March 25, 2015

From our collection: Phillis Wheatley

March is Women's History Month, and what better way to celebrate than to highlight an item from our collection that pertains to a remarkable woman - Phillis Wheatley. Our library holds a first edition copy of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and for the time being, this item is on display as part of our Revolutionary Characters exhibit.

Phillis was about seven or eight years old in 1761 when she was purchased by John Wheatley.  She was named Phillis after the slave ship that brought her from Africa, and was given the Wheatley surname.  Phillis was intended to be a servant for John's wife Susannah, but beginning at a young age, Phillis was tutored by Wheatley's children, Nathaniel and Mary. When she exhibited a literary talent the Wheatley family worked to foster her education by passing domestic duties on to other household slaves, though she was still required to complete light chores. Phillis studied the Bible and subjects like geography and history, but it was her exposure to British literature and classical poets led her to write her own poetry. With the support of the Wheatley family, Phillis became the first African-American female poet to publish a book when Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773 by Archibald Bell. There are 39 poems in this collection, including "To the University of Cambridge in New England" which is thought to be the first poem she wrote.

PS 866 .W5 1773
The displayed book is currently open to the poem "Ode to Neptune" with a subtitle that it was written during Mrs. W--'s [Wheatley's] voyage to England. The book has been on exhibit for several months, and for preservation purposes, I turn the page occasionally to reduce the risk of light exposure to this 18th century book. Next month, the book will be taken off of display and returned to storage. In its place will go another item from our collection, the matted frontispiece from a different copy of Wheatley's book (pictured above). When the Society received this donation from member James Bugbee in 1887, the frontispiece had already been removed from the book. We feel lucky to have two items affiliated with Wheatley in our collection!

To learn more about Phillis Wheatley, please visit the Poetry Foundation site.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

March 20, 2015

This Week in Colonial Boston

During the colonial era, the Old State House saw multiple periods of transition of executive power.  It was the seat of colonial power for the royal governors of Massachusetts, and then continued to be the center of power after Boston was occupied by British soldiers and placed under martial law by Generals Thomas Gage and Sir William Howe during what became an 11 month siege of Boston.  The British occupation of Boston ended on March 17, 1776 when General Howe evacuated his troops from the town, leaving it open to Patriots waiting just outside its borders.

The British fleet evacuated the town, but lingered in Boston Harbor despite fair sailing conditions.  General George Washington began to grow concerned that the British would return, so he decided that Boston must be occupied again, only this time by the Continental Army. 

On March 20, General Washington departed for New York and left Boston in the command of General Nathanael Greene.  Greene was from Rhode Island, but had visited Boston multiple times, staying at the Bunch of Grapes Tavern only a few steps away from the Old State House on King Street.  One can only imagine what General Greene’s first impressions were when he returned to a familiar town now changed by many months of British occupation.

General Greene placed Boston under martial law, using the Old State House as a rallying point for his troops.  In front of the Old State House, he ordered an encampment of reserve troops to await further orders.  Whether or not General Greene used the Old State House as a headquarters for himself, he viewed the building as a focal point of authority within the town.

While in command, General Greene organized patrols to protect the town from possible attack and also held his men to a high standard of discipline. He warned his men that any reported act of plundering, abusing, or insulting Bostonians would result in heavy punishment.  For the duration of his time in Boston he only reported two claims of suspected looting, neither of which was proven.

General Greene’s command of Boston would only last while the British fleet remained in Boston Harbor.  By the end of March, the fleet had set sail towards Halifax, Nova Scotia to await reinforcements. On April 1, General Greene and his troops set out to rejoin the American forces assembled in New York. 

Although in command of Boston for only two weeks, General Greene had made an impression on the inhabitants of Boston that was not matched by his military successor, Artemis Ward.  Within a month of his departure, a Bostonian wrote to John Adams claiming that Ward needed to be replaced and specifically asked to return command of the town to General Greene.  This sentiment shows that General Greene gained the respect of the people of Boston and proved his ability to protect the town within a short period of time.

By Roberta DeCenzo, Education Associate