Tag Archives: Local History

A Viking Ship, Two Black Hats, and One Special Street

Despite the fact that I am a middle-aged woman rather than an adolescent boy, I was absolutely determined to see the reproduction Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre as it sailed into Plymouth Harbor yesterday. Plymouth is just one of the stops on the ship’s east coast tour, and it was the most convenient for me in terms of time and geography,  so down to the South Shore I went. It was a humid day and all was gray as we waited for a pending storm and the ship, which slid into Plymouth Harbor very gracefully. I had hoped to see it under sail, but of course that wasn’t going to happen in the wide, calm harbor. You (and I) will have to see it under sail here. I always enjoy seeing the juxtaposition of “old” and new vessels; of course Plymouth has that all the time with the Mayflower II in the harbor—but the Draken is so much more “alien”.

Plymouth Adventure 15

Plymouth Adventure 2

Plymouth Adventure 20

Plymouth Adventure 3

Plymouth Adventure 4

Plymouth Adventure 5

Well, that’s it for the ship (which will be in port until Friday evening and then it’s going down the coast). Both before and after its arrival I occupied myself in my usual way: looking at old houses and comparing Plymouth to Salem as a tourist destination and purveyor of local history. Even though they are very different places, I can’t help making comparisons between these two New England ports, put on the map by their seventeenth-century origins and happenings as symbolized by two omnipresent black hats: of the Plymouth Pilgrim and the Salem Witch. Indeed, Salem and Plymouth have both been on the heritage map for quite some time, whether it be for educational or tourism purposes.

MA MAP 1966Colonization in America visual wall map, 1966, prepared by the Civic Education Service, Washington, D.C.; David Rumsey Map Collection.

In terms of physical size, Plymouth is one of the largest towns in Massachusetts, whereas Salem is among the smallest cities. Plymouth’s population is actually larger, I was surprised to realize, but Salem’s is much more concentrated. Salem is urban and closer to Boston; Plymouth doesn’t quite feel “suburban” to me but I guess it is. Both places are county seats and have vibrant downtowns and tourist-based economies. Both towns are “historic” but in very different ways: Salem’s history is predominately commodified while Plymouth is more committed to public history. As a heritage destination, Plymouth is what Salem would be if the Peabody Essex Museum had not absorbed and essentially obliterated the Essex Institute: its Pilgrim Hall Museum (founded in the very same decade—the 1820s–as the Essex Historical Society, one of the Essex Institute’s founding organizations) and Plymouth Antiquarian Society serve as public repositories and interpreters of the history of “America’s Hometown”. This makes for a very different projection. I’m not trying to pass judgement here (although regular readers will know how I feel): Plymouth seems to have preserved quite a bit of its “ye olde” parochial identity whereas we all know that the Peabody Essex Museum is a very sophisticated, global institution.

Plymouth Adventure 14

Plymouth 16

Plymouth Adventure 13The Jabez Howland House is presented much like Salem’s “Witch House”, as a singular survivor and link to the seventeenth-century past.

Both Plymouth and Salem have impressive inventories of historic structures, although their waterfronts were altered considerably by twentieth-century state and federal initiatives designed to highlight their maritime heritages, ironically: the preparations for Plymouth’s tercentenary in 1919-1920 cleared out its unsightly wharves and created Pilgrim Memorial State Park while the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created in a similar (but less radical) manner in the next decade. Salem has more concentrated historic districts but Plymouth has several special streets too: on this particular trip I could not get enough of Leyden Street (below) in particular. So many brick- or shingle-ended houses! And so few Federals, both compared to Salem and even the towns just to the north, Kingston and Duxbury. Both Plymouth and Salem had spectacular Tercentenary pageants and parades, and Plymouth is definitely gearing up for its 400th in 2020: Salem, I’m not so sure.

Plymouth Adventure 9

Plymouth Adventure

Plymouth Adventure 10

Plymouth Adventure 11

Plymouth adventure 12Leyden Street, with the storm coming in.


