Massachusetts Historical Society

Overview: The Massachusetts Historical Society is particularly rich in manuscripts; the collection focuses on the personal papers of individuals and families connected to Massachusetts. While the institution does not have a cut-off date, holdings are particularly strong with regard to the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Manuscript highlights from the colonial period include the diary of Samuel Sewall, a Salem Witch Trials judge and early anti-slavery advocate, and materials from soldiers who served in the Seven Years’ War. The Society is particularly rich in personal papers of many prominent patriots from the Revolutionary period, as well as Revolutionary War soldiers. It also possesses an impressive collection of nineteenth-century manuscript materials connected to topics including the China Trade, the anti-slavery movement, and the Civil War.

In addition to manuscripts, the Massachusetts Historical Society is home to a broadside collection whose highlights include an announcement of the 1643 Harvard commencement address, announcements of anti-slavery rallies, and an original printing of the Declaration of Independence. There is also an extensive maps collection documenting the history and development of the United States, with particular strengths in maps of Boston, Massachusetts, and New England. Other printed materials include numerous early American books and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspapers.

While the Massachusetts Historical Society is particularly recognized for its document collections, it also possesses art, graphics, photograph, and artifact collections. The artifact collection goes back to the seventeenth century and includes Revolutionary War mementos and the belongings of prominent Americans including the pen with which Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and a pocket watch owned by Cotton Mather. The art collection also complements the Society’s documentary holdings with emphases on prominent Americans, national monuments, and American landscapes. The graphics collection includes over 4000 prints, drawing, silhouettes, and posters dating back to the sixteenth century, while the photograph collection spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with a particular strength in images related to abolitionism and the Civil War.

American Revolution Materials: The Massachusetts Historical Society’s American Revolution-era materials are extensive, with numerous holdings of significance. For a full listing of the materials, use their online catalogue, ABIGAIL, with the subject search: United States – History – Revolution, 1775-1783.

The collection is strong on materials ranging from before the outbreak of the war to the early national period. Pre-war highlights including written protests against British policies of the 1760s and 1770s such as the Stamp Act, Paul Revere’s engravings of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere’s memoir of his midnight ride, and Committee of Correspondence records.

The Massachusetts Historical Society is also home to numerous diaries, letters, and other records that document the Revolutionary War and the lives of its soldiers. These materials range in time period from the outbreak of the war at Lexington and Concord to its conclusion and include details about campaigns, daily life in camp, receipts, battles, deaths, inventories, and rolls. While many campaigns are covered, soldiers from Massachusetts are the most frequent authors of these documents and the institution is particularly rich in diaries discussing the early days of the war, including the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the encampment at Cambridge, the siege of Boston, and New York campaigns up to Fort Ticonderoga. Also included within this category of materials are financial documents related to military expenses and pensions, as well as British accounts of the war and correspondence with their American Indian allies.

The Massachusetts Historical Society’s collections also include a vast array of documents associated with the political events of the American Revolution. Highlights include materials related to the Declaration of Independence including manuscript copies by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and a copy of the document from its original printing. The Society is also home to a number of personal papers of both prominent politicians such as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, and civilians who witnessed the Revolution. These collections include numerous letters, proposals, receipts, journals, and other materials from the era. The Massachusetts Historical Society also possesses literary works of the era, such as poems and letters by Phyllis Wheatley, as well as newspapers, portraits of prominent patriots and loyalists, and wartime maps of North America.

In addition to materials produced during the American Revolution, the Massachusetts Historical Society is also home to a range of commemorative materials, including papers from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

Key Words: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, African Americans, American Indians, Battle of Lexington & Concord, Boston, Boston Massacre, British army, Bunker Hill, Cambridge, commemorations, Committee of Correspondence, Continental Army, Declaration of Independence, diaries, Thomas Jefferson, journals, letters, loyalists/tories, manuscripts, maps, pensions, periodicals, poems/odes, portraits/paintings, receipts, Paul Revere, siege of Boston, Society of the Cincinnati, soldiers/militia, Stamp Act, Ticonderoga, Phyllis Wheatley

Collection Policies: The Massachusetts Historical Society is an active collector of new materials. While the institution does purchase materials, the majority of its holdings are acquired by donation.

Finding aids for the collection are available online, though a number of finding aids have yet to be converted online and are still in paper form. The collection is also searchable through the online catalogue ABIGAIL, where about 98% of the institution’s total holdings have at the minimum a collection-level description. That being said, almost all of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Revolution-era materials are well-described.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has an exhibition program and loans to other institutions as long as the conditions of security and preservation meet institutional requirements. All loan requests must be approved by the Board of Trustees.