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Harvard digitizes Colonial-era documents, letters

File under: Some things never change. “Honoured Sir — I wrote to you the 11th Currant but omitted Some Things which I Shall now enumerate,” the obedient son, James Otis Jr. wrote to his father, before asking for money.Colonial North American Project

James Otis Jr. needed 15 shillings for belt buckles, 15 more to print his “theses,” and a little extra to put toward “any manner of entertainment” for commencement at Harvard.

In a letter to his father, James Otis Sr., dated June 17, 1743, the young scholar pleaded for the money.

“Pray Sir, send me money Enough for I believe I Shall not write again before commencement,” Otis said in the letter, signing it, “Your most Obedient Son.”

Otis’s letter is part of a treasure trove of thousands of manuscripts, notes, and other materials from the 17th and 18th centuries that have been compiled and made available online to the public. The documents are part of The Colonial North American Project, a multiyear undertaking by university archivists.


“It’s a critical mass,” said Franziska Frey, head of preservation and digital imaging services. “These are documents that really explain a lot of the history and a lot of how our society was built. It’s a wide range of materials.”

The archives include musings from historic figures like John Hancock, John Quincy Adams, and the prominent Winthrop family.

“It really explains the Colonial times,” Frey said.

The project started in 2010, when archivists did a survey of available documents related to the lives of North American Colonists campuswide and then collected them for processing from the school’s many repositories.

A year later, the digitization portion of the project began, Frey said.

The university launched the project’s website last week. Hard copies of some of the more notable historic documents are on display at the school’s Pusey Library through March. The exhibit is called “Opening New Worlds.”

For now, there are roughly 150,000 pages of documents on the website, shedding light on the social lives, education, and religious beliefs of Colonial inhabitants.


Images of “all known archival and manuscript materials” related to the 17th and 18th centuries from the repositories will eventually be included in the online collection, according to archivists. Many documents are still being processed, conserved, and digitized.

“It’s going to keep going,” Frey said. “As soon as [documents] are digitized, they are available through our website.”

She added, “If you come back to this website in half a year, there will be tens of thousands of pages you didn’t see today.”

Frey said her favorite selection of documents comes from a weathered manuscript kept by William Winthrop, son of Harvard Professor John Winthrop, between 1769 and 1774. The material is called a “Notebook concerning mathematical equations.”

Buried deep inside the notebook is an image of a “Mariner’s Compass.” The pages that follow the image show what Frey called “meticulous” notes about ship navigation. The notes are written in clean cursive and are accompanied by sets of equations eloquently scrawled across the pages.

“I really found that a fascinating way to get some insight on how students learned at that time,” Frey said.

A plan of Cambridge Green, 1780. A small pen-and-ink and watercolor drawing of Cambridge Green created by Harvard senior John Davis, presumably as part of his undergraduate mathematics coursework.Colonial North American Project
Letter from John Quincy Adams to his brother, Thomas Boylston Adams, 1786. This letter was written by John Quincy Adams on July 2, 1786, to his younger brother, Thomas Boylston Adams, who was then staying with their uncle, the Reverend John Shaw, in Haverhill, Mass. In the letter, John gives Thomas advice on life as a student at Harvard.Colonial North American Project
The Harvard College master of arts diploma of Samuel Mather, 1701. This diploma was awarded to Samuel Mather on July 3, 1701, when he received an A.M. from Harvard College. It is signed by Increase Mather (then-president of Harvard), Samuel Willard, Henry Flynt, Jabez Fitch, and Nathaniel Saltonstall.Colonial North American Project
A page from William Winthrop’s “Notebook concerning mathematical equations.”Colonial North American Project at Harvard University

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.