Centering History

This summer I’m teaching our department’s capstone course, a seminar in research and writing for which students write long papers on topics of their choosing, sourced by primary materials and grounded in the secondary literature. I do exclude some topics—World War II battles, the assassination of JFK, the Salem Witch Trials, anything too narrative, too big, or that has been done to death, but beyond those considerations, they pretty much have free rein. One of the first times I taught this seminar, more than a decade ago, I had to be much more restrictive, due to the circumstances we all found ourselves in: almost as soon as the semester began our university library was condemned and closed! Teaching a research seminar without a library demanded resourcefulness on my part, and my students: especially in this relatively “dark” time with few databases at our disposal (we obtained a lot more because of the library’s closure, but sadly Salem State cannot afford any of the Adam Matthew databases to which the Peabody Essex Museum has consigned Salem sources from the Phillips Library). I decided that they all had to do local history, and dig into the archives of their hometowns: they were at first resistant, but eventually they did dig in and the end result was a bunch of amazing papers—on trolleys, societies, movements, schools and hospitals, the local experience of the Civil War and World War I, and early efforts to draw tourists to enclaves all around Essex County.  I think my students got a lot out of that seminar, but it also taught me a lot: not being an American historian I wasn’t really aware as to what local historical sources were available and of what stories could be told and what stories could not or were not. Since that time, Salem State has opened a new library, the city of Salem has lost its major historical archive, the Phillips Library, first by severe restriction of access, then by closure and removal to temporary and then permanent locations well out of town, and I began writing this blog.

Local History

Local History MAssHenry Wilder, Map of the County of Essex, Massachusetts. Compiled from the Surveys made by order of the Legislature in 1831-1832, Boston Rare Maps; Ticknor map of Massachusetts, 1835, Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

I no longer insist that my seminar students engage in local historical research—they have many more resources available to them now–but I encourage it, and many of them choose to do so. As a consequence of their choices, and my own indulgence in this blog, I have become much more aware of the availability of local historical resources, both in Essex County and beyond. Years ago, even before the Phillips Library was removed from Salem, access was so restricted that those students interested in researching Salem’s history were disadvantaged comparatively to those focused on other locales; of course now this disadvantage is even more apparent. Students (and everyone) interested in researching Salem’s history can consult the sources (primarily secondary and genealogical but also historic newspapers) in the Salem Room of the Salem Public Library and there are more archival materials at Salem State’s Archives and Special Collections repository in the Berry Library at Salem State. But surrounding our storied (but relatively sourceless!) city are active historical museums, societies, and archives, including the the Marblehead Museum, the Local History Research Center at the Peabody Institute in Peabody, the Danvers Archival Center at the Peabody Institute in Danvers, and the Beverly Historical Society’s Research Library and Archives. A bit farther afield and all around, there are local history centers popping up, many revived and reconstituted historical societies: just this month the Andover Historical Society has become the Andover Center for History & Culture, the Framingham History Center continues to expand its mission and initiatives, the Sudbury Historical Society is creating a new Sudbury History Center & Museum in the town center, and the Lexington Historical Society is building a new Archives Center adjacent to its Munroe Tavern this very summer.

Local History Andover Market

WWI-image-with-exhibit-dateAn Andover Market from the archives of the Andover Center for History & Culture; the Framingham History Center’s current exhibition.

The grandfather of Massachusetts history centers must be the Lawrence History Center, the mission of which is to collect, preserve, share, and animate the history and heritage of Lawrence and its people. That is one great mission statement, and this very active organization clearly strives to fulfill it, offering a stream of symposia, educational programs, presentations, physical and digital exhibits and research services to provide access to and engagement with its archives. Their use of the word “animate” clearly does not refer to a diorama, wax figure, or haunted house!

Local History LawrenceLawrence textile industry strikers in 1912, Lawrence History Center Photographic Collection @Digital Commonwealth.

Appendix:  Three upcoming events for local historians—the first in Salem!

Finding & Sharing Local History workshopMay 31.

