The Memorial History of Boston

THE first volume has appeared of a collection of historical essays and monographs 1 which will, when completed, give a very comprehensive survey of Boston from the time of its settlement in 1630 to the completion of its two hundred and fiftieth year in 1880. The work, indeed, takes a good start back of 1630, going even beyond Prince, who began with the Flood, in his Chronological History of New England; for Professor Shaler, in his chapter on the Outline of the Geology of Boston, begins with the Creation, and intimates the very birth of the peninsula on which Boston was predestined to stand, and Professor Allen follows with an account of the Fauna of Eastern Massachusetts, and presents a view of the earliest inhabitant of Boston, the Great Auk, who does not appear in the passenger list of the ark. The intelligence with which this Bostonian looks forth from the printed page is most gratifying : that eye has speculation in it; those little short wings can surely flap applause. The whole approach to the historic foundation in 1630 prepares one for the dignity of the subject. Besides the editor’s preface and introduction and the chapters just mentioned, Whittier’s historical poem of The King’s Missive stands in front of the contributions as a pleasant reminder that literature, after all, is the amber which incloses the fly ; and Professor Gray treats of the Flora of Boston and its Vicinity, Mr. George Dexter of the Early European Voyages in Massachusetts Bay, the editor of the Earliest Maps of Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor, and Mr. C. F. Adams, Jr., of the Earliest Explorations and Settlement of Boston Harbor. By such thorough clearing of the way is the reader prepared for the arrival of the Arabella. He has assisted at the creation of the peninsula, watched the gambols of the prophetic auk, seen the first blade of grass grow on Beacon Hill, descried from its summit the ships of the early voyagers, preceded by the shadowy sails of the Flying Norwegian, — which Mr. Dexter, with praiseworthy caution, declines to anchor within the bay, — attended the silent services of the Church of England as administered by Blackstone to the Mavericks and Walfords, and now stands ready to receive the ministers and their congregations. The deliberateness and leisure of the movement of the book augur well for the completeness of the survey.

The Memorial History is in truth more than a survey: it is a summary of what has been diligently accumulated by successive generations of students, presented by some of the most eminent of these special investigators. For ninety years the Massachusetts Historical Society, and for half that time the New England Historic Genealogical Society, having their head-quarters in Boston, and the American Antiquarian Society at Worcester, dating from the first years of this century, have been doing a work which isolated scholars could not do ; add to this the individual labor of students, the collections formed by Harvard College Library, the Boston Public Library, and the Boston Athenæum, and it is doubtful if another instance can be found of such concentration of independent and organized historical and genealogical investigation upon a single community within the same brief period. Then the libraries containing materials for the local history and the societies themselves are the legatees of local historians from the very first establishment of the city. The labors of Winthrop, Hutchinson, Prince, Belknap, Minot, Holmes, to say nothing of many other less noted men, have suffered scarcely anything from the ravages of fire, or disorder, or hostile occupation; by what earlier generations would have regarded as a miraculous interposition of Providence, precious material, which did suffer an eclipse by the presence of the British army in Boston, was rediscovered and brought back from exile ; the unfading family and civic pride has been conservative of literary and other monuments; the churches have maintained their individual integrity ; the town and the State have preserved their records, and traditions have been hoarded. As a result, the city of Boston, less homogeneous than once, but scarcely less proud of its historic movement, has accumulated a mass of material, much of it thoroughly sifted and ordered, for the more perfect display of its record. There have been local antiquaries, and more than one has attempted a history of the town and city, but the work of presenting the result of the life of Boston after two hundred and fifty years of growth and expansion could scarcely find any adequate undertaking except, as in this instance, at the hands of a number of writers, each specially equipped and attacking the subject from independent positions. The reason of this is obvious. The interest which one takes in such a city as Boston is divided among many considerations. There is the interest in the topographical changes ; in the landmarks, which are in part matters of memory or tradition, in part still visible and suggestive. There is the interest in the names of men which recur again and again ; in the organic life of the town ; in its relations to the commonwealth ; in the varying phases of social and domestic life. Besides, Boston was for so long a time the spokesman of New England that no history of the town would be complete which did not cover in its range those greater questions of public interest which render the relation of the New to the Old England one of the great subjects of modem history. The interest which one takes in historic Boston is at once so petty and familiar, so large and philosophic, and one’s present relation to it so living and continuous, that when he attempts to seize upon some minor characteristics he finds himself, like Thor, lifting the cat and discovering that he has hold of Jörmungad.

