The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Readers Relate

Guest Post: The Early Revolution, and the Ideas and Identity of the Early Republic

This spring I had the pleasure of working with the incredible resources of the Massachusetts Historical Society for use in my research paper. The paper was about the connection between the early events of the American Revolution in Boston and the ideas of the early United States. Perhaps I had hit the right topic, but the Historical Society had a wealth of different sources I could use that were very specific to my topic. In fact, it was somewhat overwhelming. The Historical Society provides an excellent resource, ABIGAIL, which is an online catalog of all of their documents. A simple search will reveal dozens of relevant primary source documents. And these are available in multiple formats. Many of the documents are available online, like John and Abigail Adams’ personal correspondence. Even more are kept at the historical society, in microfilm and microfiche rolls that stack filing cabinets row upon row, top to bottom. Then there are the hard-copy documents from the eighteenth century, which are beyond cool to look at.

Which brings up the personal experience that comes with going in to see the documents. I personally very much enjoyed it. The first time I went in I was rather nervous. I had signed up to Portal1791, the online reservation service, and I assumed that the Massachusetts Historical Society would be a very serious place. I was unsure about what I would need, and I was worried that I hadn’t reserved the right documents. I thought that it was an absolute necessity to reserve documents far in advance. My misgivings were magnified when I realized that I forgot my student ID, which I was informed that I’d need. This turned out to be unfounded. Upon arriving, I signed in and was able to enter with the help of my history teacher, who was my advisor in the project. All of the people at the Massachusetts Historical Society were very friendly and very willing to help. I was impressed with the efficiency of the librarians, who were able to help me find what I needed. When I needed an extra document that I hadn’t reserved, the librarians were able to get it for me without a problem. One librarian was very insightful in teaching me how to use the microfilm reader. Overall, it was an excellent experience and I would recommend using the Massachusetts Historical Society to people doing research.


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: Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 12:00 AM

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

Voices of the Exhibition: Bostonians at the Centennial

One year ago, I embarked on my first major archival research project outside of the comfort of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where I am an undergraduate student studying English literature, communication, and music.  The first stop on my journey was at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) to connect with my research advisor, Professor Natalie Dykstra, and an MHS archivist, Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, who is a Hope alumna.

My research project, titled “Voices of the Exhibition,” is a series of four podcasts intended to bring the stories of different people who visited the Centennial Exhibition to life.  The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was a world’s fair held in Philadelphia to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was attended by 10 million people from around the globe, making it the highest attended world’s fair at that time.

Many diaries and letters of Exhibition-goers have been catalogued at the MHS and other Boston archives.  In searching through these archives, I found many interesting sources, but my favorite is the diary of Frank Dudley Chase, which currently resides in the collections at the MHS. 

Frank Dudley Chase was 16 years old when he visited the Exhibition, and in elegant penmanship he dutifully recorded everything he encountered while at the fair.  From the cost of his train ticket to elaborate descriptions of the exhibits, Chase left little about his journey out of his diary. 

Chase was a typical teenage boy who loved being outdoors and did not always like to do his chores.  He travelled from Dedham, Massachusetts to Philadelphia for the Exhibition and was at the Exhibition for five days from October 23 to October 28.  From descriptions of ammunition to meticulously painted foreign vases, Chase’s diary is a vivid record that provides a glimpse of what  exhibits and oddities attracted youthful Exhibition visitors.

On Tuesday, October 24, Chase wrote:

Had a heavy rain last night in the night.  Pleasant.  Visited Main building.  First went through U.S. dept.  Near So. Entrance of building were a number of large fancy mirrors.  Among these was a couple one concave; the other convex one showing an object unnaturally broad; the other unnaturally slim … Also saw an immense crystal of alum, weighing 9 tons, a 365 bladed pocket knife, a table knife 9 ft 6 in costing $1500 … the silk exhibit showing the eggs, butterflies, cocoons and raw silks … In the Brazilian department saw precious stones among them white topaz, amethyst and agate; collections of beetles and butterflies; a leather exhibit and a porcupine fish…

He and the rest of his group were undoubtedly eager to take in every facet of the Exhibition.  However, his diary provides more than a meticulous record of daily weather and exhibits: it is a window into Chase’s experience and the experiences of other teenagers who visited the Exhibition.

