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The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity Open at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Explore the impact of generations of Irish in Boston from famine relief efforts to a mass migration movement, community and institutional building, and a rise in political power.

The Irish AtlanticThe Irish have long been an important presence in Boston. The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity, co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Forbes House Museum in Milton, Mass., explores the Irish in Boston from famine relief efforts to a mass migration movement, decades of community and institutional building, and a rise in political power. The exhibition opens on March 10, 2017 and is on display at the Society through September 22, Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

The Irish began arriving in Boston during the 18th century and were mostly Presbyterians fleeing the harsh economic realities of the north of Ireland. The community grew despite Boston’s unwelcoming puritan traditions. In 1737, the Charitable Irish Society was formed to assist the poorer members of the Irish community.  By the early 19th century, descendants of Boston’s Irish Protestants had become an important part of the fabric of the town. 

By the end of 1846, news of the severity of the Potato Famine arrived in Boston.  Old ties to Ireland—and a deep sense of charity—inspired Bostonians to organize a relief mission. Aboard the U.S.S. Jamestown, Robert Bennet Forbes and others carried food to a starving Ireland. Visitors are greeted at the start of the exhibition with the wheel from the Jamestown. Paintings of the Jamestown, Robert Bennet Forbes, and John Murray Forbes along with letters, a narrative of the voyage, and other manuscript pages provide context for the mission. Also on display is a harp-framed testimonial to Captain Forbes from the inhabitants of the county and city of Cork given in gratitude for his relief efforts.

As the famine wrought devastation across Ireland, thousands of impoverished Irish sought to escape misery, starvation, and death by braving the harsh and dangerous Atlantic crossing. Many arrived in Boston. By 1850, the Irish were the largest immigrant group in the city. Poor, unskilled, and desperate, they crowded into the city’s North End, South Cove, and Fort Hill neighborhoods, places rife with deplorable living conditions.

The unprecedented surge of Irish into Boston alarmed nativist elements, who feared that the city was becoming a dumping ground for undesirables who threatened to undermine and destroy traditional American values. In reaction, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant "Know Nothing" Party arose, calling for "Temperance, Liberty and Protestantism." The party swept into office in Massachusetts and took control of the legislature, passing laws to restrict voting while sending special committees to investigate "certain practices" alleged to be taking place in Catholic schools. Visitors can view pages from the records of the East Boston Chapter of the American Party along with the Constitution of the State Council of the American Party of Massachusetts that was adopted on August 7, 1855.

Although Boston’s Irish were sympathetic to the South and were supporters of the Democratic Party, the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter convinced them to stand by the Union and the Constitution. To demonstrate loyalty to the Union, and with the support of Gov. John A. Andrew, Col. Thomas Cass, an Irish immigrant, formed the 9th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Made up primarily of Irishmen, the "Fighting Ninth" distinguished itself in the war. Irish support for the Union helped to soften nativist sentiment against them while the war itself provided new opportunities for economic and social advancement. Broadsides, including a recruiting poster for the “Glorious 9th” Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment and a poster for the 28th Infantry, the second Irish regiment raised, that includes the Irish battle cry "Fág an Bealach." 

The Civil War left the Republicans in the ascendency and the Democrats in disarray. By their sheer numbers, and united by a vibrant network of family, church, business, and politics, the Irish emerged as a potent force in Boston. Imbued by the drive for Home Rule back in Ireland with a rising spirit of Irish pride, new leaders, including Patrick A. Collins and Patrick Maguire, took control of the Democratic Party and got out the vote. Their efforts prevailed, and in 1884 Boston elected its first Irish-born Roman Catholic mayor, Hugh O’Brien. 

Anxious to preserve their rich culture, Irish immigrants brought to Boston a fondness for literature, poetry, and song. Taken from Ireland and reshaped in America, these remembrances were often published in the Boston Pilot, America’s first Catholic newspaper. John Boyle O’Reilly joined the Pilot as a reporter, was appointed editor in 1871, emerged as a popular writer and frequent lecturer and became the co-owner in 1876. His strong American patriotism, conciliatory stance in politics, and advocacy for social reform gained him acceptance among Boston’s elite. 

