The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Making History: Boston's Bicentennial

On September 17, 1830, Boston celebrated the bicentennial of its settlement. Such a noteworthy occasion would hardly be complete without the presence of one of the state’s leading families, particularly a former president. Thus, John Quincy Adams was invited to participate in the commemoration events held in Boston that day. Before meeting with the other members of the parade at the State House, John stopped by to see if his son Charles Francis Adams was in his Boston office and would join him. Charles, however, was not there but at his home in Medford. He reported in his diary entry for the day, “As this was the day destined for the Celebration of the Anniversary of the settlement of Boston, and about to produce a tremendous consequent fuss I thought it would be expedient for me to have nothing whatever to do with it. I have a great horror of Crowds, and if I make up my mind to attend public days always have cause to repent it.”

A grand procession of city and state officials as well as Boston residents marched through Boston Common and down Tremont and State Street to Old South Church. There the President of Harvard University and former Boston mayor, Josiah Quincy III, gave an oration that John Quincy Adams considered, “worthy of the subject and received with universal approbation” and a number of songs were sung in celebration of the city. The music included a rewrite of Great Britain’s “God Save the King” with new lyrics by Rev. John Pierpont and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” The group processed back to the State House. That evening, fireworks were set off over the common and John Quincy attended a party hosted by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Winthrop.

The momentous occasion also included the first hints of a historic event on the horizon—Adams’s election to the House of Representatives. Before returning to Quincy for the evening, a number of gentlemen at the party approached Adams to discuss an article which ran in the September 6, 1830 issue of the Boston Courier, which suggested that Adams be nominated for the Plymouth congressional district of which Quincy was a part. John Quincy was initially dismissive of the idea: “As the Editor of the Paper has been uniformly hostile to me, I supposed this nomination was made with the same Spirit, and did not imagine it was seriously thought of by any one.” Serious it was though, and two months later, President John Quincy Adams was representative-elect Adams—the first and only president to serve in Congress after his presidency.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 16 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It is a quiet week here at the Society as far as programs go, with only two items on the calendar. 

First up, on Thursday, 17 September, is a talk given by author and historian Joseph Ellis of Williams College. In this Pauline Maier Memorial Lecture, Ellis discusses his book The Quartet. The talk is open to the public with a fee of $20 (no charge for Fellows and Members). There is a pre-talk reception at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM. NOTE: This program will take place at MIT's Wong Auditorium at the intersection of Amherst and Wadsworth Streets in Cambridge (map). This is a four minute walk from the Kendall Square MBTA station or there is street parking along Memorial Drive and a parking garage at the Marriot Hotel in Kendall Square. 

And on Saturday, 19 September, is the next installment of "Begin at the Beginning: Boston's Founding Documents," a program sponsored by the Partnership of Historic Bostons discussion group. This time around, the group discusses "What's in a Name: From Boston, Lincolnshire to Boston, Massachusetts." The illustrated presentation and discussion of readings is led by independent scholar and author Neil Wright of Lincolnshire, England, a member of hte Partnership of Historic Bostons. The talk begins on 1:00PM here at the MHS. Registration is required at no cost, so please RSVP.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

To Speak With the Hand -- To Hear With the Eye.

The breadth of foreign-language materials in our collections often surprises me; we have English and French language conversation primers written in Italian, proverbs in Hebrew and Latin, and Chinese grammar books written in German. So it should not have surprised me, although it did, to discover several fascinating 19th century broadsides and pamphlets on manual languages hidden within our collections as well.

Two broadsides, Single and Double Hand Alphabet (c. 1856) and Charles Parker’s New Manual Alphabets (1856) depict a variety of manual hand and body alphabets, including narrative descriptions of their intended uses, audiences, and histories.

Both items show slight variations on a single-handed alphabet, a double-handed alphabet, and the numbers 1-10.


Single-Handed Alphabet

Double-Handed Alphabet


Charles Parker’s New Manual Alphabets also includes “The Indian’s Lettered Hand,” and “The Signal Alphabet.”


The Indian’s Lettered Hand

The signal Alphabet


“The Signal Alphabet” in particular, which looks similar to flag semaphore, caught my eye. Created by C. W. Knudsen Esq. and Professor Isaac H. Benedict, a deaf-mute individual and teacher at the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, it was derived from a more complex alphabet called the “Brachial Alphabet,” which was published in 1852 by a former Bostonian, Captain Robert Jenks.

“There are many occasions when it could be used with great advantage,” the broadside advertises, “as in the case of ship-wreck . . . on the farm . . . and on the battle field [sic].” I was amused to find these logical implementations followed by the far more outlandish suggestion that “a pleasing and profitable use may also be made of it in schools, as, by requiring the pupils to spell words in concert, the teacher can unite callisthenic [sic] exercises with practice in orthography.”



A pamphlet, entitled Language for the Hand and the Eye and dating to a decade after the broadsides, proposes similar benefits for hearing students.

It was a favorite idea of Dr. Gallaudet (the pioneer in the work of deaf mute education in this country,) that the use of the manual alphabet by hearing and speaking children, would prove highly advantageous, by leading their attention to the written form of words, thus aiding them greatly in forming the habit of spelling correctly.

