Monday, October 29, 2018

History and Halloween: Ancient Graveyards and Burial Grounds

Graveyards take on an especially spooky feel during the Halloween season, particularly those with ancient stories to tell. Almost four hundred years have passed since the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, an event that will be commemorated by Plymouth 400 throughout 2020, and many of the original graveyards from the early days of Massachusetts Bay Colony still exist throughout the commonwealth.

The oldest maintained cemetery in America is located in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Named for its most famous resident, Myles Standish Burial Ground has existed since about 1638. Several other individuals who arrived on the Mayflower are also buried there, including John Alden and his son Captain Jonathan Alden, who died in 1697 and whose gravestone is the oldest extant carved gravestone in the cemetery. The burial ground was abandoned in the late 1700s, but following the publication of The Courtship of Miles Standish by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1858, New England experienced a revival of interest in their colonial roots. In the late 1800s, the Duxbury Rural Society cleaned up the overgrown burial ground and worked to identify Standish’s remains. Today, he rests under a large memorial marked with four cannon, and other historical figures have been identified and labeled with 20th century markers.

A vintage postcard featuring the grave of Myles Standish (Source)

But one doesn’t have to leave the city to visit a colonial graveyard. Bostonians and tourists alike can easily visit three historic burial grounds adjacent to the Freedom Trail. The King Chapel Burying Ground is the oldest cemetery in the city and is the final resting place for Mary Chilton, another Mayflower passenger and the first European woman to step foot in Massachusetts.  John Winthrop, one of the founders of Boston, is also interred there. The Granary Burying Ground is notable for including many figures involved in the American Revolution, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Robert Treat Paine, and James Otis, Jr., as well as the victims of the Boston Massacre.  Lastly, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in the North End is another colonial cemetery notable for the gravesite of Prince Hall, an African-American abolitionist who founded the Black Freemasonry branch within North American Freemasonry. Another grave is special not only for its resident: the gravestone of Daniel Malcolm, successful merchant and smuggler who resisted British authority, still bears the bullet marks of British sharp shooters who used the stone for practice.

Daniel Malcolm’s gravestone at Copp’s Burying Ground,
 courtesy of  Curious Old Gravestones in and about Boston (1924)

With 17th and 18th century gravesites throughout the Commonwealth, often the graves themselves are interesting whether or not they mark the burial site of a notable historical person. The Puritans were concerned with piety and morality and disliked anything considered extravagant, and their graves reflect these ideas. Visit a colonial gravesite and note the common symbols that adorn gravestones: a winged face represents the soul of the deceased while a winged skull shows the flight of the soul from the mortal body; a sheaf of wheat represents an eternal harvest, and a rising sun symbolizes renewed life.

Colonial Williamsburg offers a helpful glossary of symbols and terms related to ancient cemeteries available on their website that will be helpful as you explore local cemeteries and burial grounds and discover your town’s local history this Halloween. If visiting gravesites during the spookiest time of the year is not your cup of tea, many of these symbols and more can be seen on gravestones featured in our photo collection from Curious Old Gravestones in and about Boston (1924), available on our Flickr page and accessible safely from home.

The impressively detailed gravestone of John Foster,
the first printer in Boston, courtesy of
Curious Old Gravestones in and about Boston (1924)


Alexandra Bernson
Reference staff

Monday, October 22, 2018

November Author Talk: Melinda Ponder

Celebrating the Armistice One Hundred Years Ago: Boston, the Yankee Division, and “America the Beautiful”
An Author Talk with Dr. Melinda M. Ponder 
Wednesday, November 7, 2018—Noon to 1:00pm
State Library of Massachusetts—Room 341, Massachusetts State House

The State Library of Massachusetts invites you to our next author talk and book signing on Wednesday, November 7, with Dr. Melinda M. Ponder, author of the recent book Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea.

One hundred years ago, on November 11, 1918, Massachusetts poet and Wellesley College professor Katharine Lee Bates joined the throngs of ecstatic Bostonians who were celebrating the Armistice that ended World War I. That same morning, on a hillside in France, the soldiers of the 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division celebrated the news of the Armistice by singing Bates’ patriotic song, “America the Beautiful.” In remembrance of Armistice Day, author Melinda Ponder will discuss the roots of “America the Beautiful” in Bates’ life and career, including Bates’ Cape Cod childhood and her travels that inspired the words of her famous patriotic poem. At the conclusion of Dr. Ponder’s presentation, tenor soloist Teddy Crecelius will sing “America the Beautiful.”

In addition to her book and numerous articles and essays about Katharine Lee Bates, Dr. Ponder has also published two books about another celebrated Massachusetts author: Nathaniel Hawthorne. A graduate of Wellesley College and Boston College, Dr. Ponder is now Professor Emerita of English at Pine Manor College.

Dr. Ponder’s illustrated lecture at the State Library is free and open to all, and registration is encouraged but not required. For more information about the State Library and our Author Talk series, please visit our website at

Laura Schaub
Cataloging Librarian

Monday, October 15, 2018

New England Court Records

Tracking down New England court records can be a confusing experience because such records are often spread out in different repositories.  If you’ve found yourself stuck and not sure where to look, the book New England court records: a research guide for genealogists and historians will give you all the information you need and then some.  This comprehensive guide, written by professional genealogist and former attorney Diane Rapaport, includes chapters on the American legal system, the federal and state courts in New England, and the types of records that were and still are produced by these courts; there’s also a helpful glossary of common legal terms one might find during their research.  A large portion of Rapaport’s book is devoted to each New England state, covering the histories of their court systems and breaking down into great detail where court records are kept, what format they are in, and what years are available.  It also includes recommendations for other helpful print and electronic resources to consider while researching.  As this book was published in 2006, some of the websites that are cited may no longer exist or have changed URLs.  Despite this, the information compiled by Rapaport is and will continue to be an incredibly valuable tool for those seeking court records, from colonial times to present, that are housed in this region.

New England court records: a research guide for genealogists and historians can be found at the State Library’s reference desk in room 341 of the State House.  If you have any questions about where certain court documents are located, feel free to email our reference department at or call our reference desk at 617-727-2590.  We’re happy to look it up for you!

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department

Monday, October 8, 2018

Interlibrary Loan: Lending books at the State Library

The State Library has a vast collection of books that cover a wide variety of subjects,  especially on Massachusetts and New England politics; such topics include politics, history, notable people, the molasses flood, capital punishment, and woman’s right to vote.

Only Massachusetts employees may check books out of the library; however, non-state employees can request to borrow our materials either through their public or academic library. We lend to libraries across the United States, with an average of 550 per year. We do not loan out items that fall into the following categories:
  • local history
  • microfilm or fiche
  • newspapers
  • books before 1930
  • reference materials
  • CDs and most videos
  • genealogical items
  • items from Special Collections 
  • and items from our Mass Room which includes annual reports from state agencies
  • anything that is in too bad of a condition to be shipped

Some books that are requested on interlibrary loan include: Nudge improving decisions about health, wealth, and happinessA short history of BostonGive me liberty! an American historyThe quest for environmental justice human rights and the politics of pollutionNew directions in special education: eliminating ableism in policy and practice.

We also scan articles from books and periodicals as long as the request does not violate copyright law (e.g. copying only one chapter or up to ten percent of a book.)

If you are a state employee and want to learn more about requesting books or articles check out this blog on borrowing materials.  If you would like to submit a request (and are a state employee) you can email our ILL department directly at or fill out a request form on our website.

Naomi Allen
Reference Department

Monday, October 1, 2018