Monday, August 21, 2017

History and Fun Facts about Beacon Hill


Massachusetts State House
As most people know, the Massachusetts State House is located on Beacon Hill, which is an historic neighborhood in the city of Boston.  It was named after a wooden beacon that once stood on the hill to warn residents of an attack or a fire.  Beacon Hill is approximately one-half to three-quarters of a mile square, has 9,100 residents, and is bounded by Cambridge Street on the north, Somerset Street on the east, Beacon Street on the south, and Storrow Drive on the west. The State House with its gilded dome is Beacon Hill’s most prominent landmark and was built on land that once belonged to John Hancock.

Trimount, Boston, Massachusetts
Beacon Hill was originally one of three hills that existed in an area that was called Trimountain or Trimount; the two other hills were Mount Vernon and Pemberton Hillsometimes called Corn Hill.  Today’s Tremont Street comes from this original name of Trimount.  During the time the State House was being constructed (1795-1798), Harrison Gray Otis, Jonathan Mason and others started The Mount Vernon Proprietors group with the purpose of developing the area around the building; partners of the group also included Charles Bulfinch, Hepzibah Swan, and William Scollay.  About 19 acres of land was purchased by the group in 1795, most of it from painter John Singleton Copley; four years later in 1799 the hills were leveled.

Harrison Otis Gray house
on Mt. Vernon Street, Beacon Hill
Mansions were built on the newly created Mt. Vernon Street, and the 2nd Harrison Gray Otis House at 85 Mt. Vernon Street is a rare surviving example from this time period.

Another notable place on Beacon Hill is The Museum of African American History, which is located in what was once the first African Meeting House.  It was built in 1806 for the congregation of the African Baptist Church and was the first black church in Boston and is the oldest existing African-American church building in the United States.  It was a synagogue for the Anshei Lubavitch congregation from 1898–1972 and then was sold to become the Museum.  

Naomi Allen
Reference Librarian

Monday, August 14, 2017

Table Gossip


Celebrity news in newspapers is nothing new.  Recently I was looking in the Boston Globe issue of July 18, 1886 and found a section of the paper called “Table gossip.” This section of the paper tells us what certain people, including some socially prominent people, are up to, as well as what some businesses are doing.

One entry tells us that “Julia Ward Howe addressed the Womans’ Auxillary Conference at Newport, on Tuesday afternoon on “How to Widen the Sympathies of Woman.”” Also “Miss Louisa Alcott, Mrs. Celia Thaxter and Mrs. Ole Bull with Whittier, the poet, have made an interesting group at the Appledore the past week.  Mr. Whittier believes it will be the last visit he makes to the island". Doing a little internet research I found out that Appledore House was a hotel owned by the family of poet, artist and naturalist Celia Thaxter (1835-1894). She had soirees in the summer where she invited well known artists friends.  The American impressionist painter Childe Hassam was also a frequent visitor.  He painted hundreds of seascapes on the Isles of Shoals where Appledore is located.  Isles of Shoals are a group of islands near Kittery, Maine.  It appears that Mr. Whittier is so famous he does not need a first name.  He is John Greenleaf Whittier.

Some businesses used the column that week to make announcements, including that Jordan Marsh opened a store on Cottage Street in Bar Harbor, that the State House is getting carpeting, and that parasols are marked down in William H. Zinn’s store.  You can even get some fashion news.  Sunshades (another name for parasols) in ecru etamine (an off white color) are the fashionable parasols for the summer.



Naomi Allen
Reference Librarian


Monday, August 7, 2017

Dighton Rock and its Portuguese-American Legacy

Immigrants from Portuguese-speaking countries have long chosen New England as their home. According to the 2010 census, Massachusetts has the third-largest number of residents with ancestry from Portugal, behind only Rhode Island and California, and New England has the highest density of Portuguese immigrants in the United States. The first wave of Portuguese-speaking immigrants came in the 1800s from Portugal, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands, many of them whalers, fishermen, and factory workers. However, there is evidence that a small number of Portuguese immigrants came to the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket during Massachusetts’ colonial period (New England Historical Society), while others are convinced that the Portuguese were the first European pilgrims to set foot in Massachusetts in the 1500s.

This belief is centered around Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder originally embedded in the Taunton River covered in petroglyphs and curious markings that have sparked interest in its origins since 1680. At that time, Reverend John Danforth made a drawing of these markings, which was published in part by Reverend Cotton Mather in his book The Wonderful Works of God Commemorated (1689). Since then, scholars from around the world have puzzled over the rock’s meaning, with theories that assign the carvings to Native American, ancient Phoenician, Norse, and Chinese origins.

Drawing of the carvings as made by John Danforth in 1680

In the early 20th century, Edmund Burke Delabarre of Brown University introduced a new theory that tied Dighton Rock to a 15th century Portuguese explorer who never made it home. Miguel Corte-Real set out to explore the western Atlantic and had previously made it to the Coast of Labrador with his brother Gaspar. At the end of the 1500 expedition, Miguel was sent back to Portugal and Gaspar stayed behind, never to be seen again. In 1502, Miguel set out on a second expedition to find his brother, and he too disappeared. Historian Delabarre believed that the stone was marked by Miguel Corte-Real, whose voyages had brought him along the coast of North American to what is now Taunton. According to his research, Delabarre believes that the rocks states, “Miguel Cortereal. 1511. By the Will of God, leader of the natives of India in this place” in Latin followed by the Portuguese coat of arms.

Pictures of the inscriptions taken and outlined by Edmund
Burke Delabarre and published in the Bulletin of the Society
for the Preservation of New England Antiquities

(https://bark.cwmars.org/eg/opac/record/3472533?locg=111) 

Members of the Massachusetts Portuguese communities were instantly captivated with this theory. The Miguel Corte Real Memorial Society, formed in the 1950s, claimed Dighton Rock and fought the Department of Natural Resources, ordering them to surrender the rock to the historical society. These two organizations would continue to clash throughout the mid-1950s. First, the historical society had acquired about 50 acres of land near Dighton Rock to create a park in 1952, but a year before the Massachusetts Legislature had expropriated the same land for a state park. Later, these two organizations clashed again regarding how the rock should be preserved: the Department of Natural Resources wanted to remove the boulder to higher ground, while the historical society wished to build a coffer-dam around its original location in the Taunton River. Today, Dighton Rock is housed inside a small museum at Dighton Rock State Park.

Maritime historian and Harvard professor Samuel  Eliot Morrison refuted the Corte Real theory in his book Portuguese Voyages to American in the Fifteenth Century and later in a Letter to the Editor in the Boston Herald, in which he wrote that “It is, of course, possible that Miguel Cortereal visited these coasts in the early 16th century, and it is very gratifying to our Portuguese citizens to feel that one of their heroes was here more than a century before the Pilgrim Fathers. But there are a good many arguments against accepting Professor Delabarre’s interpretation as authentic.” To this day, there is no definitive theory regarding the origin of the petroglyphs on Dighton Rock, though many Portuguese-Americans remain convinced that it is an important part of Portuguese maritime history and American history in general.

Further Reading:




Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff 

Friday, August 4, 2017