The Whitehill Prize in Early American History

The Colonial Society of Massachusetts announces the 2014 Walter Muir Whitehill Prize in Early American History

This prize of two thousand five hundred dollars, established in memory of Walter Muir Whitehill, for many years Editor of Publications for the Colonial Society and the moving force behind the organization, will be awarded for a distinguished essay on early American history (up to 1825), not previously published, with preference being given to New England subjects. The Society hopes that the prize may be awarded annually.

A committee of members of the Colonial Society will review the essays. Their decision in all cases will be final. The following historians have agreed to serve as judges:

Fred Anderson, Professor of History, University of Colorado, Boulder;

David D. Hall, Bartlett Research Professor of New England Church History, Harvard Divinity School;

Mary Beth Norton, Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History, Cornell University.

By arrangement with the editors of the New England Quarterly, the Society will have the winning essay published in an appropriate issue of the journal.

Essays are now being accepted for consideration. All manuscripts submitted for the 2014 prize must be postmarked no later than 31 December 2014.  The Society expects to announce the winning candidate in the spring of 2015.

Entries submitted for consideration should be addressed to:

Whitehill Prize Committee
c/o The New England Quarterly
Meserve Hall, 2nd Floor
Northeastern University
Boston, MA 02115

For a list of prize specifications please visit:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bringing the Maya to Boston

Boston may be thousands of miles from Latin America’s ancient Maya sites, but a little piece of that world has resided in our fair city for more than one hundred years.   A fine collection of Mesoamerican artifacts have lived at Harvard’s Peabody Museum since the late nineteenth century, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Charles Bowditch.  In 1891, Bowditch, a Boston financier, archaeologist, and cryptologist, planned and bankrolled a series of professional excavations of Copan—an endeavor that the Honduran government could neither coordinate nor afford.  As payment, the University kept half of the expeditions’ finds.


This image of Copan, Stela C, East Face and Altar is from the Alfred P. Maudsley Collection, 1883–1890. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Things have changed since the days of Charles Bowditch; national and international laws now regulate the antiquities market.  Boston, and its universities, however, continue to be home to a number of notable Maya explorers and archaeologists, including Norman Hammond, Lauren Sullivan, and William Saturno.  And the Maya remain a solid fixture at the Peabody Museum.



“Encounters with the Americas” exhibit, courtesy of the Harvard Peabody Museum.

Within the Peabody’s “Encounters with the Americas” exhibit, Maya pottery rests in glass cases.  Fifty- to one-hundred-word labels explain the significance of altars and glyphs.  But at the Peabody, just like at so many other conventional museums, visitors wander and wonder but do not directly interact with exhibits or their content.  Fortunately, just as archaeological practices and protocols have and continue to evolve, so too do the ways in which museums display the fruits of excavation.


“Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed” exhibit, courtesy of the Museum of Science.

From now until early May, Boston Museums of Science’s “Maya” Hidden Worlds Revealed” exhibit encourages its audiences to engage directly with its subject.  In addition to traditional displays, the exhibit teems with technology, hands-on activities, and audio-visual displays. “Hidden Worlds Revealed” encourages visitors to decipher hieroglyphs and construct pyramids with blocks, to reassemble broken pottery and choose their own Maya name.  The exhibition explores the world of the Maya as well as the work of the men and women who, over the last three centuries, have advanced our understanding of it.  But as Professor Saturno reminded the museum guests on opening night, although many discoveries have already been made, more work lies ahead for Boston’s next generation of Maya scholars.

Posted in Museums | Leave a comment

The September 2014 issue of the NEQ is now available!

The fall edition of NEQ features Ian Saxine’s Whitehill Award winning essay, “The Performance of Peace: Indians, Speculators, and the Politics of Property on the Maine Frontier, 1735-1737” as well as pieces by Nina Bannett, Jennifer Ansley, Mark Sturges, Jonathan Edward Barth, and Andrew J. B. Fagal.

“In acts variously administrative, diplomatic, economic, literary, and social, the historical figures, fictional characters, and bodies politic you will meet in NEQ’s September issue assert their sovereignty.” ~Linda Smith Rhoads

Autumn in New England: cider making / painted by G.B. Durrie ; Currier & Ives, lith. N.Y. c. 1866. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Autumn in New England: cider making / painted by G.B. Durrie ; Currier & Ives, lith. N.Y. c. 1866. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A conversation about Henry David Thoreau

Independent scholar Andrew Menard recently sat down with Professor Laura Dassow Walls to discuss nationalism and nature in Henry David Thoreau’s Walking.