In 1895, the number of immigrants born in Ireland and living in Boston reached its peak with 72,000 out of a total population of nearly a half million. While recent arrivals continued to settle in the older crowded neighborhoods of the city, the 20th century offered new opportunities. Second and third generation families, having achieved some economic and social success, relocated to more pleasant surroundings in other parts of Boston, including Charlestown, Dorchester, and South Boston. Some families left entirely, moving to the suburbs. In 1905, John F. Fitzgerald was elected Boston’s first American-born Irish Catholic mayor, and in 1911 Archbishop William O’Connell was elevated to cardinal. In 1912, Pres. William Howard Taft, addressed the Charitable Irish Society in Boston, celebrating the “Irish race.” It may not have been "rags to riches," but since the days of the Jamestown’s voyage, Boston’s Irish had come from "rags to respectability."

The exhibition is supplemented with touch screen displays featuring interviews with Mayor Martin Walsh; Consul General of Ireland Fionnuala Quinlan; former mayor and ambassador Ray Flynn; guest curator and Northeastern University professor William Fowler, Jr.; Stephen T. Riley Librarian at the MHS Peter Drummey; attorney and author Christian Samito; Boston College professor James O'Toole; and guest historian Catherine Shannon. Additional online content is available at www.masshist.org/irish-atlantic

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The MHS brings documents by John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson and other artifacts online on Google Arts & Culture for Presidents Day

Over 80 items from the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) can be viewed online on Google Arts & Culture by people around the world due to a new partnership between Google and the Society. Thanks to this new virtual collection, users will be able to see correspondence between John Adams, Abigail Adams, and John Quincy Adams as father and son progressed from American diplomats serving abroad to President of the United States; manuscripts from Thomas Jefferson’s private papers including a handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and architectural drawings detailing plans for Monticello, and many other treasures of the Society in just a few clicks at https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/partner/massachusetts-historical-society. This all comes as part of Google Arts & Culture's Presidents Day collection, (g.co/americandemocracy) celebrating the history of the United States presidency from George Washington to present day.  Explore a president's journey to and time in the Oval Office--from exciting political campaigns, to their first days in office, and finally defining moments of the presidency.

Digital exhibits
Specially curated virtual exhibits, "From Diplomats to Presidents: John Adams and John Quincy Adams" and "The Private Jefferson," have been developed for the online visitors who can discover two interactive stories, curated by experts at the MHS. One of the digital exhibitions tells the story of John Adams and John Quincy Adams rise from diplomats to president while the other opens a window on the inner life of the revered yet elusive Thomas Jefferson.

Some of the most important items of the online exhibitions are:

  • Treaty of Paris, page with signatures and seals, September 3, 1783
  • Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, November 2, 1800
  • Letter from John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams, December 24, 1814
  • Monticello: Final Elevation of the first version, Thomas Jefferson, before March 1771?
  • Manuscript copy of Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, 1776

MHS President Dennis Fiori said, "the MHS is pleased to work with Google Arts & Culture on this project to celebrate the history of the United States presidency. This is a terrific platform to bring together documents and artifacts from organizations across the nation including samples from our extensive holdings of personal papers from three presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson."

About the Massachusetts Historical Society
The Massachusetts Historical Society is one of the nation's preeminent research centers, with collections that provide an unparalleled record of the vibrant course of American history. Since its founding in 1791, the MHS has fostered research, scholarship, and education. With millions of pages of manuscript letters, diaries, and other documents, as well as early newspapers, broadsides, artifacts, works of art, maps, photographs, and prints, the MHS offers a wide-ranging perspective on the United States from the earliest beginnings of the nation to the present day. Exhibition galleries are open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

About Google Arts & Culture
Google Arts & Culture is a new, immersive way to experience art, history, culture and world wonders from over a thousand organizations worldwide. Google Arts & Culture has been created by the Google Cultural Institute and it is available for free for everyone on the web, on iOS and Android. Read more here

 

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MHS Announces New Center for the Teaching of History at the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Center aims to promote the importance of history education, civic literacy, and critical thinking to prepare our children to be informed and engaged citizens as well as contribute to the building of strong history content in the classroom.

