The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Of Adamses & Ancestry

John A. Grace, Memoranda Respecting the Families of Quincy and Adams, 1841

For historian Henry Adams, the morning mail meant a fresh round of research questions. “Here comes your troublesome genealogical cousin again,” Elizabeth Coombs Adams wrote in early 1893. Paging through the Adams archive and sweeping up reminiscences to file, Elizabeth was laboring to compile the family history. She joined a long train of Adamses who devoted time and money to polishing up new accounts of their genealogy. Knee-deep in piles of stray notes and record scraps before the likes of research hubs like Ancestry.com, they turned to wheels, charts, and trees to draft the presidential family’s Anglo-American origins story. Today, let’s take a quick look at the Victorian Adamses’ adventures in genealogy, and who they thought they were. 

John Adams and son John Quincy picked through family memories and town records to uncover and curate their version of the early American past. Piecing together shared evidence did not yield the same story. Father and son split over the exact region of their English roots. But both presidents staked claim to a Puritan lineage that played well with constituents. Highlighting their role in the Puritan ordeal of suffering, immigration, and settlement, the Adams statesmen linked themselves to a history of religious toleration and political dissent. When it came to genealogical pursuits, their methods varied, too. The elder Adams’ approach to genealogy was impulsive. He dashed off “minute” memoranda of random finds, listing births and deaths as he encountered them in odd pages of his father’s books. Strategically, he wove Puritan family ties into the revolutionary rationale that powered his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1765). 

John A. Grace, Memoranda Respecting the Families of Quincy and Adams, 1841

His son, John Quincy, approached the task with trademark rigor and a passion for verification. Highly scientific and systematic in his effort, the sixth president scoured town records and newspapers, copied out church membership lists, and checked material in his family papers against those of other early Americans. John Quincy’s scholarly bent for fact-checking was aided by a rising set of organizations that steered the antebellum practice of personal history, like the Massachusetts Historical Society (1791), the Boston Athenaeum (1807), and the New England Historic Genealogical Society (1845). More than a hobby to fill the diplomat’s rare downtime, genealogy was a way for John Quincy to exercise his skills as a gentleman scholar. It was a task to pass along across the generations, and so he handed it off to his son, Charles Francis, with the family’s large set of seals and copper bookplates. On 28 Feb. 1831, he laid down what he knew of the Adams ancestry and colorful heraldry in a detailed missive. “File this letter away,” John Quincy instructed, “for the age when the passion of genealogy shall take possession of you.” 

Stoked by his highly successful publication of Abigail Adams’ letters in 1840, Charles’ interest in the family past blossomed steadily throughout his life. Like many Americans, he invested in Lemuel Shattuck’s Family Register book. The blank album featured tidy charts and wheels to organize the machinery of family for presentation. Stocked with a template narrative for each ancestor and stern guidelines for nascent family historians, Shattuck’s book commanded that facts–and not opinions–must guide the process. There were, Shattuck lectured, many kinds of facts to collect, and they should be updated on a monthly basis. His categories veered from the mundane to the moral: health, religious tendencies, phrenological oddities, children’s expenses, real estate descriptions, vaccinations, public offices held, and “plans for private intellectual improvement.” Dutifully, Charles began the book, making lists and skipping the intricate wheels. He never finished it, likely thinking that the family’s cache of letterbooks, correspondence, and diaries filled in the rest. 

Charles Francis Adams, entries in Family Register, 1841

Or maybe Charles realized he didn’t need to do all the research alone. Genealogy had, after all, evolved into a new American pastime. By 1841, at least one reader of Abigail’s published letters reached out (from Havana!) with new clues to the more distant Adamses. John A. Grace delved into the complex English roots of the Adams, Quincy, and Boylston lines. To Charles, he sent a vivid, hand-colored memorandum of the Adamses’ related heraldic arms with details cobbled together from foreign records. Grace put forth an idea that Charles and his children, including Henry, came to champion: that the family descended from the Welsh baronial clan of ap-Adams. Over time, more Adamses went on to swarm the archives, eagerly hunting for familiar faces in history’s mirror. Henry Adams, holding his cousin’s query, sniffed that he did not “invest in the genealogy.” But, as the Adams Papers reveal, Henry made just as many charts as others did, diligently tracing out his great grandparents’ lines on graph paper (see Reel 603 of P-54, the Adams Family Papers microfilm). Even Henry Adams could not resist family history forever. 