Their exchange is the latest addition in the NEQ podcast series. Listen in!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

March 2014 Editorial


            As the authors of NEQ’s March 2014 issue explore the workings of power across racial and cultural divides in colonial America, “dynamic” is a word that pops off the page. Jacqueline Henkel opens her essay with a compelling set piece: in the fall of 1652, Monequassun delivers his conversion narrative to a group of Puritan dignitaries. Time and again, he notes, his resistance has given way to compliance: he reluctantly leaves his home to reside in the praying town of Natick; he accepts the Christian message he originally rejected; he overcomes his anxieties about learning how to read to become the town’s schoolmaster; and in a particularly painful act of capitulation, he cuts his hair.  The authenticity of the confession is problematic for historians, as indeed it was for contemporaries: adapted to English norms, it is derivative, and included as it was in John Eliot’s Tracts, it was translated and shaped by parties eager to use it to rally English support for New World Indian missions. Henkel proposes subtle and sophisticated ways to tease out meaning from the tension “between genre and voice, between a rhetoric of authenticity and the personal and historical detail,” as well as between “orality (as authentically immediate and truth revealing) and written discourse (as transparent and official).”

            The texts Kelly Chaves investigates are merchant account books. Taking a long view (1672–1740) of indigenous participation in Nantucket’s whaling industry, she is able to show that the debt that ultimately culminated in Native Americans’ involuntary servitude to their English merchant masters originally helped them enjoy some of the benefits of a market economy. Native Nantucketers, who had plied the waters surrounding their island for centuries, chose to enter the English cod fishery, an occupation that offered them a means to exercise their formidable skills and to support their families. Most of them, Chaves has found, “eked out a modest living aided by, but not enslaved to, credit.” As whales replaced cod as merchants’ preferred prey, however, the stakes changed, and Natives lost their autonomy, their community cohesion, and all too often their lives.

            Like the rest of the country, Jared Hardesty reminds us, eighteenth-century Boston relied on unfree labor to run its economy. Whereas other regions employed slaves to work their farms, however, Boston “depended upon skilled laborers who could provide specialized services such as shipbuilding (which employed around thirty different trades), blacksmithing, coopering, and printing,” and “artisans and merchants trained their slaves to perform such skills.” That training not only enhanced the value of masters’ slave property but gave slaves some leverage to negotiate the terms of their labor as well as to “lodge protests against working conditions, defend their perceived rights as workers, and craft a workplace identity.” “Rarely did [slaves] assert claims for freedom,” Hardesty observes, but they were nonetheless able to “secure a greater degree of autonomy than we might expect.”

            Ultimately, however, they were still slaves. Chernoh Sesay looks at those individuals who did assert claims for freedom, not only for themselves but on behalf of all enslaved people of African descent then residing in Massachusetts. Influenced by the rhetoric of Revolution, a number of free and enslaved men, aided by sympathetic whites, appealed to the governor and legislature of Massachusetts between 1773 and 1777. Their petitions are moving and multifaceted, alternately conciliatory and defiant. Although they were ultimately lost in the shuffle of Revolutionary-era politics, they commanded attention when they appeared, and they played a part in shifting public sentiment regarding slavery. More important, the petitions established a standard for African American activism that would ensure that “abolition would be a movement not only about but also of black people.”

            With an exchange between Michael P. Winship and Francis Bremer about the function and uses of Puritan conversion narratives, narratives much like that Monequassun delivered in 1652, the March issue comes full circle. It is a circling ’round that demonstrates the dynamism of NEQ, where ideas are constantly being reexamined in the light of new evidence.

                                                                                         —Linda Smith Rhoads





Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Interested in the Editorship of NEQ?

The New England Quarterly Inc., the administrative governing board of The New England Quarterly, invites inquiries from individuals interested in editing and colleges, universities, or cultural organizations interested in hosting the journal as of 1 July 2015. The directors of NEQ Inc. will consider any viable arrangement that advances the mission of the journal to publish the best that is being written about New England literature, history, and culture and their relation to the United States and the world.

Interested individuals should address their preliminary inquiries to the NEQ Transition Team, c/o Sarah Hudson, The New England Quarterly, 249 Meserve Hall, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115, or at, no later than 1 February.

For more information, visit NEQ’s website at

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Colonial Almanacs

The almanac was ubiquitous in colonial America.  It provided essential information including weather forecasts, planting dates for farmers, and tide tables arranged in a calendar.    Almanacs might contain essays, tools for making financial calculations, political commentary, a local directory, and space for doodling and recording.  Nearly every household owned a copy of the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and the current almanac.  The first was published by William Pierce in 1639 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The most successful and well-known were printed in the mid-eighteenth century by men such as Nathanial Ames and Benjamin Franklin.

Size and Portability

Though some colonists elected to keep their almanacs in accessible locations within their homes, publishers designed them to be carried around, much like we carry our phones with us today.  They were sized for portability.  A typical almanac was about 4×7 inches and contained 24–36 pages.  It was slim enough to fit into a pocket or a lady’s reticule (an early type of handbag).  When an almanac was lost, it was not unusual for the owner to place an ad in the paper offering a small monetary reward for its return because almanacs had the potential to be highly personalized (more on this later).