The Massachusetts History Conference:  June 4.

Cambridge Open Archives 2018: June 11-15 & June 18-21.


Rescinding the Rump

The official response to the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant admission to the removal of Salem’s historical archives to a storage facility in Rowley was the formation of a “Working Group” by Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and PEM CEO Dan Monroe. In partnership, Ms. Driscoll and Mr. Monroe chose the members of this group, identified as “stakeholders”, from among Salem’s local officials and heritage and tourism organizations. I was wary from the very announcement of this group, because I believe that all of Salem’s residents are “stakeholders”, impacted equally by a short-sighted and disrespectful policy which removed the material heritage of a great city. (I also really, really, really dislike that divisive and disingenuous term). Nevertheless, I knew that there were well-intentioned and thoughtful people in this Working Group, so I hoped for the best. Now it appears that the work of the Group is complete: as the agenda for its third (and presumably last) meeting this week includes the item “Final Statement”, I assume it’s a wrap.

So what has been accomplished?  You don’t have to rely on my assessment: it’s all in the public statement issued on behalf of the Working Group on April 10. As a result of these “discussions” (one meeting was a meet-and-greet, the other a tour of the Rowley facility), the PEM has agreed to open Plummer Hall and the Saltstonall Reading Room of the former Phillips Library to the public as a “research facility” stocked with bound editions of the long-running Essex Institute journals the Essex Institute Historical Collections and American Neptune plus terminals that can be used to access “digital information from the Phillips Library”, very few items of which have been digitized!  In fact, one of the few things that the PEM has seen fit to digitize is the American Neptune, and the Essex Institute Historical Collections is available right down Essex Street at the Salem Public Library, so this concession (which was actually announced before the formation of the Working Group) is a joke, an insult, and an outrage.

WG Statement

After I heard that the Working Group was concluding its work, just yesterday, the first image that flew in my head was that of Oliver Cromwell marching into Parliament on April 20, 1653 and dissolving the powerless remnant (Rump) that was all that remained of the Long Parliament for which he had waged a revolution, and afterwards overtaken, with the famously paraphrased speech: You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go! (It was likely a far more colorful dismissal ). An ineffectual body, but yet the only semblance of “representative” government, disbanded just like that. I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who could make such a connection: it must be the April dates—and my preparations for my summer graduate course on early modern English history. Or it might be my desire to find refuge in the past when the present is so bleak.

Rump 1790 BM

Rump West

Rump 1885 Cassells

Rump Cromwell Great MenFour very different Cromwells dissolving the Rump Parliament on April 20, 1653: British Museum, 1790; Benjamin West, 1782, Montclair Museum of Art; and Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

So the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum remains resolute in their decades-long campaign to bury Salem’s history, successfully (so far) employing strategies of restricted access, the redeployment of resources, and a confusing (and likely very, very costly) renovation, aided very ably by the accommodations of our elected officials. There may be some external pressures from this point on, but I am so very sorry that those in positions of power and influence in historic Salem have chosen not to safeguard, much less fight for, its history.


Simon Bradstreet’s Body

Lately I’ve become a bit fixated on Simon Bradstreet, the last governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, primarily because of the spectacular Salem house in which he lived—and died. So much so that when I realized the anniversary of his death date (in 1697) was yesterday, I ran over to look at his grave in Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point. But when I got there, I realized that it wasn’t there: there’s a cenotaph, but no grave and no body. Where is it? No one really seems to know!

