Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

PhD Research Trip 2: Boston Public Library’s Special Collections & the Massachusetts Historical Society

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The PhD research is rolling along, dear reader! It has its ups and downs, and I’m currently both researching some parts while writing others that are further along the research pipeline, and I’m having a pretty good time with it so far! Writing took a pause at the beginning of February so I could take my second research trip to New England and New York State, in order to conduct several site visits of Dutch burial grounds in the Hudson River Valley, as well as the archives in Boston. So far I’ve found some very interesting materials, and would love to share a little about the process with you today!

Boston Public Library, original entrance (photo by author 2023)
Here I am posing below one end of the Sargent murals at the BPL. the main panel here is called

After some issues with our flights (my husband came too!), we arrived in Boston! I hadn’t been to the city since ‘the before times’ in January 2020 for the SHA conference which you can catch up on HERE, and I was very excited to be back! Boston is a major location in the Bloody Jack novels which I adored, which was my first reason for wanting to visit the first time back in 2015, and is of course a major historic centre for the northeast! It’s one of the sites in my Master’s research, my PhD research, and was also a favourite haunt of American painter John Singer Sargent, who painted the mural series “Triumph of Religion” on display in the Boston Public Library that I’m standing under in the photo to the right here. This whole post could easily be about Sargent and the murals, but I digress!

My first stop, after the murals, was the Boston Public Library’s Special Collections room. I’ve never been to such a professional and secure archives before, and am so grateful for the opportunity to have visited as part of my research (thanks to a grant from NL’s Provincial Archaeology Office!). In order to keep the many historic documents in the collections safe and secure, visitors have to schedule appointments, leave everything besides computers/cameras/phones inside lockers, and use pencils and paper provided by the archives staff, and of course wash your hands before you are buzzed into the secure facility. Considering they have 17th-century letters and documents from early America, and a first edition of Shakespeare in there, I understand the precautions!

The special collections staff were so helpful, and helped me through email and in person to find sources that might have data that would be helpful for my research! I took a look at the commonplace books of John Hull, a silversmith in Boston in the late 18th century, and the father of Hannah Sewall (nee Hull), wife of Judge Samuel Sewall. Her and her husband dedicated a tract of land in the city to her father when they named it Hull Street, which runs south of Copp’s Hill Burial Ground today! I saw that document too! John Hull’s books weren’t super useful to me, but he was a very dedicated note-taker of sermons, and wrote a lot of shorthand in his books that apparently took historians ages to crack, so I don’t feel so bad about not figuring it out.

I also had the opportunity to look at multiple folders and volumes of town records from Boston, dating back to the early 17th century through the 1730s. These records included mostly indentures of various sums of money to be paid, the binding of indentured servants to richer folks, or the selling of land. Valentine Hill was mentioned quite a lot. Within these records I also found notes about the meeting of the Selectmen of Boston who helped to run the city through the 1830s, regarding the creation of new laws and rules around the running of the city. This unfortunately included rules about Black and Indigenous people (and I include them together here because that is how the documents were laid out), how they could conduct themselves in the city, where they could and could not go, and even rules for their funerals in the early 18th century. That last part was very exciting for my research, and something that was not often documented! I’m excited to go back over this document and see how impacted the funerals and burials of Black and Indigenous people within the city of Boston were by these laws, and explore how that was reflected in the burial landscape we see today.

The MHS reading room, complete with gorgeous woodwork! (photo be author 2023)

While in Boston, I also visited the Massachusetts Historical Society, which was founded in the city in 1791! To access their collections I had contacted them a few weeks before to make an appointment as well as request items from their archives with the help of their amazing staff who helped me a locate a bunch of items. There were some records of the burials of Black individuals in the Old North Burial Ground, known today as Copp’s Hill beside the later constructed Old North Church, referred to as the Christ Church in the C18th records. I also looked at the early C18th diary of a man named Daniel King, who only wrote about events where his family members died, and then wrote pleas to God to save his soul and about how he was a sinner and had brought this upon himself and his family. It was extremely Puritan, and he seemed to have been extremely hard on himself. After his wife died, the last entry was 1 year after the date of her death was a 4 page poem to her and about mortality, and then he didn’t write anything after that. It was quite different from the other diaries from the 17th and 18th centuries I’ve read, and will make an interesting comparison.

Although looking for records of funerals and burials not in the church or town’s burial records has been quite difficult, I believe I have found some really interesting and exciting documents and data throughout this research trip that will be of huge help to my phd project! I’ve got one chapter drafted on my fieldwork in New Perlican, and I’m currently working on the background section for my landscape analysis sites, which will include a comparison between 10 burial grounds and communities founded by each the British, French, and Dutch.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the site visits I conducted in NY, which included some really cool gravestones and historic churches! As always, thanks for reading!

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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