BOSTON, MASS. — Among the most elemental human characteristics is the need to know. Who am I? Where did I come from and from whom? Such questions have intrigued people from time immemorial. From early colonial days in America, citizens created family records and registers of their origins to satisfy their inherent need to know. Such curiosity drove the early Nineteenth Century establishment of the first genealogical society in the United States. The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) was chartered in 1845 in Boston with the mission of focusing on genealogy and history and its focus included all arriving groups.
In the early Twentieth Century NEHGS embarked on the transcription and publication of the records of Massachusetts towns, an important genealogical endeavor that has expanded ever since and now runs to some 40,000 state, county and town histories and record collections from all United States and eastern Canadian provinces.
Over the years the organization has gathered millions of books, journals, manuscripts, records, photographs and other material dating back more than four centuries and from all corners of the world. Along the way, NEHGS has also acquired an impressive collection of paintings, furniture and various decorative art objects. Some were planned acquisitions; others were bequests and all represent a repository and an intricate blending of art and history. Every single object, regardless of its form, is a resource documenting the interconnections of the lives and times of our antecedents.
NEHGS began life in a city building in downtown Boston; by 1913, it settled at the crest of Beacon Hill where it had sufficient space to open a museum. Then, half a century ago, the burghers of Boston swept away block upon block of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century buildings in the interests of urban renewal and acres of cement. One of the victims was NEHGS and its museum, which held the 1934 Atkinson Lancaster collection. That space was taken by eminent domain in 1964 and the society acquired a 1928 three-story bank building on Newbury Street, its present location, and later added five floors. Today, space is very tight and gets more so every year.
Relief is in sight, however. NEGHS has acquired the adjacent four-story brownstone and will expand there in the future. In the meantime, genealogists toil amid the paper of their calling surrounded by fine paintings, furniture and decorative accessories of the centuries — although a good portion is in storage.
Just inside the main entrance an array of early portraits and armorial devices high in the Treat rotunda overlook the space devoted to public programs and meetings, a bookstore and the international reference collection.
One portrait, attributed to the Freake artist of Boston, represents a doleful tale. The beautiful Rebecca Rawson was the ninth of 12 children born in 1656 to Edward Rawson, the first secretary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his wife Rachel Perne Rawson. The sitter is very elegantly gowned, attesting to the position and affluence of her father. As such, she was courted by the Englishman Sir Thomas Hale, nephew of Lord Chief-Justice Hale, and married him in 1679, before setting off to England with him. Days after their arrival, Sir Thomas absconded with her clothing, jewelry and other personal property. He turned out not to be Sir Thomas Hale, but one Thomas Rumsey with a wife in Canterbury.
Rebecca was left alone, penniless and pregnant. Rumsey had also swindled other members of Boston’s upper class. Rachel, no longer Lady Hale, remained in England for 13 years before she was persuaded to return home, finally sailing back to Boston via Jamaica where an earthquake caused a tsunami that destroyed her ship, killing all on board.
The Freake artist’s portrait of Edward Rawson, born in England in 1615, hangs opposite that of his daughter. The portraits are two of a small group of paintings attributed to that artist.
The portrait of Captain Paul Cuffe depicts an exceptionally handsome mariner, a Quaker, a Patriot and abolitionist. Born on Cuttyhunk Island off New Bedford, he was the son of a West African father brought to Massachusetts as a slave, and then freed, and a Native American Wampanoag. He became a mariner and acquired a fleet of trading vessels, later supporting the colonization of Sierra Leone with freed American slaves. Cuffe’s petition about taxation led to the 1783 law allowing the vote to all free male citizens. The artist is unknown, although the picture was formerly attributed to Boston artist Chester Harding and research as to its origin continues. The painting was purchased in 2012 by NEHGS in honor of Henry Louis Gates Jr.
A Boston armorial filigree of the Lemmon-Phillips Arms made in 1735 by Mary Lemmon is among the earliest American armorial works of art. It, too, hangs above the rotunda, as does the Gookin family oil on board hatchment, which dates from about 1625. Gookin family members were among the earliest settlers of Massachusetts and Virginia.