Bradstreet Negative DC

There are clues to the whereabouts of Simon Bradstreet’s body in the Phillips Library, and also, of course, in the graveyard. The most serious inquiry was initiated by Robert Rantoul, a Mayor of Salem, President of the Essex Institute, and someone who addressed many issues of his time and before, and published in an 1892 article in the Salem Press and Genealogical RecordThere is a strong tone of righteousness in this piece, which begins with the statement that Bradstreet’s tomb is now, be the title good or bad, in possession of parties alien to the Bradstreet line, and has been so held for a century, and the representatives of these claimants not unnaturally object to all interference with their long-established rights of possession. I have to admit I did not know that cemetery plots, including those that had been “occupied”, were actually sold like any other piece of property, but that is what seems to have happened: Rantoul lays out all of the historical facts which testify to Bradstreet’s burial on Charter Street, and then presents the surprising revelation that in 1798 the tomb seems to have changed hands according to a bill of sale endorsed by Colonel Benjamin Bickman which states that Major John Hathorne and Captain Samuel Ingersoll bou’t of Benjamin Pickman….a tomb in the burying point (so called)….formerly the Property of Governor Bradstreet. Jump forward a century, to Rantoul’s time and a major investigation carried out by a special committee comprised of members of the Salem City Council and Essex Institute along with “health officers, accomplished antiquarians, and local historians”, which did not seem to be able to locate the remains of Governor Bradstreet. Rantoul leaves us with the mystery, but also some intriguing details: members of the Hathorne family had protested the disturbance of their tomb, and one contemporary observer commented that an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne having taken possession, with no further scruple cleaned out the tomb, throwing the remains of the old Governor and his family into a hole not far away”. And there we are–but where is Bradstreet?

Bradstreet Tomb 2

Bradstreet Tomb3The Bradstreet Tomb today and in its original location in the 1890s (photograph by Frank Cousins @ Digital Commonwealth). Cotton Mather’s epitaph for Bradstreet seems particularly apt: “Here lies New England’s Father! Woe the day! How mingles mightiest dust with meaner clay!”


African-American History at the Phillips Library

On the occasion of the Martin Luther King holiday here in Salem and across the country, I thought I would highlight some sources for African-American history in the major repository for local history in our region, which is of course the PEM’s Phillips Library. I am aware of several scholars interested in various aspects of Salem’s rich African-American history: in the community, at Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and at Salem State University: my colleague Bethany Jay’s bookUnderstanding and Teaching American Slavery, is serving as a resource for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance initiative on slavery, and two of our graduate students received SPLC research fellowships last year. Bethany’s work is national in scope, but I don’t know how anyone interested in Salem’s African-American history could possibly engage in research, given the present closure of the library, the restriction of hours and staff before that, and the decade-long disinterest in digitization. That said, the digitized catalog reveals some amazing sources, including the papers of the Waters family (MSS 92), members of which were actively engaged in both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation ownership, as well as records of Salem’s various abolitionist societies, the records of the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society, various diaries, lists and logbooks, the Remond family papers, and two letters from the author, poet, educator and activist Charlotte Forten Grimké to John Greenleaf Whittier (which I’m not sure are available anywhere else, certainly not in this 1911 collection of Whittier’s correspondence, published in Salem). Unfortunately the finding aid for the Whittier letters refers to Forten incorrectly as a former slave: she was in fact a “free woman of color” sent by her relatively affluent and connected Philadelphia family to Salem to receive an integrated education in the Salem public schools (while living with the Remond family) after which she enrolled in the Salem Normal School (the precursor of SSU), as its first African-American student, in 1855. Just before her graduation a year later, she was summoned to the Principal’s office to hear the happy news that she was to be offered a teaching position at the Epes School on Aborn Street Court. The entry in her wonderful journal cannot contain her excitement: in the conservative, aristocratic old city of Salem!!! Wonderful indeed it is!…..Can it be true?

AA Phillips collage

Charlotte Forten

AA Phillips Liberator Forter 1856 Aug 1

The records of the country’s first female abolitionist society, the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (of which Forten was a member), are in the Phillips Library, as are those of the Salem Lyceum, which hosted the Society’s lecture series, as well as those of many other Salem organizations. A cabinet photo of Charlotte Forten [Grimké], c. 1878, New York Public Library, and a story on Forten in The Liberator, shortly after her appointment in 1856.

