The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Education Programs

Guest Post: Searching for the Federalist Party in Massachusetts

I plan to be a professional historian, but I had this nagging worry that sifting through a bunch of historical documents could be a mind-numbing slog that would turn me off of the subject I love so much. Thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society, I now know I’m in this for the long haul. I had so much fun looking through old letters, speeches, and newspaper publications. Every text seemed to be an appeal from the long-dead author, saying, “Hear me! Know my story!” It was a thrilling experience to hear the perspective of contemporaries and draw my own conclusions.

Once I was shown around the building and told how to navigate the collection, I felt right at home. There is such a welcoming atmosphere, and I really felt the satisfaction of learning from the material, rather than simply completing an assigned project. I could assign real value to my work, and I wasn’t treated like a child. I really enjoyed working on my own investigation, alongside like-minded people, in an environment in which I felt completely at ease. During my visits I was delighted to see other young people doing the same kind of thing. The staff always took me seriously, and was always ready to help if I had a question. Until now I had never used microfiche, but within two minutes the reference librarian had me set up and I knew all I needed to know to use it. I could even take pictures of the old documents and email them to myself so I could do work at home.

My project was an investigation of just what happened to the Federalist party after the Revolution of 1800, the first major turnover of power in our government’s history. Usually we are taught that this defeated party, woefully out of touch with public opinion, faded into obscurity quickly after being defeated by Thomas Jefferson, apparently the dashing savior of the republic. The sources I looked over showed a very different story of a party that raised its standard against what they saw as misgovernment and staged a strong, if brief, political comeback.

My most invaluable resource was a collection of the letters by the arch-Federalist Harrison Gray Otis in the aftermath of the disastrous Hartford Convention. I actually came upon it by accident while looking through a collection of Massachusetts letters for a specific speech. The letters form a plea by Otis to posterity, people like us, to not let the name of Massachusetts be blackened by the misrepresentation of its conduct by the rest of the country. After watching a rival get elected governor and listening to that man’s denouncement of his own state during the War of 1812, he laments:

Hereafter it will be too late to blot out the blot made by His Excellency upon the historic page, by alleging that his speech was intended merely to chime with the slang of the day. It will be answered … that the accused party in the Legislature quailed under the pungent rebuke from the chair, and that members of the Convention continued to be dumb as sheep before their shearer … will not the rising generations of this State burn with shame and indignation when it shall constantly be thrown in their teeth by the rising generations of other States, that their base blood has crept to them through ancestors who silently admitted themselves to be stigmatized as outlaws from the “American Family!”

It was the discovery of documents such as this that helped me to develop a real connection to the project, unearthing old misconceptions and hearing age-old voices as directly as I possibly could. The MHS archives gave me a wonderful opportunity to experience historical research first hand. Even now that my fellowship is over I intend to go back and continue my research. We are so lucky to have access to these documents in Massachusetts and this organization, and I hope other people will take advantage of them as I did.

 

**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: Thursday, 10 July, 2014, 8:00 AM

Adventures in Western Massachusetts

What do Herman Melville, papermaking, and Shays’ Rebellion have in common? Perhaps you already knew that all three have a connection to Berkshire County in Massachusetts. On 15-16 November 2013, educators and history enthusiasts had the opportunity to immerse themselves in these topics as part of the Society’s recent series of workshops, “Old Towns/New Country: The First Years of the New Nation.” This program, offered in conjunction with the Berkshire Historical Society at Herman Melville’s Arrowhead, the Crane Museum of Papermaking, and the Pittsfield Athenaeum, offered participants a behind-the-scenes look at the fascinating history of the region.

Friday’s highlights included a discussion of the events known as Shays’ Rebellion, tiptoeing through gravestones, and vacuuming water from paper pulp.  First, Gary Shattuck shared his research into the life of his ancestor, Job Shattuck, a participant in the uprising that closed several Massachusetts courts in 1786 and 1787. We discussed the complicated political, social, and economic conditions that led to the “rebellion,” as well as Shays’ and Shattuck’s legacies. Is it really accurate to call these court closings a rebellion? As Gary pointed out, men like Shattuck were not trying to overthrow the system of government, just regulate it. (Perhaps that’s why the title of Gary’s new book is Artful and Designing Men: The Trials of Job Shattuck and the Regulation of 1786-1787.)

Friday afternoon began with a conversation with Dean Eastman, a retired history teacher from Beverly High School and the co-creator (with Kevin McGrath) of the fantastic website, Primary Research: Local History, Closer to Home. Many of the primary-source-based projects featured on the site were collaborations between Dean’s students, historians, and local history organizations. Dean explained how one investigation into the designs carved into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gravestones encouraged student research on topics including local artists, the religious culture of Massachusetts, and even the growth patterns of lichen. Dean is currently looking for history buffs to participate in a project that traces the men and women who served as apprentices in Essex County, Massachusetts. Visit primaryresearch.org to learn more. The day concluded with a visit to the Crane Museum of Papermaking in Dalton. Curator Peter Hopkins treated us to a hands-on introduction to the art of making fine paper. Did you know that Crane & Co. supplies the majority of the paper that will become United States currency? Although we didn’t get to make money, everyone did take a turn at making a sheet of paper.