A Genealogical Tree of the Adams, Cranch, & DeWindt Families, 1928

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 21 September, 2018, 8:00 AM

Rachel Wall's Confession, the words of a Pirate?

For Talk Like a Pirate Day we bring you the words of a Pirate!

The MHS holds an interesting broadside featuring Massachusetts' only female Pirate: Life, last words and dying confession, of Rachel Wall : who, with William Smith and William Dunogan, were executed at Boston, on Thursday, October 8, 1789, for high-way robbery

Arrested and convicted of highway robbery, Rachel Wall was the last woman executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, hung on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet. 

The broadside features a fascinating woodcut illustration of three criminals being hung on Boston Common. The middle figure is depicted as a woman wearing a dress. But this confession serves a much greater purpose as it is the autobiography of a very unique woman. Although Rachel’s crimes were dreadful, her life is an undeniable part of Massachusetts history.  A criminal master mind? Perhaps. Ruthless and Vicious?  Certainly. The perfect Halloween Costume? Definitely!

Who was Rachel Wall?

Rachel Wall was born in Pennsylvania, to a good family, by her own description. After running away from home, she met and married George Wall, with whom she moved to Boston. George left Rachel and went off to sea, only to return one day to reunite with Rachel and coax her into being a pirate. In her confession Rachel says, “for, as soon as he came back, he enticed me to leave my service, and take to bad company, from which I might date my ruin.” Supposedly, they attacked ships off the Isles of the Shoals, on the coast of New Hampshire although we do not have actual evidence and this is not mentioned in the Confession. It is believed that after storms, Rachel would stand on the deck of their ship pretending to be distressed and would scream for help; when sailors came to her rescue, George and his men would kill them and plunder their ships. In her confession, Rachel states that she does not know the whereabouts of her husband, “He went off again and left me, and where he is now I know not.” It is believed that George and his crew were washed out to sea. George Wall might have been a privateer during the Revolution, acquiring a taste for plundering ships.

Rachel returned to Boston and worked as a maid but could never fully become a law-abiding citizen. She continued to ‘plunder’ by sneaking aboard docked ships and grabbing what she could. She describes one excursion on Long Wharf in Boston, "On my entering the cabin, the door of which not being fastened, and finding the Captain and Mate asleep in their beds, I hunted about for plunder, and discovered under the Captain’s head, a black silk handkerchief containing upwards of thirty pounds, in gold, crowns, and small change, on which I immediately seized the booty and decamped therewith as quick as possible, which money I spent freely in company as lewd and wicked as myself." (Does anyone else hear Pirate-speak?) 

Rachel was eventually convicted of highway robbery. Supposedly, she saw a lovely bonnet that she simply couldn’t resist and attacked 17-year-old Margret Bender, the woman wearing the bonnet. Having already been convicted of two counts of robbery, this, the third count, was punishable by death. She could not deny her proven past, so in her confession she lists many petty crimes, carefully avoiding the mention of any that might be a felony. She was wise enough to know that she could not convince people that she was innocent, so instead choose to portray herself as under the influence of her dreadful husband. Attorney General Robert Treat Paine requested “that sentence of death might be given against the said Rachel Wall, the prisoner at the bar” and Governor John Hancock signed the order of execution. One could perhaps speculate that she was being sentenced for crimes far greater than the attempted robbery of a bonnet, tried as a thief, but executed for piracy?

Unfortunate for her, Rachel's crime came at the height of turmoil for the new Nation, and the courts--which traditionally gave women lesser punishments than men--tried her as an equal sentencing her to hang with two other men also accused of highway robbery. Six years later un-armed burglary was no longer punished by death; the three were the last to be executed in Massachusetts for robbery. If there were ever a spirit to haunt the streets of Boston, It would certainly be Rachel Wall, executed on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet at 29 years of age.

*****

Sources:

Massachusetts Historical Society. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, (Boston: The Society 1905) Volume 39, March 1905 p.178-190

Rachel Wall, Pirate by the National Park Service (Accessed September 19, 2018)

http://www.cindyvallar.com/RachelWall.html (Accessed September 19, 2018)


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 3:00 PM

This Week @MHS

This week at the MHS we have an author talk, our annual graduate student reception, and a discussion among hisotrians about the musical Hamilton. Details below:

- Tuesday, 18 September, 6:00 PM: If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection with Celeste-Marie Bernier of the University of Edinburgh. Bringing to light previously unpublished manuscript letters, essays, speeches, and photographs from Frederick Douglass and his sons, Charles Remond, Frederick Jr., and Lewis Henry Douglass, If I Survive casts Douglass in the role of dedicated family man and inspirational figure to his five children. This family biography as accompanied by these personal documents comprises the first extensive study of Frederick Douglass and his family’s fight for the cause of liberty during the Civil War and in the post-emancipation era.

