Guide to the Collection

Collection Summary


This collection consists of the family and business papers of five generations of the May family, primarily of Attleboro, Mass., 1736-1980, including deeds, correspondence, poetry, a scrapbook, and diaries. The collection includes accounts and correspondence relating to Elisha May's work in the Massachusetts Militia supplying the Continental Army with beef during the Revolutionary War.

Biographical Sketches

Benjamin May (ca. 1705-1776) was a farmer and the fourth generation of the May family to live in Massachusetts. He was the son of Elisha (b. 1669) and Elizabeth Walker (dates unknown). He was born in Attleboro, Mass. and lived there all his life. He married Susanna Clark (b. 1717) in 1736 and they had four children: Susanna (b. 1737), Elisha (b.1739), Elisabeth (b. 1741) and Benjamin (b. 1743).

Elisha May (1739-1811), Benjamin's older son, was a farmer and local officeholder in Attleboro where he spent most of his life. He became successively selectman, coroner, justice of the peace, member of the committee of correspondence, moderator of the town meeting, member of the governor's council, state representative and state senator (1778-1804) and presidential elector. During the Revolutionary War he served in the Massachusetts Militia from 1775 to 1781, first as a lieutenant in Jabez Ellis's company, then as a captain in John Daggatt's regiment, and later as a major, lieutenant colonel and colonel in Isaac Dean's regiment, the 4th regiment of Bristol County. He married Ruth Metcalf (1743-1815) in 1763 and they had ten children: William (1764-1790), Oliver (b. 1765), Susanna (1769-1821), Lydia (b. 1771), John (1774-1837), Lucy (1776-1783), Jesse (1779-1815), Elisha (b. 1781), Lemuel (1784-1870), and Tully (b. 1787).

Lemuel May (1784-1870), Elisha's penultimate son, was also a farmer and local officeholder in Attleboro. He actively bought and sold land and held a number of political positions, including justice of the peace, member of the governor's council, state senator (1838-1840) and postmaster. He married Eliza Wilder (1794-1831) in 1814 and they had two sons: Lemuel Augustus (1816-1862) and John Wilder (1819-1883).

John Wilder May (1819-1883), Lemuel's second son, was a lawyer and public official who grew up in Attleboro and moved to Roxbury to study and practice law. He studied at Philllips Andover Academy and the University of Vermont. After brief attempts at farming and school teaching, he moved to Roxbury to read law in the office of Francis Hilliard. He was admitted to the bar in 1851 and became active in local politics. He was a selectman, member of the general court, city solicitor of Roxbury, district attorney of Suffolk County, and chief justice of the Boston Municipal Court, a position held until his death. He married his cousin Elizabeth Thurston Farnham (1832-1878) in 1850 and they had four children: Henry Farnham (1860-1939), Harriet Wilder (1862-1950), John Lemuel (1864-1893) and Elizabeth Farnham (b. 1868).

Henry Farnham May (1860-1939), John Wilder's older son, was a lawyer who grew up in Roxbury and practiced law in Denver and San Francisco. He studied at Roxbury Latin School and Harvard University. He read law in the office of Frederick O. Prince of Boston and was admitted to the bar in 1884. For a few years he practiced law with William Choate, a Harvard classmate. From 1889 to 1917 he practiced law in Denver, specializing in railroad and mining law. From 1917 to 1921 he worked as a special U.S. attorney in San Francisco in charge of litigation over western oil lands. He married May Rickard (1885-1946) in 1906 and they had three children: Elizabeth (b. 1907), John Richard (b. 1909) and Henry Farnham.


For a discussion of the May family, see Henry F. May's Coming to Terms: A Study in Memory and History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, and Samuel May's A Genealogy of the Descendants of John May: Who Came from England to Roxbury, in America, 1640, Boston: Franklin Press, 1878.