Perhaps it is from some such sense of the gravity of the situation that the writers in the first volume have treated their subjects with a dignity and critical acumen which make the book rather encyclopædic in character, and lacking in narrative animation. Perhaps, too, the same result is due largely to the fact, already intimated, that the writers are in many instances experts, who for years have been engaged upon the subjects now intrusted to them, and have dulled their sense of perspective and picturesqueness in their concentration of interest upon nice points of fact and authority. The vigilance, also, of a large body of local students acts as a cautionary influence upon the work of each. There are several of the writers who could have exchanged topics with little if any detriment to thoroughness of treatment, and each knew thus that his pages would be read by critics competent to catch him if he tripped ; but the distribution of chapters strikes one as judicious and fortunate. Mr. Adams had already shown his familiarity with his subject in the papers which appeared recently in The Atlantic; Dr. Ellis, aside from his acknowledged general authority, had shown himself a special student in the direction indicated by his two chapters on The Puritan Commonwealth and The Indians in Eastern Massachusetts ; Mr. Haven’s learned lecture upon the History of Grants under the Great Council for New England justified his choice in preparing the opening chapter under the Colonial Period of the Massachusetts Company; Mr. Francis Drake had already published his town history of Roxbury before writing the chapter on the same subject in this volume ; no one else but Dr. Trumbull could have written The Indian Tongue and its Literature, and Mr. Whitmore’s chapter on Boston Families prior to 1700 is his by right of conquest, while the minute, accurate knowledge and extensive learning of Dr. Charles Deane give special justification to his authorship of what is in some respects the most valuable chapter in the volume, — The Struggle to maintain the Charter of King Charles the First, and its Final Loss in 1684. In other instances there are equally apposite appropriations on personal grounds, as in Mr. Barrows’s chapter on Dorchester ; Mr. Edes’s on Charlestown; Mr. Foote’s on The Rise of Dissenting Faiths. Boston Founded falls with poetic justice to Hon. R. C. Winthrop.

Apart from the excess of the virtue of carefulness, which renders the work, as we have hinted, a little too scholarly for general enjoyment, we do not see that any criticism is called for upon the execution of the task. The editor, besides his own contribution, has added greatly to the value of the several chapters by his abundant foot-notes, and the repetitions are no more frequent than a due regard to the independence of each writer rendered imperative. The illustrations are interesting, and in some instances, as in the case of King’s Chapel, very helpful. There are two or three views of Colonial Boston which seem to us not sufficiently included in this volume,—possibly in one instance the subject may be reserved for a future volume in the series. Thus the interrelation of England and New England, so emphasized by Palfrey and defined by the late Mr. Thornton, although not strictly a Boston topic, might properly have been treated by itself. The series of election sermons would have made a good independent topic ; possibly the internal economy and growth of the First Church; and then the town meeting offers a good theme for a chapter which should reconstruct that potent institution in literary form. Our question is whether the whole treatment is not so far analytical and so wanting in constructive, and we may add imaginative, qualities as to impair a little the vivacity and attractiveness of the work ; for after all a literary monument should be read, and not stared at. Might it not be well, also, if the unity of the history failed to be given in brief annals, to append to the entire work a chronological table, which would enable one to run his eye along the whole two hundred and fifty years, and get something of the sweep of history ? Whatever criticisms or suggestions we may make, the work thus begun, if carried out in the same generous, catholic spirit, will be an honorable and imperishable memorial.

  1. The Memorial History of Boston, including Suffolk County, Massachusetts. 1630-1880. Edited by JUSTIN WINSOR, Librarian of Harvard University. In four volumes. Vol. I. The Early and Colonial Periods. Issued under the business superintendence of the projector, Clarence F. Jewett. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1880.