Saturday was devoted to exploring the physical structures and features of the landscape that make Berkshire country such a special place. Curator Will Garrison gave participants a look at some of the artifacts donated to the Berkshire Historical Society over the years. Although the Society is headquartered at Melville’s Pittsfield residence, Arrowhead, the organization’s collections include many intriguing artifacts that speak to the history of the region. Participants caught a glimpse of a nineteenth-century sampler, a cozy looking quilted skirt, a piece of the hull from the U.S.S. Constitution, and part of the press used by the residents of Cheshire, Massachusetts, to make a 1,200-pound wheel of cheese for President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Our tour of Arrowhead concluded with a walk through his home with Betsy Sherman, Director of the Berkshire Historical Society. She talked about Melville’s longstanding connection to—and affinity for—the Berkshires, as well as the references to the people and places of the region that fill the pages of his writings. She saved the best part of the tour for last: a glimpse into Melville’s study and the stunning view of Mt. Greylock beyond his window. We ended the day in the local history room at the Pittsfield Athenaeum, where Kathleen Reilly treated us to a comprehensive overview of the library’s many resources. Like Dean, she also has a potential research project for anyone with time and interest to spare. Just ask her about the mystery of the twin paintings….

For information about upcoming public programs or workshops, please visit our web calendar or contact the Education Department.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 9:23 AM

A “Painless” Day at the MHS

On Saturday, 5 October, the MHS hosted a fun-filled, hands-on workshop for teachers, students, librarians, and history enthusiasts. Nearly 20 participants braved the beautiful weather (and the Red Sox home game) to spend a day working with documents from the Society’s collections. Participants travelled far and wide to visit the MHS, and our guest list included students from Arlington; teachers from Bedford, Sharon, Rutland, Revere, and Fitchburg; and librarians and archivists in Boston, Methuen, and Wayland. Who could resist a workshop with a cheeky title like “Painless: A Survival Guide to the Dreaded History Project?”

Our goals for this one-day event included introducing visitors to the resources of the MHS, and encouraging those participants to think more creatively about the ways in which they present history to various audiences. To begin, we examined a range of historical documents from the era of the American Revolution through the Civil War, looking for connections to the theme of “rights and responsibilities.” As they perused letters, diaries, songs, petitions, and government records, participants were asked to collect evidence and draw conclusions about the past based on their understanding of the materials.  Our clever participants identified several themes and essential questions that could be used to anchor a history project. We discussed ideas such as natural rights; the role of government in creating and protecting rights; and the various ways that people fought to protect or change their rights in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Once our intrepid investigators had collected their evidence, it was time for them to decide how to present their findings. Robert Jones, co-coordinator of Massachusetts History Day discussed how the program works, and how History Day methods can be used to encourage the creation of imaginative and engaging history projects. Students in grades 6-12 can participate in History Day, and Bob explained the different sorts of projects that student can create. The group discussed the pros and cons of the traditional history paper, websites, exhibitions, documentaries, and performances. It was then up to all of our participants to create their own project – in 15 minutes or less! One group of participants decided to create a website in order to make use of the great visuals on the site, as well as the multimedia capabilities of the web. (We’d love to see a site featuring songs from the collections of the MHS!) Another very brave group decided to create a 10-minute performance depicting abolitionist activities in the 1840s and 1850s.

It’s safe to say that by the end of the afternoon, our participants had several new methods for tackling the “dreaded” history project, whether it’s an exhibit for the local historical society, or a paper for a high school history class. If you’d like to join us for an upcoming workshop, visit our web calendar or the Education page. For more information about Massachusetts History Day, or to learn about serving as a judge at a 2014 History Day competition, visit the MHD website for news and contact information. 

 

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 9 October, 2013, 8:00 AM

Guest Post: Using the MHS to Learn about Women in WWI

Working with the MHS primary source documents for the John Winthrop Fellowship was an amazing and rewarding experience for me.  Besides analyzing various pieces of the Constitution and other common writings, I had never worked so closely with first hand historical documents.  For my fellowship, I wrote a paper investigating women’s involvement in World War I overseas, and how their achievements directly linked to women’s suffrage.  The MHS documents provided such rich evidence for the themes that I was exploring in my paper.  