Collection Description

The May family papers consists of one document box, one oversize box and five cased volumes spanning the years 1736 to 1980 (bulk: 1766-1883). The papers cover five generations of the May family who lived mostly in Attleboro, Mass. and later in Boston, Denver and San Francisco. The collection documents family, business and public service activities.

The bulk of the collection consists of correspondence, deeds, appointments and judicial records. The collection includes an extensive exchange of letters, warrants and accounts to Elisha May from 1780 to 1781 about his arranging in Attleboro for the Massachusetts Militia, 4th regiment (Bristol Co.) to supply beef for the Continental Army. The remainder of the collection includes other legal and professional records, accounts and other miscellaneous items.

The collection documents the family's long history of public service. The papers of Elisha May, Lemuel May and John Wilder May consist mostly of the appointments, notebooks and other records that they kept during their long tenures of public service in offices such as justice of the peace, state senator, and chief justice of the Boston Municipal Court.

The collection also contains family, religious and genealogical materials kept by other members of the family. The papers include a sermon of William May in praise of morally uplifting reading and a covenant with Jehovah of Eliza Wilder May expressing a Calvinist view of human submission to divine authority. There are diaries and scrapbooks kept by Elizabeth Farnham May and her daughters Harriet Wilder May and Elizabeth May.

Acquisition Information

Gift of Elizabeth May Slater, John R. May, and Henry F. May, Jan. 1988.

Detailed Description of the Collection

I. Benjamin May papers, 1736-1745

This series consists of three deeds to land in Attleboro, Mass, and nearby Barrington, Rhode Island purchased by Benjamin May. A church meeting record from the First Congregational Church in Barrington documents a complaint about the conduct of the pastor Peleg Heath.

Box 1Folder 1

II. Elisha May papers, 1766-1812

This series primarily consists of correspondence and various legal documents. There are a number of miscellaneous items including poetry, a cipher code, a recipe, and a sketch from the Revolution showing the location of people's homes in Attleboro in which all are described by name except one belonging to "Negro."

The correspondence consists mostly of letters related to Elisha May's political and military responsibilities, including an extensive exchange of letters during the Revolution about the supply of beef for the Continental Army. There are two letters denouncing people who have slandered him and one letter from his wife Ruth.

The legal documents include deeds, accounts, warrants, appointments, commissions, and judicial records. The deeds consist mostly of land purchased by Elisha May in or near Attleboro. The accounts are generally for personal expenses, including a tuition contract for his son William at Rhode Island College. There are also accounts from 1780 to 1781 relating to the purchase of beef arranged by Elisha May during his service in the Massachusetts Militia, 4th regiment (Bristol Co.) on behalf of the Continental Army. The warrants refer to the removal of indigent strangers and to troop movements and beef provisioning during the Revolution. The appointments are for many of the political offices he held, including coroner, justice of the peace, senator and member of the governor's council, and the military commissions are for his promotions to major and colonel. The judicial records document his duties as coroner and justice of the peace and consist mostly of inquest reports, complaints and lists of the cases he decided.

Box 1Folder 2-3
Papers, 1766-1812
Box 1Folder 4
Revolutionary War papers, 1775-1781
Box 1Folder 5
Accounts and judicial notebook, ca. 1792-1800

III. Lemuel May papers, 1805-1858

This series consists mostly of deeds, appointments and judicial records. There are more than thirty deeds and Lemuel May is generally the purchaser of land in or near Attleboro, including farm land, shares of cotton factories and debtors' estates. The appointments document his service as justice of the peace, state senator, member of the governor's council and postmaster. The judicial records consist of notebooks summarizing the cases he presided over as justice of the peace. Miscellaneous items include a subscription for the erection of the Washington Monument, a covenant with Jehovah made by his wife Eliza Wilder May, daughter of clergyman John Wilder, and a sermon written by his nephew William May (b. 1803) of Winthrop, Maine, son of John May .