The important Atkinson-Lancaster collection came to NEGHS as the 1933 bequest of Dr Lizzie D.R. Atkinson, daughter of Elizabeth Ann Lancaster Atkinson and John Atkinson VI of Newbury, Mass. Atkinson was born in 1859 in Calcutta where her father was an East India merchant, owning 18 ships that traded among India, Australia and India. She was sent home to Salem in 1870 to live with relatives and further her education, and her parents returned two years later, settling in a house they filled with a mix of furniture they had commissioned in India and American antiques that descended in the family. Neither Dr Atkinson nor her brother John had any survivors and, wishing to keep the collection intact, bequeathed it to NEHGS.
The earliest piece of furniture from the Atkinson-Lancaster collection is the Atkinson family maple and pine tavern table from about 1720. Another early object is the North Shore Massachusetts mahogany high chest of drawers, circa 1725, with mahogany veneer and brasses stamped with a flame and log design. It descended from Atkinson’s great-great-grandmother, Martha Moody Dodge of Newbury, wife of Daniel Dodge of Newburyport. A North Shore mahogany games table, circa 1750, with cabriole legs ending in pad feet also descended from Martha Moody Dodge.
Another star is a mahogany oxbow slant lid desk from around 1800 by prominent Salem cabinetmaker Elijah Sanderson, who worked frequently with carver Samuel McIntire. The desk was said to be Sanderson’s own and it descended from him into the Atkinson Lancaster collection. A Salem mahogany highboy with a bonnet top and claw and ball feet by Sanderson, circa 1800, descended from Susan Elizabeth Cook.
Not only was Sanderson a superb craftsman, he was also an ardent Patriot, who, as a 24-year-old resident of Concord and a Minuteman in April 1775, was captured, with Paul Revere, by a group of British soldiers advancing on the town. The Minutemen convinced the British troops that the town was alarmed and they would be killed. The British disappeared into the night. Elijah and brother Jacob Sanderson had completed their apprenticeships by 1779 and set to work in Salem in partnership with Josiah Austin.
Like a cabinet of curiosities, one tiny aspect of the NEHGS collections opens the door to a wondrous tour of the past.
Family registers provide much information. One example is that of the Folger family, who arrived on Nantucket early. Its branches are thick with important personages. They are delineated in the family tree hand drawn in 1866 by Nantucket genealogist and NEHGS member William Coleman Folger. They are the descendants of John Folger, born in Norfolk, England, around 1590 and died around 1660 on Martha’s Vineyard, and his son Peter, 1617–1690. Peter’s daughter Abiah Folger married Josiah Franklin, and among their ten children was Benjamin Franklin. Folger descendants also include the Macy merchant family.
The early (1760) leather fire bucket painted in a scroll design and inscribed to P Johonnot was probably that of Peter Johonnot. Loyalist Johonnot was a Boston distiller who was an addressor of Gage in 1775 and in consequence, leaving his wife and children behind, decamped to Halifax in 1776 and thence to England in 1778, the same year he was proscribed and banished from Massachusetts. By 1779 he was a loyal addressor to the king.
While Johonnot escaped, the 1824 roll of the members of the Boston Sea Fencibles addresses the Patriots who remained. It introduces the little-known volunteer organization that served as a naval militia at various port cities up and down the American coast. The Sea Fencibles comprised anyone over 21 who had commanded a ship or served as first mate or supercargo on a foreign voyage. Members served as defenders of ports from invasion.
A handsome mid-Eighteenth Century Massachusetts mahogany easy chair with scrolling arms and raked back legs made by an as-yet-unknown maker came from the Beacon Hill home of Thomas Hancock and descended to his nephew John Hancock. The chair was donated to NEHGS in 1882 by the Reverend Edmund F. Slafter, a minister, historian and secretary of the society.
Peregrine White was the first child born to the Pilgrims — aboard the Mayflower as it lay at anchor in Provincetown Harbor. A cane that he owned was made from a tree he planted and given to NEHGS in 1872 by Lemuel Shattuck, a founder of the society.
The New England Historic Genealogical Society is at 99-101 Newbury Street. Admission to the NEHGS is free to society members; day passes are $15. For information, www.americanancestors.org or 888-296-3447.