I was able to analyze the original letters of a young woman named Nora Saltonstall as written to her family.  Nora was a Boston socialite who yearned to contribute to the American war efforts in WWI more actively and directly than women had done previously.  She volunteered to go overseas to Europe to work on the warfront.  It was fascinating to read Nora’s intimate letters and get a glimpse into a personal experience that related to such a greater movement.  At points in the letters, Nora’s sense of humor and wittiness were evident which reminded me that she was indeed human and brought to life the events that transpired, in a way that textbooks are unable to. The collection contains digitized images of the very stationery she wrote on and her actual handwriting.  She dated and gave her location to each of her letters and conveyed the events in her own words, giving the reader such a vivid perspective into Nora’s world at that time. The MHS also had photographs of Nora and her companions, her lodgings and workplaces, and even her passport.  These primary source documents, gave me an eyewitness view to her experience, and made for a more interesting paper.

It is amazing how many letters and other primary sources from the MHS collection have been digitized, making them so easy to access.  The MHS also provides transcriptions of all the digitized documents, which make it easier to search the documents for specific evidence you might be looking for.  The online collection is well-organized and easy to navigate.  It allows you to search by subject, era (from Colonial Era to the present) or medium (photographs, maps, even streaming medium), so you can directly access information on the topic you are pursuing and view different types of sources, which provide different layers of evidence.  In my project I analyzed letters in the form of manuscripts, and backed up my claims with descriptions of photographs and other gallery images that further emphasized my points.  I would suggest looking for correlations between the photographs and writings provided as different means of evidence.

I based my project on the documents in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s online catalog, Abigail, but the MHS library is also an incredibly valuable resource. If you are looking to get a firsthand glimpse into a historical figure’s life, you should check out the MHS collection.  I suppose what I liked most was the ability to interpret the original documents on my own and draw my own conclusions around the actual evidence, rather than directly being told a conclusion by a third party.  The MHS collection is well-worth looking into when you are researching American history topics.

 

 

**In 2013, the MHS awarded its first two John Winthrop Fellows. This fellowship encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the Society in a research project of their choosing. Please join us in congratulating our fellows: Shane Canekeratne and his teacher Susanna Waters,  Brooks School, and Elizabeth Pacelle and her teacher, Christopher Gauthier, Concord-Carlisle High School.

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 8:00 AM

Guest Post: Using the MHS to Learn about Nuclear Weapons in WWII

History has always been an interest of mine, particularly the historical events of World War I and World War II. After I was presented with the opportunity to apply to the John Winthrop Fellowship, I immediately started to look for different articles related to the 1940s on the Massachusetts Historical Society website. This led me to the Bikini Atoll Papers. The Bikini Atoll Papers, part ofOperation Crossroads,” was a research project on the effects of nuclear bombs. Further exploration online guided me in developing my research angle: “In pursuing the Bikini Atoll Papers, I hope to discover how hard it would have been to build and use an atomic bomb. I also would like to learn what decision had to have been made by the government at the time to approve such a deadly weapon for such a horrible use.”

Through my research, I learned a lot about the procedures put in place to ensure safety during such a dangerous project. Vital Information for Operation Crossroads included: “Mail and Telegram 6 cents for air mail; Personal checks cannot be cashed aboard; No liquor available aboard; cameras are allowed except at Bikini.” My research also led me to the booklet entitled Summary Report (Pacific War). The booklet explained the plans for the United States, before and after Pearl Harbor, in considering entering war. The United States’ plan before Pearl Harbor was that the U.S. would join in the event that Germany was first eliminated. However, when the Japanese went on the offensive, and attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. wanted to defend the American people. As I researched further, I learned how the members of “Operation Crossroads” gave information to journalists and the public.

My visit to the Massachusetts Historical Society went very well. Mrs. Waters, Ms. Morrissey, my mother, my grandmother and I started with a tour of the facility. During the visit, we were allowed to see the construction of a new exhibit that will highlight correspondence between John Adams and his family. In addition, we saw an exhibit featuring e.e. cummings’ childhood artwork and some of his first poems. As we made our way through the building we ended up in the archives, where we were shown an old document pertaining to agriculture and Thomas Jefferson’s opinion on the best cider apple in the 13 colonies. I realized during my time spent in the reading library that I was the youngest person in the room. The room was very quiet, and I really enjoyed researching. After I was done researching, I went to another room, where I found a book about my neighborhood. Although the book contained just basic marriage, deaths, and births during the late 1700s, it was interesting to learn that Southborough, Massachusetts only had about 700 residents during the early year of its founding. I really enjoyed the visit, and would like to thank Mrs. Waters, Ms. Morrissey, and Andrea Cronin of the Massachusetts Historical Society for hosting me.

 

 

**In 2013, the MHS awarded its first two John Winthrop Fellows. This fellowship encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the Society in a research project of their choosing. Please join us in congratulating our fellows: Shane Canekeratne and his teacher Susanna Waters,  Brooks School, and Elizabeth Pacelle and her teacher, Christopher Gauthier, Concord-Carlisle High School.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 8:00 AM

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