A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Collections Online

John Winthrop journal, History of New England (manuscript), volume 1, page 1

John Winthrop journal, History of New England (manuscript), volume 1, page 1
Image 1 of 1

    Choose an alternate description of this item written for these projects:
  • Main description

[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]

Anno Domini 1930: march 29, mundaye.
Easter mundaye
Rydinge at the Cowes neare the Ile of wight in the Arbella, a Shippe of 350: tunes whereof Captaine Peter Milborne was master...

These are the first lines of the first page of the most important single manuscript held by the Society, the basic document for the study of the history of the founding of Massachusetts. John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, kept this journal as a personal record of his life and service, but also as a semiofficial history of the first nineteen years of the Bay Colony. Since the late colonial period, historians have used Winthrop's journal, first as a manuscript, and since 1790 in a variety of editions, for the study of the founding of Massachusetts. (FN 1)

John Winthrop was forty-two years old when he began his journal. A landed Puritan gentleman who had been trained as a lawyer, Winthrop had considerable business and administrative experience when he was chosen first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, while still in England. The journal began as a day-by-day account of the voyage to America. Except when the weight of his work made it impossible for him to write regularly, that is how it remained through the first years of his governorship. Later, the journal became a much more self-conscious attempt to set down the history of important events in New England soon after they happened. (FN 2)

The value of the journal to historians lies in the wealth of information not found in other surviving contemporary records that it provides concerning political and religious affairs in the first years of the new colony. Winthrop gives firsthand accounts, often extremely biased toward his own point of view, but substantial in detailing a range of events and figures in the early history of New England. William Bradford of Plymouth, John Cotton, Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams inhabit the pages of the journal; Antinomianism, Indian wars, witchcraft, and wolves are all described and discussed. (FN 3)

The History, kept as a personal journal, was, in fact, very much a public document. It is different in character and content from Winthrop's personal correspondence from the same period and shows the reader only the often harsh public figure of the governor and lay magistrate. The private John Winthrop kept a personal spiritual journal during the same years he wrote the first volume of his History, and he had a wide-ranging correspondence with business associates, friends, and family that reveals a less solemn, more complicated man. (FN 4)

The history of the manuscript of Winthrop's History and its publication is as tangled as the character and life of its author. The Winthrop family allowed early historians of New England, beginning with William Hubbard and Cotton Mather in the seventeenth century, to examine the journal, and manuscript extracts and transcriptions were made and used throughout the eighteenth century. In the course of this generous contribution to historical research, the family lost control of the entire journal. Volume three disappeared early in the eighteenth century, apparently when it was loaned to Thomas Prince, a Boston minister and antiquarian; and the remaining two volumes were in the hands of Jeremy Belknap, the founder of the Historical Society, at the time of his death in 1798. In 1790 Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, published the first edition of journals, which included only the first two volumes. The Winthrop family, which had recovered the actual volumes from Jeremy Belknap's heirs, gave them to the Historical Society in 1803. By a stroke of luck, the third volume of the manuscript was located in Thomas Prince's papers at the Old South Church and reunited with the first two volumes in the library of the Society in 1817. Good fortune, however, was soon followed by tragedy. James Savage, a Boston banker and librarian of the Society (and its future president), borrowed the journal manuscript to check his transcription for a new edition of the History, and the second volume, containing more than half the manuscript text, was destroyed in a fire at his office in 1825. (FN 5)

However, Savage's 1825—1826 edition of the History is the best presently available to scholars, except for Winthrop's 1630 journal entries that appear in volume two of the Society's modern scholarly edition of the Winthrop Papers. Six volumes of edited Winthrop family papers, covering the years 1598 to 1654 have appeared to date. Work on a modern scholarly edition of the entire History, with Savage's transcription supplying the text for the lost second volume, was published in 1996.

The surviving volumes of John Winthrop's History are a vital but very small part of an extremely large collection of Winthrop family papers at the Society, which date from 1544 to 1963. In addition to English ancestral material and Governor Winthrop's pre-migration correspondence, there are the papers of his son, John Winthrop, Jr. (1606—1676), one of the most versatile figures in American colonial history, and eight descendant generations of Winthrop family members. These manuscripts include correspondence, letterbooks, diaries, journals, travel journals, speeches, account books, deeds, medical records, publications, scrapbooks, and other papers.(FN 6)

Sources for Further Reading

1. Dunn, Richard S. "John Winthrop Writes His Journal." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. ser., 41. (1984), p. 186.

2. Ibid., pp. 188-200.

3. Winthrop, John. History of New England from 1630 to 1649. James Savage ed. 2 vols. Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1826.

4. Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958, pp. 13-14.

5. Freiberg, Malcolm. "The Winthrops and Their Papers." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 80. (1969), pp. 55-61.

6. Ibid., p. 61.