Box 1Folder 6-7
Papers, 1805-1858
Box 1Folder 8
Judicial record book, 1816-1819
Box 1Folder 9
Judicial record book, 1819-1854
Box 1Folder 10
Loose papers removed from judicial record book, 1819-1854

IV. John Wilder May papers, 1833-1883

This series consists of correspondence, school certificates and various legal documents. The correspondence includes several personal letters, requests for genealogical information, letters of recommendation in support of his selection as district attorney, and letters of condolence on his death in 1883. The school certificates are for his enrollment in and fraternity membership at Phillips Andover Academy. The legal documents include his legal licenses, partnership agreements, deeds and a mortgage, insurance policies, a marriage ceremony he performed and appointments. The deeds are for a cemetery plot and a piece of land he sold in Roxbury. The appointments document his becoming a master in chancery, justice of the peace and city solicitor of Roxbury, captain of a militia company and district attorney of Suffolk County.

Box 1Folder 11

V. May family papers, 1848-1925

This series consists of a diary and scrapbook of Elizabeth Farnham May (1832-1878), wife of John Wilder May, correspondence of their son, Henry Farnham May, and three diaries of their daughter Harriet Wilder May. The diary of Elizabeth Farnham May was kept from 1848 to 1849 in Dorchester, Mass. and deals with personal and family matters. The scrapbook consists of clippings of poetry, meditations and articles kept by Elizabeth Farnham May from 1862 to 1878, as well as notices of John Wilder May's death in 1883 and additional material compiled by their daughter Elizabeth (b. 1868) and added to her mother's scrapbook. The correspondence of Henry Farnham May relates to family matters and school subscriptions. The diaries of Harriet Wilder May were kept from 1901 to 1920 in Newton, Mass. and deal with personal and family matters. They also contain lists of books, addresses, household and clothing items, as well as poetry and quotations.

Vol. 1
Elizabeth Farnham May (1832-78) scrapbook, 1862-1895
Box 1Folder 12
Loose papers removed from Elizabeth Farnham May scrapbook, 1862-1895
Vol. 2
Elizabeth Farnham May (1832-1878) diary, 1848-1849
Box 1Folder 13
Henry Farnham May papers, 1867-1925

Harriet Wilder May diaries

Vol. 3
Vol. 4
Vol. 5
Box 1Folder 14
Clippings removed from Harriet Wilder May diaries, 1901-1920

VI. Genealogical materials, ca. 1964-1980

This series consists of research notes on family history, excerpts of published biographies of various family members as well as histories of Attleboro, Mass. and Winthrop, Maine, and transcriptions of family gravestones in Attleboro.

Box 1Folder 15

Oversize Box

OS Box

Materials Removed from the Collection

Photographs Removed

Photographs from this collection have been removed to the May family photographs, ca. 1874-1980. Photo. Coll. 500.72.

Printed Materials Removed

For a list of printed materials removed from this collection, see Curator of Manuscripts.

Preferred Citation

May family papers, 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.


May family--Genealogy.
May, Benjamin, ca. 1705-1776.
May, Elisha, 1739-1811.
May, Elizabeth Farnham, b. 1868.
May, Elizabeth Thurston Farnham, 1832-1878.
May, Harriet Wilder, 1862-1950.
May, Henry Farnham, 1860-1939.
May, John Wilder, 1819-1883.
May, Lemuel, 1784-1870.


Massachusetts. Militia. Regiment, 4th (Bristol County).
United States. Continental Army--Supplies and stores.
Phillips Academy.


Coroners--Massachusetts--Bristol County.
Family history--1700-1749.
Family history--1750-1799.
Family history--1800-1849.
Family history--1850-1899.
Family history--1900-1949.
Justices of the peace--Massachusetts--Bristol County.
Real property--Massachusetts--Attleboro.
Real property--Massachusetts--Roxbury.
Real property--Rhode Island--Barrington.
United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Equipment and supplies.
Diaries--1848-1849, 1901-1910, 1916-1920.
Women's diaries.