A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

- Thursday, 20 September, 6:00 PM: Graduate Student Reception. Calling all graduate students and faculty in history, American Studies, or any related field! Enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres as you meet students and professors from other universities working in your fields. Take a behind-the-scenes tour to learn more about the Society's collections as well as the resources available to support your scholarship, from research fellowships to our six different seminar series.

The reception is free, but we ask that you RSVP by 19 September by e-mailing seminars@masshist.org or calling (617) 646-0579.

- Saturday, 22 September, 4:00 PM: Historians on Hamilton with Catherine Allgor, MHS; Lyra D. Monteiro, Rutgers University-Newark; Joseph M. Adelman, Framingham State University. The musical Hamilton has catapulted a founding father to the heights of popular culture. Three historians will explore this creative approach to discussing the stories of America's founding, the conversations that have been created by this phenomenon, and how the excitement can be used to inspire the public to look at American history in greater depth.

A pre-talk reception bins at 3:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 4:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

Visit www.masshist.org/events for upcoming programs including Under the Starry Flag: How a Band of Irish Americans Joined the Fenian Revolt & Sparked a Crisis over Citizenship, an author talk on Monday, 24 September, and Radical Nonviolence & Interracial Utopias in the Early Civil Rights Movement, a seminar on Tuesday, 25 September.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 17 September, 2018, 1:00 AM

Triumph and Tragedy in History

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?


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 14 September, 2018, 12:00 AM

Barbara Hillard Smith’s Diary, September 1918

Today we return to the 1918 diary of Newton teenager Barbara Hillard Smith. You may read our introduction to the diary, and Barbara’s previous entries, here:

 

January | February | March | April

May | June | July | August

September | October | November | December

 

As regular readers of the Beehive know, we are following Barbara throughout 1918 with monthly blog posts that present Barbara’s daily life -- going to school, seeing friends, playing basketball, and caring for family members -- in the words she wrote a century ago. Here is Barbara’s September, day by day.

 

* * *

SUN. 1                                    SEPTEMBER

Boys came to church. Park in afternoon. Boys to supper

MON. 2                       LABOR DAY

Went up river with boys. Down to Spuds. K’s in evening.

TUES. 3

In town. Went to Keith’s with the gang. Up to farm with [Spud].

WED. 4

Hung around K’s for lunch. Wendell took us to Revere. Park in evening

THUR. 5

Peg’s for tennis. In town. Babe went home. Hospital with Dr. G-

FRI. 6

Peg came over. Pete is going to Lasell. Hurrah! Sick?

SAT. 7

Hung around. Felt rotten. Saw [Eli].

SUN. 8

Cousin Mildred to dinner. Over to Peg’s for supper. Ben is home.

MON. 9

School. Mrs. Reed’s

TUES. 10

School. Mrs. Reeds

WED. 11

School. In town

THUR. 12

School. Mrs. Reed’s. Played tennis.

FRI. 13

No school. It rained. Movies [+ overnight with] Lane’s. Babe + Mother went

SAT. 14

Took flowers up to Bil Sybil + saw Bob. That boy was awfully sick

SUN. 15

Church and Sunday School. Went up to see Bob with K. Spud to supper

MON. 16

School. Staid at home and studied.

TUES. 17

School. Peg and I went to see Bob.

WED. 18

School. Went over to Pegs. Rained hard

THUR. 19

School. Went to Surgical Dressings.

FRI. 20

School. Went down to Connies. Night at Pegs

SAT. 21

Down at station at 5:45. In town. Pegs for a dance

SUN. 22

Sunday School. Came down with influenza.

MON. 23

In bed. Dr. G- came. Mother came home.

TUES. 24

In bed. Feel rotten. School closed till Monday.

WED. 25

Got up and went out. Felt rotten.

THUR. 26

Went over to Pegs. Hung around. Sick?

FRI. 27

Tenn Went over to Pegs

SAT. 28

Tennis at Pegs

SUN. 29

Church. No Sunday School. Over to Pegs in afternoon

MON. 30

In town. Surgical Dressings. Spud very sick

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

 

 *Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original. The catalog record for the Barbara Hillard Smith collection may be found here.

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 12:00 AM

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