Committed to using its unique resources to improve and support the teaching of American history in all K-12 classrooms, the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) announces the formation of the Center for the Teaching of History at the Massachusetts Historical Society (CTH). In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and amidst current events, the importance of civic literacy and history in our everyday lives is more apparent than ever. Through the CTH, the MHS will continue to lead efforts to promote the central role of history in American culture with a variety of high-quality teacher workshops, student programs, and innovative online resources.

"The MHS staff, Trustees, and Overseers see this as a watershed moment," said MHS President Dennis Fiori. "At the close of our 225th anniversary celebration, we look forward to playing a leading role as a respected voice for the importance of understanding our nation’s past with the establishment of the Center for the Teaching of History." He continued, "Under the leadership of Director Kathleen Barker, the new Center will enable us to better serve the public, promote the relevance of history, and improve the understanding of the role of civics in public life." 

The CTH aims to promote the importance of history education, civic literacy, and critical thinking to prepare our children to be informed and engaged citizens as well as contribute to the building of strong history content for the classroom. It will support innovative and best practices in teaching history through programs, web-based resources, fellowships, and its support of National History Day. 

Central to the Society's education program are workshops that immerse educators in the work of historians, provide them with opportunities to engage with scholars, analyze primary sources, and collaborate with colleagues on issues of pedagogy. The Center’s enhanced and newly developed offerings will allow teachers to energize the classroom experience and bring to life history for their students. The primary sources found in the Society’s collections provide the stories—and the evidence—that can help a student to understand that American history is a wonderfully diverse continuum of experiences that we all share. Through its leading role as the state sponsor of Massachusetts History Day, an affiliate program of National History Day, the CTH will increase its interaction with students. It aims to boost student participation from across the Commonwealth in the program and will continue to offer resources and workshops to encourage students to use MHS collections in their projects.

"It is a joy to see years of hard work come to fruition with the formation of the Center," commented Director of the Center for the Teaching of History Kathleen Barker. She continued, "The Center will empower educators to speak knowledgeably about the importance of history and civics education in the classroom, create community-based opportunities for teachers to promote civic literacy, and collaborate with organizations to advocate for robust curriculum frameworks and funding models that promote the teaching of history. I look forward to continuing my work with both teachers and students while we expand our programming, advocate for the importance of history in the classroom, and increase participation in Massachusetts History Day."



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Winthrop Papers Digital Edition Launches

A rich and critical record of colonial settlement in New England and the events that unfolded in the decades that followed, the Winthrop Papers, held by the Massachusetts Historical Society, are central to the study of American history. 

The MHS announced that the Winthrop Papers Digital Edition is now publicly available online. It comprises the digitized content of the previously published volumes from the Winthrop Papers documentary edition, an ongoing publication of the MHS that began in the 1920s. The digitization was made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as editorial support from Harvard University Press and technical assistance from Rotunda, the electronic imprint of the University of Virginia Press. 

John Winthrop portraitWhen the Arbella arrived off the eastern coast of North America in 1630, she carried on board the earliest colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Among their number was John Winthrop, the first governor of the colony and the patriarch of the Winthrop family in New England. The collection of papers produced by the Winthrop and related families constitutes a rich and critical record of colonial settlement in New England and the events that unfolded in the decades that followed. Beginning in the 16th century, the collection encompasses letters and diaries, memoranda and legal documents, and John Winthrop’s journal/history of the colony in Boston. The Winthrop Family Papers, the largest collection of extant Winthrop documents, is held by the MHS.

"The transcriptions in the Winthrop Papers volumes have been prepared by several generations of historians—historians dedicated to representing with the greatest possible accuracy the content of these fragile manuscripts, many more than 400 years old. We are thrilled that the launch of a freely available digital edition makes it possible for anyone with online access to read these words, effectively listening in on the thoughts and conversations of men and women who were experiencing, day by day, the beginnings of momentous historical changes in North America," commented MHS Director of Publications Ondine Le Blanc. 

Publication of the Winthrop Papers began in 1929 and has resulted in the issuance of six volumes of family correspondence through the year 1653. Under the current editorship of Dr. Francis J. Bremer of Millersville University future publication plans include the continuation of volumes of correspondence that will conclude with the period of the American Revolution and a second series of volumes that will feature other documents organized topically. Five of the six published volumes are currently out of print. The new digital edition will enable scholars and history enthusiasts alike to easily browse and search the published material online. The Winthrop Papers Digital Edition can be accessed at www.masshist.org/publications/winthrop.