In the broad sweep of Salem’s African-American history, as in its general history, there are moments of achievement and pride and moments of disgrace and regret. Locally, we are accustomed to hearing about Salem’s glorious China trade but not its more abhorrent exchanges. But we appear to be in the midst of a Renaissance in the study of American slavery, with the impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North subject to particular revision and reexamination. PEM curator Gordon Wilkins’ reexamination of two prized colonial portraits that have been in the Museum’s collection since 1878 views Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch, the former a very active slave trader, in a new light, reflected by this revisionist history.

Fitch Portraits

Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch in Peabody Essex Museum’s American art galleries (photo courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum).

Wilkins asserts that PEM is committed to examining overlooked histories embodied in the objects that comprise our vast collections, and one hopes that this commitment will one day extend to the papers in the vast collections of the Phillips. Because there is a lot more to learn, and a lot less to overlook. I’m going to close with the comments of one of our graduate students at SSU, Thomas Landers (because I find that engaged graduate students are always very good at telling us what they–and us–need), in reference to the Waters-owned ship Abeona, which engaged in the slave trade between Senegal and Cuba in the 1790s. There’s a court case that sheds some light on the Abeona’s trade but its owner’s papers “sit locked away among the documents from other Salem families which traded in human flesh–names such as Fairfield, Smith, Ropes, Crowninshield, Grafton–in the Phillips Library collections, threatened to be removed from the city to which we owe their creation and preservation”.


Public History

I have to admit that, having written this blog for seven years (unbelievable–seems like a month!), an enterprise I undertook because I wanted to indulge my own curiosity but also learn to write less for an academic audience and more for the general public, and serving as chair of a department that has a very popular concentration in Public History, I never really understood what public history was until I became involved with this movement to resist the relocation of the Phillips Library away from Salem. Now I know that history is a commodity, for lack of a better word, that has limitless value, and also the power to unite all sorts of people: young, old, natives, newcomers, liberals, conservatives (well, this is Massachusetts) and those who fit into none of these categories. It’s hard to define this commodity which is also a force, because people have very different ideas about what history is: for some it is all about family, for some it is all about civic pride, for some it is about sacrifice, for others it is about heroism, for some it is about books, for others images, or things: for all, heritage. I’m used to presenting history, both here and in my professional life, but this has been a month of listening to people talking about their history. And with each assertion about their history, their power grew, eventually turning a one-way announcement (admission, really) into a two-way dialogue. Tomorrow night, we will see the very public acknowledgement of that dialogue at two events in two locales: a forum at the Peabody Essex Museum in which the leadership will lay out their plans for the (ware-)housing of the Phillips historical and literary collections along with all of the material objects not on view in a consolidated stewardship/storage facility in Rowley occuring at the same time as the Salem City Council will debate a resolution calling for the PEM to work towards “keeping Salem’s treasured history in Salem”.

Phillips Forum with border

Phillips Friends Letter with border

Phillips ResolutionFlyer for the 1/11 forum, position letter of newly-revived “Friends of Salem’s Phillips Library”(which is so new that it is homeless but I think it is going to wind up here) & Salem City Council resolution (converted pdfs–sorry about the lack of clarity).

What a night! I am both excited and nervous, but ultimately grateful to be part of this community conversation about something that so many people recognize as important: and this very community as well. I will report back on the day after, and then I promise to move onto some other subjects, patient readers (although I suspect that this conversation will go on for some time).

Phillips mss447_b3f8_seriesi_womantwoboys Social ServicesOne of my very favorite photographs from the Phillips collections that I’ve found while DREDGING every and all online sources this month: from the anniversary of the Children’s Friends & Family Services, Inc. (Phillips MSS 447), 1839-2003, which began life as the Salem Seamen’s Orphan Society and has 54 boxes of records on deposit in the Phillips.

 


Art vs. History: a False Dichotomy

Over the last three weeks, as I have listened to the public discourse surrounding the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant announcement that it was planning to house the Salem-dominant collections of its research arm, the Phillips Library, in a vast collections center (encompassing both archives and objects) in Rowley, I have heard a constant refrain: the PEM doesn’t want to be a history museum. They are only interested in art (That’s why they are taking/hiding our history away). I’m not sure this is entirely true, but if it is, it is a stance that is based on a false dichotomy, because these two disciplines are not incompatible or in competition: art is history and if done well, history is an art.