The Centennial Exhibition was a fair for the people.  It was designed to bring together Americans to celebrate independence and express their patriotism.  Furthermore, it provided an education tool that introduced Americans, like Chase, to cultures, inventions, and ideas that were brand new to them.

Before researching at the MHS, I was already able to recite many facts about the Exhibition.  I would not call myself an expert in every detail, but I knew a lot.  However, it was not until I read Chase’s diary that I fully understood the impact of the Exhibition on the American people.  On December 31, two months after visiting Philadelphia, Chase said it best when he wrote: “One great event distinguishes this year in my life, and that is my journey to the Centennial where I learnt more than I should have in many years of quiet life.”

As I look back on the past year, I am still so thankful for the experience I had at the MHS.  Not only did I find wonderful information in Chase’s diary, but I read the diary of George W. Ely, a young man who visited the fair, official addresses to the Centennial committee, and letters from prominent Boston citizens, such as members of the Saltonstall family and their friends. 

As an undergraduate student, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to do research at such a prestigious institution.  I cannot express enough the importance of the MHS to my education and professional development.

Listen to a podcast that features Chase’s diary, titled “Children at the Exhibition.” It is the second podcast in the four-podcast series, all of which can be found on my website at





comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 25 June, 2015, 1:00 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

Environmental Change from Baja California to Alaska, 1768-1820s

Welcome to another installment of our Readers Relate series, in which we ask researchers to share a little bit about the work that brought them to the MHS and what they found when they got here.

Today’s interviewee is Jen Staver, candidate in history at the University of California, Irvine. Ms. Staver’s research looks at the natural and social environment along North America’s Pacific coastline, exploring “the development of new geographies of power and labor in the wake of European and American incursion from the Pacific.”

In her work, Ms. Staver highlights the ways in which MHS collections can support research on topics that seem fairly distant from New England geography and politics!

 1. Can you briefly describe the research project that brought you to the Massachusetts Historical Society?

I am working on a doctoral dissertation in American history. My project interrogates the relationship of the ocean to the social and environmental changes that look place along the North American Pacific Coast (from Baja California to southern Alaska) from about 1768 through the 1820s. My project explores the connections between what happened in, on, and abutting the ocean to the changing demographic, economic, and social relationships amongst the indigenous and foreign peoples in the region. By focusing on who moved through and labored in the waters of the North American Pacific Coast, how and why they did so, and the ways those people interacted with one another and the coastal environment, it explores the development of new geographies of power and labor in the wake of European and American incursion from the Pacific.

2. What specific material in our collections made coming to the MHS important to your research? Was there a specific collection or type of material  that you consulted?

Given that my research is focused on the Pacific coast, many of my family and friends were confused about why I needed to spend time in the archives in Massachusetts. Over the time period I’m studying, a good number of Americans began coming to the Northwest Coast and, later, to California, on merchant ships partaking in the China trade. These American ships were overwhelmingly owned by northeastern merchants and most often sailed out of Boston or other Massachusetts ports. As a result, the logbooks and journals from these voyages, the letters from sailors on them, and the papers of those who financed the trips and owned the boats are largely in New England archives. There are two types of materials at MHS that are quite important to my research. The first are the logbooks, journals, and other writings and drawings of people who actually visited the Pacific Coast. Such records are amongst the only written evidence that exists describing the Pacific Coast in the 1700s (especially the northwestern part, beyond the sustained presence of the Spanish in Alta California), the indigenous people living there, and the type and character of the interactions that took place between foreign sailors and indigenous residents. The second set of materials of interest for my project are the letters, account books, and other papers of merchants who perhaps never themselves sailed to the eastern Pacific but who financed voyages or who were involved in broader trade networks that the region was a part of. Their letters, for example, help me to understand both New England merchants’ perceptions and knowledge of the Pacific Coast as well as how that knowledge was situated within and influenced by the myriad global connections these merchants maintained.

3. While you were working here, was there something you examined that surprised you? What was it, and why was it surprising?

In the papers of Thomas Lamb, a prominent Boston merchant, I found an insurance policy for a ship involved in the China trade (Thomas Lamb Papers, Box 1, Folder: 1802-1816). The existence of the policy itself didn’t surprise me, but an addendum to the standard text of the policy did.