About the NEH
From 2005 to 2008, the MHS undertook the initial digitization of previously published volumes of the Winthrop Papers and the Adams Papers documentary editions, thanks to grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The NEH is an independent federal agency created in 1965. It is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States. 

About the Massachusetts Historical Society
The MHS is one of the nation’s preeminent research centers, with collections that provide an unparalleled record of the vibrant course of American history. Since its founding in 1791, the MHS has fostered research, scholarship, and education. With millions of pages of manuscript letters, diaries, and other documents, as well as early newspapers, broadsides, artifacts, works of art, maps, photographs, and prints, the MHS offers a wide-ranging perspective on the United States from the earliest beginnings of the nation to the present day. Exhibition galleries are open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

 

Image: John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts-Bay, Portrait by Charles Osgood, after Anthony Vandyke, 1834. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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Massachusetts Historical Society Receives NHPRC Grant to Complete Publication of Robert Treat Paine Papers

Robert Treat Paine Papers provide valuable insight into 18th- and 19th-century social life as well as the evolution of legal thought in the new republic.

The MHS received a grant for $51,200 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The grant will be used to complete the Society's edition of the papers of Robert Treat Paine, the prominent Revolutionary-era lawyer and political figure. From Paine's notes on a "petit treason" trial to his wife's feisty letters, this documentary edition will give scholars worldwide the opportunity to access and learn from this heretofore little-known signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1792 the MHS initiated one of the first series of publications devoted to making accessible the history of the (then new) United States. Under the series title Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, that initiative still continues today, and as of last July, the grant from the NHPRC will make it possible to complete the five-volume Robert Treat Paine Papers as part of the ongoing Collections.

"The MHS is pleased that the NHPRC has recognized the importance of this project. Not only will it create much greater access to this rich collection, but it will also greatly enrich our understanding of 18th-century America," commented MHS President Dennis Fiori.  

Mr. Paine, best known for his part as a prosecuting attorney at the Boston Massacre trials (his Harvard classmate John Adams was on the defense team), also served as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress (where he signed the Declaration of Independence), a representative at two Provincial Congresses, the Bay State's first attorney general, and a justice on the state's Supreme Judicial Court. His papers, which the Paine family donated to the MHS in several installments beginning in the 1940s, span the spectrum from family letters to compendious legal notes, providing valuable insights into 18th- and 19th-century social life as well as the evolution of legal thought in the new republic. 

The earliest work on the Society's edition of the Paine papers began with cataloging and a project plan when the collection was newly arrived. Three of five projected volumes are already published in print. The grant from the NHPRC, which has allowed the Society to hire an in-house editor dedicated to the project, will culminate in the publication of volumes 4 and 5 as well as the digitization of the complete edition in 2018. The finished work will comprise transcriptions of over 1900 manuscript documents. The lead editor and scholar of the edition is Edward W. Hanson, who worked alongside the edition's first editor, Stephen T. Riley, who also served as MHS librarian and director during his long career.  

While the collection of Paine family papers is available for any researcher to use onsite, access to the raw materials can be challenging for all but the most experienced scholars of the era. A documentary edition such as this, with transcriptions and historical notes by the people who know Paine's network and activities best, will make the content available to a broader swathe of readers of diverse ages and backgrounds. Annotations identify Paine's many correspondents for the users. Although some are historical giants--such as Adams and John Hancock--others are less well known, such as John Allan, a commander in Maine working hard to maintain his outpost and alliance with the native population. As a family collection, the Paine papers give a vivid account of domestic life, as Sally Paine writes to her husband about challenges at home and Eunice Paine asks her brother for help. The editors have also selected exemplary cases from Paine’s legal career, painstakingly puzzling out the often inscrutable script of his trial notes and making available the stories of treason, arson, burglary, and murder--among others--recorded there.

About the NHPRC
The NHPRC is one of the key supporters of documentary editing projects in the United States. It is the funding affiliate of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which was created by Congress in 1934 to protect America’s historical records and make them publicly available. Through grants, the NHPRC promotes the preservation, publication, and digitization of significant documentary sources.

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