Much of what we know about the earliest days of America comes from the Journals of John Winthrop, and much of that was almost lost forever.
The very earliest histories of New England have relied on Winthrop’s journals. It’s hard to find a more important figure in the early history of New England. He was among the first English arrivals to Boston and was one of the most prominent of the early leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He arrived in America in 1629 and died 20 years later, having served as governor or lieutenant governor of the colony for 19 out of those 20 years.
Winthrop was a lawyer from a well-to-do English family. He was also a Puritan, though he was more moderate in his beliefs than some. That made him the ideal buffer between the more conservative and liberal elements of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
He also kept a detailed journal, which formed the backbone of most of what we know about Massachusetts history from 1630 to 1650. But his journals – or his annalls, as he called them – almost never made it to modern readers.
Winthrop himself created the first impediment to tapping into his histories. He had terrible handwriting. Secretaries, students and researchers have all complained mightily while trying to decipher the original manuscripts.
The Journals of John Winthrop
Winthrop’s family generous lent the three-volume journals to historians. Cotton Mather borrowed them for Magnalia Christi Americana, published in 1704. Ipswich Minister William Hubbard relied on them for his General History of New England. Yale College President Ezra Styles accessed them and included excerpts in his planned, but never published, Ecclesiastical History of New England.
Thomas Prince borrowed the journals to prepare his 1736 work A Chronological History of New England, in the Form of Annals. Prince, a minister meticulous in his writing, preferred detail to readability.
Jeremy Belknap used the Winthrop journals, as well. Belknap’s best-known work was his History of New Hampshire. He advanced the field of historical writing by carefully delineating known fact from opinion and supposition or tradition. Belknap belonged to the group of scholars who established the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Despite the high regard historians maintained for the Winthrop journals, the books themselves were treated somewhat casually. When Belknap died, for example, the two Winthrop journals in his possession were simply lumped in with his library and passed on to his descendants. The Winthrop family had to retrieve them when they discovered the mistake.
Finally in 1790, Noah Webster published the journals for the first time in complete form. Or at least he thought it was complete, because Thomas Prince was even more lax in his handling of the journals. Prince had borrowed all three of Winthrop’s journals, but returned only two of them.
For decades the third volume of the journals was lost. In 1816, nearly 60 years after Prince’s death, church members cleaned out the steeple of the Old South Church in Boston. They found Prince’s library and dusted it off. One astute reader noticed the third volume of John Winthrop’s journal tucked into the collection. It covered the last few years of his life.
The church presented the journal to the Massachusetts Historical Society for, at last, safe-keeping. But there was one more indignity to befall the journals. The society let a writer, James Savage, borrow them. He was intent on finally producing a reliable and complete version of Winthrop’s work.
In 1825, a fire broke out at Savage’s home, destroying the second volume of Winthrop’s journals. Savage had transcribed it – and that transcription survived the fire – but he had not yet finished his work correcting it and reconciling with the original. Thus, the remaining journals, plus Savage’s own transcription and Ezra Styles notes on the second journal, became the foundation of most of what is today passed on to historians.
Thanks to: The Winthrops and Their Papers, Malcolm Freiberg, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society