The use of this alphabet is also a pleasant diversion to children. It is an entertainment to them to find that they can produce language in a new form. (7)



The audience for this particular pamphlet is clearly a hearing one. In the postscript of the text, the author, who is unnamed, addresses the reader directly:

Kind reader: -- Is there among your acquaintances a little one who has not the power of hearing and speaking -- a deaf mute child, unable to acquire this wonderful, beautiful power of language that we all acquire so readily by the ear? If you know of such an one, will you not try to aid the child by teaching it this alphabet, or by inducing the parents, or brothers and sisters, or friends of the little deaf mute to teach it early to use this form of language, and thus save it from unneccessary [sic] ignorance? (10)

The author’s final proclamation makes clear one of the most intriguing aspects of these sources: while they were distributed to propagate a language originally created by the Deaf community, they are directed at hearing individuals with the opinions of deaf individuals filtered through their re-telling by hearing doctors and educators, if they are even included at all.

While some acknowledgement is made of the variations in manual languages between regions, there is no mention of the broader range of formal sign languages to represent and communicate concrete and abstract thoughts beyond the creation of letters. Also omitted is any substantive mention of Deaf culture, or the first-hand account of communicating as a deaf individual.

In addition to these items on manual languages, the MHS also holds a variety of manuscript and print materials pertaining to the personal experience of deaf and mute individuals in New England, as well as educators and doctors who worked with, studied, and taught them. Interested researchers are encouraged to stop by during our open hours to view these, or any of our other collections in person.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 12 September, 2015, 2:42 PM

The Shackles of Freedom: the Slave Trade in Colonial New England

Five weeks ago, I found myself playing chicken with the Green Line. My brush with death in Brookline was worth it.

As a high school student, my primary sources mostly come as nice, neat internet transcriptions. I never expected to be staring at a three hundred year old letter in which Hugh Hall, one of Boston’s prominent slave traders, complains rather vehemently of seasickness. The letter was written in big, loopy handwriting, the polar opposite of Hugh’s brother Richard’s cramped impossibility, on yellowed old paper that felt somewhat slimy.

For a moment, I was overcome by the idea that I was touching Hall’s DNA.

I was researching the development of the New England economy in relation to the slave trade. This rested chiefly on the shoulders of the exploits of early traders in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. I had first to establish the prominence and profitability of the trade, then track its influence, culturally and economically, as it inserted itself into the daily life of colonists. Slavery as a domestic institution was rather invisible in colonial Massachusetts, but the colony’s involvement in a booming international trade was not, and New England merchants grew rich by supplying Caribbean sugar plantations with slaves.

During this time I uncovered the most astounding stories. John Usher, later the Receiver General of the Dominion of New England, conspired with a group of London merchants and his friend John Saffin, to smuggle slaves into Rhode Island. At this time, the Royal African Company held a monopoly on all trade to “His Majesty’s Plantations” with Africa. Usher’s ship was nearly intercepted and had to be redirected to Nantasket, where the cargo was unloaded and sold (according to a bill of sale from 1681 in the miscellaneous manuscripts collection) three months later across New England.

These long-dead personages began to acquire personal characteristics. Richard Hall frequently wrote home to his children in Boston. Elizabeth Shrimpton, the grandmother of Shute Shrimpton Yeamans, who had inherited his father’s plantation in Antigua, sent him a letter in which she debated to herself whether he’d receive the Boston share of her will. With these personalities emerging, details that become almost tangible before the researcher, one finds it hard to imagine the sheer callousness of their commerce. Hall mentions slaves in the same breath as rum and turpentine. The Royal African Company frequently petitioned the King that New England smugglers were disrupting their quotas as to affect their quarterly margins, displeasing their Caribbean customers. I stood amazed that they trafficked in human beings, and that this “smuggling” and these “quotas” often decided the fate of hundreds of captive men, women, and children.

I made three visits to the Massachusetts Historical Society. In each I was awestruck by the sheer volume of resources available to me: original documents, collections, microfilm, and digitized materials. The staff was very helpful in my attempts to locate evidence, and I oftentimes would have been lost in a jungle of information had they not hacked through some vines. For those researching slavery and the slave trade, the John Usher sections of the Jeffries family papers have proved very useful, as has the account book of Hugh Hall, the Shrimpton family papers, the wills in the Dolbeare family papers, and certain sections of the Winthrop family papers. The Sir William Pepperrell papers are, despite the label on the collection guide, an impenetrable morass of personal correspondence mostly related to the Siege of Louisburg, so deceptively organized by the archivists of 1898 that there are indeed indices to indices. I finally stumbled upon a bit of clarity with the discovery of Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, a collection of just the right sort of manuscripts by Elizabeth Donnan, conveniently stored at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here I found the Charter of the Royal African Company, as well as several petitions in regards to said company, and the account of a certain Captain Moore, whose schooner, the William, was “taken and retaken again,” by her captives.

I have always wanted to be a historian. My time at the Massachusetts Historical Society obliterated any lingering doubts in that ambition. Words cannot describe the joy of these encounters with the past, an opportunity I will never forget.  With that in mind, I would like to thank all those at the Society who have aided me in my research, and for awarding me this tremendous opportunity.



**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.



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 11 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

Please note that the Society is Closed on Monday, 7 September, in observance of Labor Day. The Library remains Closed through Friday, 11 September, with normal hours resuming on Saturday, 12 September.

On Wednesday, 9 September, join us at noon for a Brown Bag lunch talk with Jared Hardesty of Western Washington University. Hardesty's talk is titled "Constructing Empire: Fortifications, Politics, and Labor in an Age of Imperial Reform, 1689-1715." The talk is free and open to the public so pack a lunch and stop by for some midday history!

There is no building tour on Saturday, 12 September.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 5 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

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