Historical Data in the Birth of Boston project

by Matthew Bowser, PhD student, Birth of Boston Project


When looking at archival property records, the timeless blandness of legalese can make it very easy to forget what century one is looking at. As I pored through records of landholders in 1648 Boston, copying down their names, occupations, property records, and other relevant information into a spreadsheet, I quickly fell into a robotic routine until I came across the entry on William Hibbins. Along with a large amount of other innocuous data the state had collected about Hibbins, the entry entirely nonchalantly ended with the note, “His widow was executed for witchcraft. 1656.” Nothing else could have so immediately reminded me that not only was I looking at the 17th century, but also that these were real people. It reminded me why the project I was working on was so important.


I am doing this research toward the completion of one of the first projects for the Boston Research Center planning process, led by the Digital Scholarship Group in the Northeastern University library. Building on Northeastern’s signature focus on digital methods in scholarship, this project, “The Birth of Boston,” digitally reconstructs the city of Boston in 1648 by establishing the location and distribution of land ownership by the first generation of inhabitants of the city. The project was pioneered by my fellow PhD student in history, Molly Nebiolo, and our faculty supervisor, Chris Parsons. I was brought on in August to collect the data on the landowners from the records at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) and to then digitize and overlay that data onto a historical map of Boston through ArcGIS, the latter of which I did in collaboration with my colleague Molly. In this post, I will discuss some of the challenges and opportunities involved in collecting and managing historical data for the benefit of other scholars working on similar project and give a look into the making of “The Birth of Boston.”


William Hibbins’ unjustly executed widow serves as a good example of the kinds of challenges that can arise through working with an archival dataset, as well as the many fascinating opportunities that retrieving this data offers scholars. One of the most significant challenges of working with state archival data is context. The database I was using at the MHS was collected by amateur historian Anne Haven Thwing in the 20th century from a variety of state archival sources, which made it possible for me to complete this research in such a short amount of time without needing to run to each different location. However,ut her style of copying the data verbatim meant that some deciphering needed to be done. For example, Mrs. Hibbins’ death was recorded simply as “His widow was executed for witchcraft.” What was her name? What factors led to her being accused and tried for witchcraft almost forty years before the Salem Witch Trials?


Of course, any self-respecting scholar of colonial New England would have known about Ann Hibbins, the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and a key example of Puritan misogyny—a woman executed for essentially being too independent. However, as an historian of the British Empire in the 20th century, I had a blind spot when it came to Ann Hibbins, which highlighted for me the additional background research that needs to be done to provide context for individuals that might not have been as prominently remembered as Ann Hibbins, John Cotton, or John Winthrop. Indeed, aside from a greater understanding of my subjects, context mattered for me on a more practical level as well. Puritans were not very creative in their naming conventions, which led to difficulties such as having two different, unrelated Thomas Clarks and Robert Turners. Only by sifting through the details of the property they owned and establishing who neighbored whom was I able to distinguish between them.


Another primary challenge of working with this kind of data lies in the recovering of subaltern stories and not simply telling another white man’s history of New England. Ann Hibbins’ example continues to be relevant here, as the woman with the one of the most interesting stories in Boston’s early history only appears in this entire dataset as a footnote and an extension of William Hibbins’ entry. This problem manifests both through the nature of the dataset itself, primarily focused on property owners, who were almost always male, as well as through the white-male-centered nature of the state archives themselves. However, some interesting details did arise from the data. Three women were listed as landowners in 1648 Boston—Anne Tuttle, Charity White, and Elizabeth Purton—and in the data for Captain Robert Keayne, it is recorded that his African American servant, Angola, married Edward Hutchinson’s African American servant, Elizabeth. Of course this information is limited, but with further research, we hope to find more information about women, African Americans, and Native Americans in early Boston history.


With some extra research and due diligence, scholars can overcome these challenges with the data and begin to reap its enormous benefits. This data will give scholars a crucial look into the citizens of 1648 Boston: where they lived, who their neighbors were, and, at least from a satellite’s perspective, what their world looked like. This information opens the door to future research, including comparative land use studies of Boston in 1648 and at later dates, and studies of occupations and businesses in early Boston. From a broader, more public history perspective, the map produced can help people relive the history of Boston and visit where people like Ann Hibbins lived and see how much those locations have changed (Hibbins, for example, lived where the John W. McCormack Federal Building is today at 5 Post Office Square in downtown Boston and died near the aptly named “The Gallows” bar on Washington Street in the South End). In this way, the project both enriches scholarly understanding of early Boston and makes it easier for scholars and the public alike to visualize and imagine the history of the city.


After navigating the challenges set forth by collecting the data, the next step was to digitize the historical map of Boston and enter the data into the map in ArcGIS. Stay tuned for Molly’s post about some of the challenges that arose from working with historical maps and digital mapping software.

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