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 and it’s hard to find a more important figure in the early history of New England. He was among the earliest 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 here 1649; he was 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. This 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 day readers.
The first impediment to tapping into Winthrop’s histories was created by Winthrop himself. His handwriting was terrible. Secretaries, students and researchers have all complained mightily while trying to decipher the original manuscripts.
Written in three volumes, Winthrop’s family was generous in lending the 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 for use in preparing his 1736 work A Chronological History of New England, in the Form of Annals. Prince was a minister who was meticulous in his writing, preferring 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 trying in his work to carefully delineate known fact from opinion and supposition or tradition. Belknap was among 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 would have to retrieve them when the mistake was found.
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. When cleaning out the steeple of the Old South Church in Boston in 1816 (Prince had been dead nearly 60 years by that point), church members dusted off his old library for examination. Some astute reader noticed that tucked into the collection was the third volume of John Winthrop’s journal, covering 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