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Read About Drama, Politics, Breakfast in These Newly Digitized Colonial Documents

An ambitious Harvard University project brings history to life, archiving nearly half a million documents online

Students pledged to speak only Latin, Greek or Hebrew in each other's company in this 1712 note. (Harvard University)
smithsonian.com

In August 1712, a group of students at Harvard University made a bold pledge: They resolved not to use any language other than Latin, Greek or Hebrew in their rooms, at mealtime and during other gatherings until the end of the school year in May 1713. Was their pledge an expression of 18th-century nerdery or just evidence of their desire to improve their knowledge of classical languages? Did they keep their promise? We may never know—but the pledge itself is tucked away in Harvard University’s vast collection of colonial-era documents.

Now, reports Megan Thompson for PBS NewsHour, you can view that promise and thousands of other documents as well, as part of an immense effort to put Harvard’s colonial archives online. It’s all part of the Colonial North American Project, an ambitious attempt to bring together hundreds of thousands of colonial documents currently scattered across 12 collections at the University. The project will take years to complete, but by the time it is done, almost half a million items will be online, available for anyone to access.

So far, archivists have digitized about 150,000 manuscripts, letters and other materials. They range from the personal to the political, like a letter from a pro-Federalist newspaper editor that calls John Adams “a hoary traitor” and a college student’s essays on topics like mortality and patriotism. An archivist tells Thompson that the collection also includes a large cache of John Hancock’s letters.

No longer do you need to visit Harvard to read a midwife’s testimony on the identity of the father of a woman’s child, a college student’s account of his breakfast (three raw eggs and two glasses of wine), or a Harvard president's accusations that one teacher “knew no more of Philosphy than a Brute.” And the best is yet to come—as archivists digitize hundreds of thousands more documents, they’ll paint an even richer and more human picture of the period.

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