Art and History Vermeer.jpg Vermeer’s Art/Allegory of Painting, Kunsthistorisches Museum: featuring Clio, the Muse of History. 

Several PEM exhibitions in recent memory have featured historical components, from the wonderful Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style (2008) to Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (2015) and even the Victoria & Albert traveling show, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (2016-2107) featured a few placards on the regional shoe industry when it made its pitstop at the PEM. But I can understand why my fellow Salemites feel that their history is being ignored by the very institution that has the responsibility of stewarding it. The Museum seems to have an ever-increasing appetite for gallery space, always justified by its large collections, yet we seem to see more of other Museum’s collections in these showy spaces. The Phillips print and manuscript collections, along with all of those unseen objects, are now on a slow boat to Rowley: one wonders if it was possible to move the historic houses also entrusted to the museum whether they would be on their way too. I don’t really think so, but I like to force the connection between textual and material history.

ropes-renovMoving the Ropes Mansion back a few feet in the 1890s.

As I looked back at PEM exhibitions over the past fifteen years or so, all of which I have seen and enjoyed, I gradually came to an awareness that the PEM does indeed “like” history, just not local history. There has been a great emphasis on Asian history certainly, and European history, and Native American history, but local history, not so much. I wonder why this is so, given the museum’s focus on connections: doesn’t it want to connect with its local audience? All of its engagement initiatives seem to have been focused on entertainment rather than exhibits: the monthly Thursday PEM/PM events, free to all Salem residents, but ending this very month. Everyone says: I enjoyed it [insert exhibition, particularly blockbuster variety] for an hour or so, but that’s it. No need to go back again. I myself clung to just one poster in the recent Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style exhibitionBoston-published, depicting the watery grave of Lusitania victims.

pem-enlist-loc Library of Congress.

So let’s work with this image–its meaning and its power. We are in the midst of the centenary of World War I, a major turning point in world and American history. Museums across the country (and across the Atlantic, of course) have produced exhibitions focused on this epic event, including art museums like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The latter’s World War I and the Visual Arts encompasses all artistic mediums to present a cultural history of the conflict drawn from their own collection, while the MFA’s show focused on propaganda and recruiting posters similar to Fred Spear’s evocative Enlist above. Despite 18 boxes of World War materials in the collection of the Phillips Library (processed with the support of a federal grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission but currently inaccessible and undigitized), the PEM offered up shoes, wearable art, horror movie posters and ocean liners in the centennial year of 2017: all fun and visually-stimulating exhibitions, but can we really engage in a thoughtful exploration of the human experience through these topics?

Art and History HassamChilde Hassam, Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I see the PEM’s reluctance to delve into local heritage as tragic for Salem, which is left to the devices of market-driven Halloween “history”, but also for the museum itself, which is losing out on an obvious way to connect to its local audience on which its future is surely dependent at least in part—it can’t be all about big donors, can it? (Maybe it is). In its rationale for not reopening the Phillips Library in Salem, the PEM pointed to declining patronage by Salem residents, but this was surely a self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by declining hours and programming based on the library’s collections. A reopened and revitalized Phillips Library reading room, serving as a nexus for introspective examinations of greater Salem’s experiences in the contexts of global, national, and local history, could serve as a draw for both locals and tourists. Even though history may seem “dusty” to some, the public’s interest in heritage is both universal and increasing: with many state and local history museums reporting upswings in attendance all over the country in the last few years and record-setting crowds flocking to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in just its first year. And here in Massachusetts, with a statewide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing in the works for 2020, the Museum–and its Library– in the midst of the other prominent Puritan colony will find itself very much in demand.

MA400-Mayor-Panel A panel of mayors, including Kim Driscoll of Salem, at the Massachusetts 400 Forum in 2016.


%d bloggers like this: