Areas of Subject Strength: 17th and 18th Centuries

Essay by Matthew Gin

The manuscript and archival materials that comprise Colonial North America at Harvard Library were collected over time by librarians and archivists with responsibility to address research and teaching interests at Harvard, as well as the University’s documentary heritage. Summarized below are examples of broad areas represented in some of the collections that are currently digitized or will be as work progresses on Colonial North America at Harvard Library.


Documents from the Harvard Law School Library provide rich insight into 17th and 18th century legal practices from jurisdictions throughout the New World. The collection includes case books, dockets, lawyers’ day books, account and receipt books, books of precedents, and commonplace books, as well as summonses and legal opinions that illustrate the everyday work of lawyers and magistrates. Other materials, such as an inventory of English law books owned by John Hale and an anonymous handwritten copy of Sir Thomas Littleton’s Treatise on Tenures, attest to the kinds of literature that shaped jurisprudence in colonial America. Documents such as deeds, testimonies, and pre-nuptial agreements illustrate how ordinary citizens navigated the legal system and may be some of the only surviving accounts of these cases. Additionally, the material speaks to larger historical issues such as the adaption of English legal customs to the realities of the North American colonies and the contested rights of women to own property. Notable also are documents by William Penn pertaining to the founding of Pennsylvania, testimonies related to the outbreak of witchcraft in 17th-century Massachusetts, and records detailing nearly three centuries of legal proceedings in colonial Mexico.

Trade and Finance

Baker Library at the Harvard Business School houses one of the world’s oldest and most comprehensive collections related to trade and finance. Records from the library include letters, ledger volumes, account books, and ships' logs that attest to the great variety of economic activity that occurred in the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries — from fishing and agriculture to tanning, metallurgy, and shipping­. They also provide valuable insight into the everyday lives of people engaged in these various occupations. The collection includes records from the family of John Hancock that reveal the complexities of transatlantic commerce and elucidate the operations of early banking and insurance establishments that facilitated trade between America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Other records, like those of the Anglo-American industrialist Samuel Slater, offer a glimpse into labor practices and manufacturing during the first decades of the Industrial Revolution. The Harvard University Archives also houses an extensive collection of contracts, stewards’ books, deeds of sale, and quarter bills that provide a comprehensive record of the University’s early financial affairs. These records touch virtually all aspects of Harvard’s finances, from the construction of new buildings and faculty salaries to dining hall purchases and student tuition.


Cartographic representations from Houghton Library and the Harvard Map Collection provide a vivid record of exploration, trade, and westward expansion in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries. A 17th-century portolan chart by the cartographer Nicholas Comberford shows a sprawling network of ports that connected early New England towns with outposts in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, while nautical charts from the 17th and 18th centuries record burgeoning maritime activity along the eastern seaboard from Nova Scotia to South Carolina. Others, like a map from 1787 showing streets and allotments for a proposed town in upstate New York, illustrate efforts by Americans to survey and settle new lands on the frontiers of the early republic. Maps from Harvard collections also attest to encounters with Native Americans in the course of westward expansion. This includes a map from 1785 that identifies the location of ruins and Native American antiquities on a site in present-day Ohio as well as maps by Jeremy Belknap indicating territory ceded to the United States by Native American tribes and the establishment of new boundaries between these parties following the 1795 Treaty of Greenville.


The Harvard University Archives offers an extensive collection of documents that illustrate life at the University during its first 200 years. Student notebooks provide a wealth of insight into Harvard’s earliest courses of instruction, which included literature, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, and surveying as well as theology and ancient languages. These notebooks contain, among other things, poetry, drawings, penmanship exercises, mathematical calculations, and personal reflections. Documents from the Archives also shed light on student life at the University: among them is a declaration from 1712 in which members of the sophomore and junior classes pledge only to speak in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew at meals and in social gatherings, as well as an extensive collection of records related to the disciplining of students for various infractions. The Archives also houses personal papers of faculty, such as those pertaining to Judah Monis, a member of the Harvard faculty who was the first instructor of Hebrew in North America. These include his correspondence with University administration and a rabbinic manuscript in Hebrew as well as petitions, letters, and financial documents pertaining to the publication of Monis’s Hebrew grammar.

At Gutman Library Special Collections, a student notebook (1793) from the Atkinson Academy in New Hampshire reflects the kind of instruction offered at one of the nation’s oldest schools.

Politics and Civil Life

Documents found throughout University collections offer rich insight into the vibrant political life of the North American colonies and the early republic. Material at the Harvard University Archives and Houghton Library, such as a draft of a constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia by its General Assembly and a tally of votes from a 1788 town meeting in Plympton, Massachusetts, attests to a burgeoning democratic tradition in America. Other documents speak to the relationship between church and state in the 18th century, including the record of a meeting held at Concord, Massachusetts in 1788 in which residents elected Ezra Ripley as their minister with a salary paid by the town. Harvard collections also house extensive records pertaining to French settlements in Canada and their administration at crucial junctures during the mid- to late 17th century. Of particular note, a register covering a period from 1633 to 1708 captures significant developments such as the arrival of Jean Talon as the first intendant of New France and his plans to promote agriculture and manufacturing in the fledging colony.


Harvard collections reflect both the long history of religion at the University and the spread of Christianity in the Americas more broadly. Both the Andover-Harvard Theological Library and Houghton Library house a variety of material that speaks to the advancement of Christianity in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Among them are sermons penned by Harvard alumni such as Samuel Willard, Ezra Ripley, and Ebenezer Pemberton, who became leading clerics of their time. These collections are further enriched by records from some of the earliest churches in Massachusetts, which include lists of births, baptisms, deaths, and burials as well as membership rolls and pew leases. Other documents in the collection speak to growing religious diversity and dissent in 18th century America. Among them is a manuscript concerning John Thayer, a New England-born Congregationalist minister who converted to Roman Catholicism, as well as papers from the Philadelphia Universalist Convention — such as meeting minutes, letters from individual parishes to the convention, and proposals for a new hymnal — that illustrate nearly two decades of debate surrounding church governance and theology that were foundational for the Universalist faith. At Tozzer Library, treasures such as a catechism written in Testerian hieroglyphics attest to the systematic evangelization of indigenous peoples in New Spain.

Science, Technology, and Medicine

Collections from across the University support research in the history of science, technology, and medicine. At the Countway Library of Medicine, material speaks to the advancement of medical education and the professionalization of medicine in colonial America. The Ezekiel Dodge Cushing papers, for instance, consist of correspondence regarding his education at Harvard and subsequent medical training at Dartmouth as well as his medical practice in Boston­. Other documents, such as bills, letters, and inoculation certificates, demonstrate how early New England physicians delivered care, while student notebooks elucidate the training of doctors. At the Harvard University Archives a book of diseases and treatments (1773) reflects the adaptation of European medical expertise to the New World. The almanacs of John and Hannah Winthrop also contain a wealth of scientific information, from mortality rates to descriptions of meteorological and astronomical phenomena. Material related to outbreaks of disease can also be found in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. Among them are sermons preached on the occasion of outbreaks and a parish record book that lists the names of people inoculated against smallpox. The exceptional Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments offers an unparalleled group of objects that attest to the blossoming of empirical science in the early United States. This includes a selection of instruments purchased in Europe by Benjamin Franklin on behalf of Harvard University as well as documents pertaining to their procurement.

War and Diplomacy

Collections at Harvard offer extensive material related to the history of the Revolutionary War and America’s earliest diplomatic engagements. At Houghton Library, the collection of American historian and Harvard president Jared Sparks offers original and transcribed historical documents and correspondence that Sparks himself used to conduct his own research on the American colonies and the original 13 states. The collection includes, among other things, letters written by Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and George Washington; the journals of Thomas Ainslie; and records of the New York Provincial Congress. Furthermore, the papers of the American diplomat Joel Barlow­, which consist of letters, prisoner records, a treaty, and consular documents, shed light on negotiations with North African states regarding piracy in the Mediterranean prior to the First Barbary War. Material at the Harvard University Archives illustrates the direct role that Harvard played in the Revolutionary War. This includes letters describing negotiations between Continental Army and Harvard administrators regarding the army’s use of University buildings and a document from 1775 describing damage done to Massachusetts, Harvard, and Hollis Halls following military occupation. Also housed at the Archives is a resolution by the Massachusetts General Court from 1778 authorizing Harvard to select books from collections confiscated from Loyalist homes and businesses.