Few farmers were without a copy of the most current almanac. Early Americans thought that the movement of the planets had a bearing on the physical processes of Earth, information of particular importance to farmers who relied on the weather.  An astrologist would be well paid to examine the night sky and make the necessary calculations.  The results would then be published and used as a guide for when to plant and when to harvest. Astrological predictions were notoriously unreliable but in the absence of anything better they were followed carefully.  Even illiterate people knew how to read the symbols used to communicate this essential data.


The premonitory powers of the almanac were not just confined to the weather; it was believed that one could use the almanac to predict one’s health as well.  Before the nineteenth century, the alignment of the sun, moon, and stars, was thought to have a direct bearing on a person’s health.  The world was composed of four elements—water, fire, earth, and air.  The human body had four humors, each of which corresponded to an element: phlegm (water), yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), and blood (air).  Each person exhibited a signature combination of the four humors.  Someone with a lot of phlegm might have a cooler temper while someone with more yellow bile might have a warmer.  If the humors or elements became unbalanced, disease could result.  The four elements also corresponded to astrological signs.  And so, based on an almanac’s astrological information, people were able to predict their future health.  For more about how early Americans conceived their place in the cosmos, see “Urania’s Dusky Vails”: Heliocentrism in Colonial Almanacs, 1700-1735 by J. Rixey Ruffin in NEQ’s June 1997 issue.  In addition to helping colonists know when they were going to be sick, the almanac also featured recipes for common ailments such as muscle cramps, fevers, and congested sinuses.

Court Dates

A high point of the year in colonial America was the court date.  Since the distance between towns could be great, a judge or group of judges traveled around the colony, stopping along to way to hold trials. The almanac listed each travelling judge when they were scheduled to appear in various locations.  People who had a dispute that needed to be resolved could have it heard without having to travel a great distance.  Colonists who weren’t directly involved in a trial often attended simply for the opportunity to gossip, trade, and socialize with neighbors.


Almanacs recommended roads from major cities to various towns, listed “Houses of Entertainment” where the weary traveler stop for refreshment and rest, and noted the best times to set sail from specific ports based on weather predictions and planetary alignments.


Perhaps most impressive, the almanac enabled early Americans to calculate local time.  One added to or subtracted from, depending on the time of year, the natural time read on a sundial the number of minutes listed in the almanac.  Since mechanical timepieces could be temperamental, many colonists relied on this paper counterpart instead.


The almanac could serve as an account book.  It offered interest and conversion tables, which were essential to calculating loans. Moreover, in the decades following the American Revolution when paper money from the US and England mixed with gold and silver coins as legal tender, figuring out exactly how much money one had could be complicated.  The almanac provided blank charts for tracking income and spending.


Almanacs weren’t all about serious business. Many also included jokes, comics, and puzzles.  One could find poems, advice, passages from the Bible, and historical information.  Poor Richard’s Almanack, published by Benjamin Franklin from 1733 to 1758, was well known for its proverbs, which espoused thrift, civility, and industry. Some colonists inserted pages into their almanacs, converting them into day planners and diaries.  Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington used their almanacs in this way—a boon to historians. In an era when paper was quite expensive, the blank spaces within discarded almanacs were used by enterprising authors to share thoughts with family and to create wish lists, as Michael Eamon notes in “Don’t Speak to Me, but Write on This”: The Childhood Almanacs of Mary and Katherine Byles (NEQ, June 2012). Some almanacs were heavily illustrated with cartoons and designs to make them more visually appealing.  Finally, almanacs contained essays and anecdotes with political commentary.  For more on how the writings in almanacs reflected contemporary politics, read To Reach Men’s Minds: Almanacs and the American Revolution, 1760-1777 by Allan R. Raymond in NEQ’s September 1978 issue.


Almanacs varied greatly by publisher.  Nathanial Ames, said to have published the best almanac to be had in colonial New England, distinguished his with extracts from great works of literature.  Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack was noted for its wordplay.  Benjamin Banneker, who published almanacs in the late eighteenth century, was a noted abolitionist, and his views were reflected in the essays he chose to include in his editions.  Notes on New England Almanacs by N. W. Lovely in NEQ’s June 1935 issue will satisfy this blog’s more curious readers.

Today, almanacs are relics of a bygone era, souvenirs produced for a public fascinated by Yankee culture.  In the place of an almanac we use such inventions as the smartphone and the day planner to access information and plan our lives. We still need to track our finances and cure our colds, but in place of an almanac we now have Excel spreadsheets and WebMD.

American History, twelfth edition, Alan Brinkley, New York:  McGraw-Hill, 2007, p. 94-95

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment