.

Box 1Folder 9
Nathanael Mather, Boston Ephemeris, Boston, 1686

Very minimal annotations.

Box 1Folder 10017.23
Cambridge Ephemeris, Cambridge, 1687

Very minimal annotations.

Box 1Folder 11017.23
John Tulley, An Almanack, Boston, 1687

Minimal annotations.

Box 2Folder 1017.23
John Tulley, An Almanack, Boston, 1688

Very minimal annotations (notes on clocks only).

Box 2Folder 2017.23
Thomas Trigg, An Almanack, London, 1689

Very extensive annotations.

Box 2Folder 3017.23
John Tulley, An Almanack, Boston, 1690

Minimal annotations. Two copies, one incomplete.

Box 2Folder 4
John Tulley, An Almanack, Boston, 1693

Moderate annotations.

Box 2Folder 5
John Tulley, An Almanack, Boston, 1696

Minimal annotations.

Box 2Folder 6017.23a, 017.29
Daniel Travis, An Almanack of Celestial Motions, Boston, 1709

Minimal annotations. Bound with 1711.

Box 2Folder 6017.23a, 017.29
Daniel Travis, An Almanack of Celestial Motions, Boston, 1711

Minimal annotations. Bound with 1709.

Box 2Folder 7
Thomas Robie, An Almanack of Celestial Motions, Boston, 1714

Moderate annotations.

Box 2Folder 8
Daniel Travis, An Almanack of Celestial Motions, New London, 1716

Extensive annotations.

Box 2Folder 9017.23a, 017.28
Thomas Paine, An Almanack of Celestial Motions, Boston, 1718

Extensive annotations. Bound with 1719.

Box 2Folder 9017.23a, 017.28
Thomas Paine, An Almanack of Celestial Motions, Boston, 1719

Extensive annotations. Bound with 1718.

Box 2Folder 10171.3.22a
[Nathan Bowen], The New-England Diary, or Almanack, Boston, 1729

Extensive annotations.

Contents of Microfilm

Listed below are the contents of the two reels of microfilm known as the Samuel Sewall papers (microfilm call number: P-87). These items are now arranged into two collections: the Samuel Sewall papers (see and this collection, the Samuel Sewall diaries. In addition to the contents of the reels, the list below also indicates which collection the item is from.

Reel Contents Collection
Reel 1 Bill of lading book, 1686-1698, 1782-1790 Samuel Sewall papers
Reel 1 Diary, 1714-1729 Samuel Sewall diary
Reel 1 Diary and commonplace-book, 1675-1721 Samuel Sewall diary
Reel 1 Commonplace-book, 1677-1698 Samuel Sewall diary
Reel 1 Account book, 1688-1692 Samuel Sewall papers
Reel 1 Probate Court records, 1715-1728 Samuel Sewall papers
Reel 1 Notes on sermons, 1672-1674 Samuel Sewall papers
Reel 1 Diary, 1717-1726 Samuel Sewall diary
Reel 2 Letterbook, 1686-1737 Samuel Sewall papers

Preferred Citation

Samuel Sewall diaries, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Access Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers desiring materials about related persons, organizations, or subjects should search the catalog using these headings.


Massachusetts. Council.
Massachusetts. General Court.
Massachusetts. Superior Court of Judicature.
Suffolk County (Mass.). Probate Court.


Arrowsic Island (Me.)
Circuit courts--Massachusetts.
England--Description and travel--1601-1700.
Indians of North America--Maine--Treaties.
Indians of North America--Massachusetts--Martha's Vineyard.
Indians of North America--Missions.
Martha's Vineyard (Mass.)--Description and travel.
Massachusetts--History--Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775.
Massachusetts--Politics and government--To 1775.
Missionaries--Massachusetts--Martha's Vineyard.
Trials (Witchcraft)--Massachusetts--Salem.
Voyages and travels--Diaries.