So many materials, locked away in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, undigitized, unheralded, unshared, undervalued and underutilized. Perhaps the digitized catalog will bring scholars to Rowley but they will have to be on the hunt: the Museum clearly does not have the inclination to blaze the trail. This was not always the case: a century and more ago, both of the PEM’s predecessors, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, were determined to share the stories of their collections to as wide an audience as was then possible. This week, like many historically-minded people in Massachusetts, I’m thinking about the insurgent American Revolution: that’s what mid-April is all about here. We have the 382nd Annual Muster on Salem Common this weekend along with a Glover’s Regiment encampment over in Marblehead, and then all the events associated with Patriots Day in Lexington and Concord on Monday. As has become my habit, I looked through the catalog of the Phillips to see what I am missing–what all of us are missing— about the historical significance of this time. The diaries always catch my attention (the Phillips is particularly rich in diaries) and one looked really interesting: that of William Russell of Boston, a Tea Partier and later clerk to the dashing privateer Captain John Manley, commander of the Continental ship Jason, which was captured in 1779. He then became a prisoner of war and recorded conditions as such in the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England during the duration of the war. There is a list of his fellow prisoners as well as the ships from whence they came, and additional notes and annotations by his grandson James Kimball, a Salem resident who published the diary and presented his manuscript copy to the Essex Institute, where Ralph Paine mined it for several chapters in his 1908 book The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem; the Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement, calling it “by far the most complete and entertaining account of the experience of the Revolutionary privateersmen and naval seamen who suffered capture that has been preserved”. Here we have an example where (I think–I stand ready to be corrected by historians of the Revolution) an antiquarian and annotated copy has been more influential than the original source, which is part of the Boston Public Library’s collection of American Revolutionary War Manuscripts.
The opening page of William Russell’s wartime diary & the warrant for his arrest in December of 1779, Boston Public Library; woodcut broadside illustration of the famous Captain Manley of Marblehead, Peabody Essex Museum.
If this is true, it will not be so for much longer: the Boston Public Library is committed to digitization, collective transcription and open access while the PEM clearly is not (yet, we have hopes), so the primary source will eclipse the copy if it has not already. I’m drawn to the PEM Russell diary because it speaks to the activities and inclinations of his grandson, James Kimball, almost as much as it does to William Russell himself, and also to the role played by the Essex Institute in later nineteenth-century Salem. Around the time of the Centennial, James Kimball, a former Salem shoemaker and current county commissioner, clearly devoted himself to the chronicling of the Revolutionary activities of his grandfather, giving public talks at both the Salem Lyceum and the Essex Institute and publishing several papers in the Historical Collections of the latter, and ultimately the annotated prison diary. The Essex Institute gave him a genealogical and historical forum, and created a far more lively public discourse of Salem’s past and the American past than seems possible now.
History is as much about the remembrance of things past as the past, but I don’t want the former to take precedence over the latter, especially as we approach Patriots Day and should be mindful of the heroism and the sacrifices of our Revolutionary forebears. Russell was clearly heroic, but his sacrifices were overwhelming–maybe that’s what motivated his grandson a century later. He was in captivity at the Old Mill Prison for two and a-half years, when he was exchanged, but only 20 days after his liberation he was imprisoned again, this time in the horrible, hulking British prisoner ship Jersey, anchored off New York. And there he remained until the end of the war, after which he returned to Boston (actually Cambridge) to resume his civilian and family life, but “with health shattered by reason of his years of hardship as a prisoner of war…consumption gripped him and he died in the following year on March 7, 1784 at the age of thirty-five. He had given the best years of his life to his country and he died for its cause with as much indomitable heroism and self-sacrificing devotion as though musket ball or boarding pike had slain him” in the 1908 words of Ralph Paine. And the story doesn’t even end there: Russell’s son and namesake (and Kimball’s uncle) grew up to be a master mariner, and was taken captive by the British during the War of 1812 and imprisoned in……Old Mill Prison! Russell Jr. suffered a much shorter confinement than his father, but still: think about the sacrifices of two generations of a family, and the devotion of a third.
1812 Drawing of Mill Prison, Plymouth.