February 24, 2017

James Bowdoin and the Boston Massacre

Governor James Bowdoin (1947.0005) 
In honor of the upcoming 247th anniversary of the Boston Massacre, our staff have placed a portrait of James Bowdoin (1726-1790) on view in Representatives Hall. The Society’s painting is by James Carpenter after an eighteenth-century portrait of Bowdoin by Robert Feke, which is in the collection of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Bowdoin's role was pivotal in shaping public reaction to the shootings on March 5, 1770, but his participation in the events surrounding the Massacre is often overlooked. Born to a wealthy family of French Huguenot extraction, he quickly established himself as a leading Boston merchant and entered provincial politics at a young age. At 30, he was elected to a seat on the Massachusetts Provincial Council (the upper house of the colony’s legislature), where he developed a reputation as a reliable ally to Governors William Shirley and Thomas Pownall. Bowdoin’s politics shifted during the 1760s, however. The passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and the ministry’s decision to send two regiments of the regular army to Boston in 1768 shook his faith in royal authority and caused Bowdoin to ally himself with leading whigs in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, including James Otis, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock. By 1770 Bowdoin had become an influential leader in the Council and a persistent thorn in the side of acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson.

It was thus not surprising that Boston’s town meeting chose Bowdoin, together with Joseph Warren and Samuel Pemberton, to author “a particular Account” of the events that led to “the Massacre in King-Street.” Bowdoin received his charge on March 12, just one week after the terrible events that had resulted in the deaths of five civilians. The committee set to work immediately, compiling a list of witnesses and deposing more than 100 of them in public during the ensuing week. Using these depositions, the committee produced a detailed written report on the events of March 5 and presented it the town meeting on March 19 as A short Narrative of the horrid Massacre in Boston . . . with some Observations on the State of Things prior to that Catastrophe (Boston, 1770). The report portrayed the tragic events of March 5 as a premeditated “massacre” in which the King’s soldiers had “deliberately” gunned down civilians in the streets of Boston, but the evidence it produced was selective. When Bowdoin’s Short Narrative was printed a few days later, it included as an appendix the text of 96 depositions. Opponents immediately pointed out that the report excluded eyewitness accounts that might support an alternative conclusion about the motives of the soldiers.

But by then it was too late. Copies of the Short Narrative were quickly sent off to leading whigs in Britain and elsewhere, each covered by a letter from Bowdoin’s committee stating flatly that the tragedy was the work of soldiers who had plotted “to take vengeance on the town.” Although royal officials worked to publicize competing evidence, Bowdoin’s report proved decisive in coloring public reaction to the events of March 5, 1770, as a massacre rather than a terrible accident.

For more about James Bowdoin, see Gordon Kershaw's James Bowdoin II: Patriot and Man of the Enlightenment.

By Nat Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History

February 16, 2017

Honoring the Legacy of a Black Patriot: Jeffrey Hartwell's Plate

Hartwell Plate, 1895.0039.001. Gift of George P. Smith
In celebration of Black History Month, I am featuring one of three pewter plates belonging to Jeffrey Hartwell, a black man who was born into slavery c. 1751 and served at some of the most important battles of the Revolutionary War. Two of Hartwell’s pewter plates can be seen on display in Representative’s Hall and he is one of our Revolutionary Characters.

Hartwell fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, having been sent to fill the place of his master. He later enlisted of his own accord in September of 1777 and was discharged in November of that same year. He then reenlisted in June of 1778 and is known to have been stationed at West Point, New York in December of 1778. He is believed to have served at the Battle of Saratoga, one of the turning points of the war.

Although it is not clear exactly how he became free, we know that Hartwell was free and living in Dracut, Massachusetts by March of 1779. He married a free woman named Maria, who had also been born into slavery and subsequently freed, and they were given two acres on which to live as a wedding present from Maria’s employer, John Varnum. Jeffrey and Maria had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood. He died in Dracut on 22 July, 1816 at the age of 75 and is buried in the Hamblett Cemetery in Lowell.

Detail of Hartwell Plate
More than 5,000 black patriots fought in the Revolutionary War and many enslaved and free black men joined the British Army. The three plates in our collection are amongst the very few items known to have belonged to a black soldier from the Revolutionary War, and we are honored to care for these important artifacts. Hartwell's well-worn pewter plate bears the scars of many meals. The maker’s mark is also stamped into the bottom of the plate. Please let us know in the comments if you recognize these marks and can help us identify the maker.

To learn more about Jeffrey Hartwell check out George Quintal Jr.'s Patriots of Color ‘A Particular Beauty and Merit’: African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road & Bunker Hill.

By Sira Dooley Fairchild, Collections Manager

February 7, 2017

Winter Cleaning

We are so pleased that the Old State House welcomes over 100,000 visitors a year, but all that foot traffic can take its toll on a 300 year old building.  We want the building to be as beautiful and welcoming to its visitors in 2017 as it was to its past visitors, so we are closed February 6 through 10 as our staff cleans the Old State House from top to bottom.  We're busy this week polishing, painting, and scrubbing in anticipation of our upcoming busy season.

A 300 year old building like the Old State House requires a good deal of care, and in fact there are even records of its upkeep dating from the 1700s.  One of those records is a bill from July 1, 1773 from the Province of Massachusetts Bay to Thomas Dawes for repairs to the Old State House.  If you look closely, you can see an itemized list of numerous repairs, such as whitewashing the Council Chamber and Lobby. 

The ink on this document is faded and the paper is delicate, but the Society has preserved it by keeping it in dark storage, reinforcing the edges with Japanese paper, and encasing it in a Mylar sleeve. Records like these help to tell the story of the Old State House and how it has changed (and stayed the same!) throughout its long history. It's possible that in the future, the receipts and invoices from our annual cleaning week will give individuals an idea of the work that went into maintaining the Old State House in the 21st century!

We re-open to the public on Saturday, February 11 at 9:00 am.  Be sure to stop by and see our sparkling clean building!

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

February 2, 2017

Relics of the Revolution

1930.0008.002 a-f  Note reads, "Made of wood from Federal
Street Church. Gift, Feb. 1930 of Henry F Jenks."
The term relic is one that we often associate with medieval saints – it conjures images of beautiful reliquaries built to hold small pieces of wood or bone, imbued with miraculous healing powers. Some of the relics in our collection are religious in nature, such as the crosses carved from the wood of the pulpit and pews of the Federal Street Church, built in 1729 and replaced in 1859.  The collection at the Old State House also holds a large number of secular relics, including a root of the tree in Salem where the witches were said to have been hanged and a piece of the tree under which the Treaty of Santiago was signed in 1898.

Several of the secular relics in our collection commemorate Boston’s revolutionary past. Many of these secular relics are wooden, most often made from either the wood of a tree, or from the timbers of an important building. Some of them are unmodified – simply pieces of wood with cards attached explaining their relevance, such as this small piece of wood from the house of the colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780), with a card that reads "Chip from the Hutchinson House, Garden Court, built about 1710, sacked 1765, torn down 1832." We also hold a piece of a fence that surrounded the Joseph Warren monument on Bunker Hill in 1794, with a note affixed to it that reads, "Piece of a post from the fence which surrounds the Joseph Warren Monument on Bunker Hill / 1794 / From George W. Forristall."

1930.0008.003d Wooden cup
Gift of Henry F. Jenks
Other relics of the Revolutionary period were made into useful or decorative items, such as the cups made from parts of the Hancock House. The Hancock house was built for Thomas Hancock (John Hancock’s uncle) between 1734 and 1737 and demolished in 1863. Other parts of this famous mansion were made into thread boxes and other commemorative items that we hold in our collection.

Without the information included in our database, object files, and inscribed on the paper tags, many of these items would be seen as no more than pieces of wood. What is interesting about them comes not from their inherent value or aesthetic appeal, but from what we know (or think we know) about their origins.

By Sira Dooley Fairchild, Collections Manager

January 25, 2017

A New Lease for the Old State House

Bostonian Society President Executive Director Brian W J
LeMay at the lease signing with Gregory Rooney, Commissioner
of the City of Boston Property Management Department.
In a move that will help protect and advance the historic landmark and museum, the City of Boston and the Bostonian Society signed a new lease for the Old State House, located at 206 Washington Street in Boston. The 25-year lease entrusts the Bostonian Society with the preservation, maintenance, and interpretation of the oldest surviving public building in Boston.

Recognized as a National Historic Landmark and a part of the Boston National Historical Park, the Old State House originally served as the seat of Britain’s colonial government for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. During the years leading up to the American Revolution, it was at the center of events in Boston that produced the foundational American ideals of self-governance. Following the Revolution, the building became the first capitol of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and later, the first City Hall of the City of Boston.

“Part of what makes Boston so special is our rich history and ties to the earliest days of our nation's founding, which is recognized by the thousands of visitors who come to our City every year to visit historic sites such as the original Massachusetts State House," said Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. "I am proud to continue our long-standing partnership with the Bostonian Society, who for the last century have been responsible for the preservation of and maintenance of the Old State House. In Boston, we are incredibly fortunate to live among some of the nation's oldest and most treasured landmarks, and we will continue to preserve them with the utmost care and attention.”

“We are exceptionally grateful to Mayor Walsh for his commitment to Boston’s historical and cultural institutions, and we are honored by the trust the City has placed in us for the stewardship of this remarkable old building,” said Bostonian Society President and Executive Director Brian W. J. LeMay. “There is still much to be done to return it to a condition worthy of its status as a national treasure, and to explain properly why it is one of the most historically significant places in the country.”

The non-profit Bostonian Society was established in 1881 to oversee the first restoration of the Old State House after a proposal had been made to demolish the building. The City of Boston and the Bostonian Society have long held joint responsibility for the building’s maintenance and repair. The relationship is a unique one in Boston’s historic district, giving ownership of the site to the City and care of the site to a private non-profit.

Michael Creasey, General Superintendent of the National Parks of Boston, said, “When Boston National Historical Park was established in 1974, it was a pioneer in its approach to public/private cooperation and sharing of authorities, responsibilities, and costs. The park includes the Old State House and seven other sites in Boston that let us reflect on the heroic acts that led to personal freedom, civil, and human rights.  Today what was pioneered in Boston has a name—partnering—and is exemplified by this new lease between the City of Boston and the Bostonian Society to protect the landmark, carry its historical significance into the future, and bring it a renewed sense of promise.”

The previous 20-year lease on the building ended in 2014 and was followed by a series of extensions. The new lease gives the Bostonian Society full responsibility and authority to insure and preserve the facility, and provides greater latitude for the Society to seek funding and support for its care and interpretation.

“We are proud to be a longstanding supporter of the Bostonian Society and its mission to preserve and celebrate Boston’s incredible history,” said Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “So we are delighted to learn that it has reached agreement with the city of Boston on the stewardship of the Old State House, ensuring this iconic building will be there for future generations to learn from and enjoy.”

Please direct all press inquiries to the Bostonian Society's Marketing and Communications Manager, Stephen Libby, at stephen@bostonhistory.org

By Stephen Libby, Marketing and Communications Manager