On August 30, 1815, Benjamin Waldo Lamb (brother of Thomas) insured the ship Sultan and its cargo for $3,000. The policy would remain in effect for up to four years or until the ship returned from the Pacific to Boston or another port of discharge in the United States. The standard policy covers dangers encountered at sea, pirates, enemies, and several other potential hazards at sea. However, added into the typed boilerplate policy was the following handwriting:

“The Insurers are liable for seizure for illicit trade on the Coast of California. In case of loss before the arrival of this ship at Canton no proof of property is to be required.”

In 1815, what is now California was still under nominal Spanish control, and Spain generally banned residents of the missions and pueblos of Alta California from partaking in trade with non-Spanish ships. However, the practice was common, despite ongoing if undermanned efforts by the provincial government and military in California to thwart it. Nonetheless, the brazen acknowledgment of American intentions to partake in such trade struck me in this case. That the ship owners felt it needed to be added to the policy indicates the tangible risks that a ship engaging in such “illicit” trade may actually face; on the other hand, that the insurers were liable for risks associated with such “illicit” activity seems to imply it was considered by these Atlantic businessmen to be an acceptable and even normal part of doing business in the Pacific.

4. Is there a particular quote (or visual image) from the material that you consulted that stands out for you? What is the quote (or image) and why is it important?

I am still going through what I was able to gather during my visit to MHS, but there was a passage from the logbook of a merchant ship that particularly caught my eye, even from the microfilm machine (William Sturgis Papers, Reel 4). On July 4, 1814, the Boston-based ship Atahualpa was docked at “Whymea Bay” in “Atooi” (on the island of Kauai in what is now Hawai’i). The sailors celebrated the anniversary of American independence, fortified by Madera wine that was “bountyfully  supply’d” by another American captain. According to the logbook, the men proceeded to partake in more than a dozen “patriotic Toasts” to a variety of honorees – the memory of George Washington, the American Navy, and the King of Atooi, to name a few. But it was the final four that stood out to me:

10th Commerce – while we view with indignation the Injuries done by Britain, may peace never be concluded but by Free Trade + sailors Rights.

11th The Union. May the first wretch who advocates a separation of the States be Tared [sic] + Feathered + banished the country.

12th. The enemies of our country, the enemies of Mankind, may they all be bound up the river Styx, + consigned to Hell.

13th. The Ladies of the Sandwich Islands, while embracing their charms, let us not forget the Yankee fair ones at home.

I find this excerpt important for the ways it elucidates the various worlds the sailors of the Atahualpa inhabited in 1814. On the one hand they felt themselves to very much be Americans, even Unionists – yet their toasts simultaneously reveal the supranational networks and interests (economic and sexual) that they were a part of by virtue of their activity in the Pacific.

5. If you brought a visitor to the MHS and you had a chance to show them ONE item from our collections, what item would it be?

If I were to pick from the materials I viewed on my trip, I would choose the late-eighteenth-century letterbook of the Boston merchants James and Thomas Lamb – a leather-bound, several hundred page book that contains handwritten transcripts of most of the business letters (and a few personal ones) the brothers wrote between 1797 and 1799 (Lamb Family Papers, Box 13). My specific interest in this letterbook was in any notes addressed to captains sailing along the Northwest Coast. But in looking for letters with this particular destination, I came across dozens of others addressed to correspondents located in Havana, St. Croix, Canton, Rotterdam, and London, as well as letters referencing trade, prices, and events in western Africa, Chile, Batavia, and other locales in Asia, South America, and Europe. Historians are increasingly studying and emphasizing the international nature of early America and the early republic, but looking at a letterbook like this one really makes tangible the astoundingly global nature of the business interests and social and political world of this Boston family. In doing so I think it would challenge any viewer to rethink their assumptions about life and knowledge in early national Massachusetts.                       

Asked to provide a few lines about her professional background and current research interests, Jen Staver writes:

I am a PhD candidate in history at the University of California, Irvine. My research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of early American, world, and environmental history. Before beginning my PhD, I got a BA in history and a MS in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and worked at an environmental consulting firm in San Francisco.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 30 March, 2012, 8:00 AM

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