Since 1845 Boston’s New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) has been collecting, preserving, and interpreting materials that tell the stories of America’s families. While “doing one’s genealogy” has always been a popular pastime, “who we are and where we’ve come from” has received unprecedented exposure in the past decade. Prime time television programs such as Finding Your Roots (hosted by NEHGS trustee Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and introduced each week on PBS from the society’s headquarters) and websites like and the NEHGS’ award-winning have attracted millions of people, all seeking clues to their past. Long a leader in genealogical research and with more than 65,000 members and registered users of its website throughout the world, NEHGS has been both a catalyst for and a beneficiary of this tremendous surge of interest in family history studies.

Revolving-top table designed and possibly fabricated by Reverend John Pierpont (1785–1866), ca. 1835. Mahogany; W. 64½ , H. 30½ in. Purchased by NEHGS 1846.
Revolving-top table designed and possibly fabricated by Reverend John Pierpont (1785–1866), ca. 1835. Mahogany; W. 64½ , H. 30½ in. Purchased by NEHGS 1846.

The table is one of the earliest acquisitions made by NEHGS, having been purchased at auction in 1846 by one of the society’s founders, S. G. Drake, for the organization’s first headquarters near City Hall, off Court Square in Boston. Rev. John Pierpont, the maternal grandfather of New York banker J. Pierpont Morgan, was minister of Boston’s Hollis Street Church from 1819 to 1845. Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Pierpont graduated from Yale College in 1804 and practiced law until taking a degree from Harvard Divinity School. Following his tenure at Hollis Street Church, Pierpont served as minister of the United Church in Medford until retirement in 1854.

Thomas Hancock’s easy chair, maker unknown, Massachusetts, mid-eighteenth century. Mahogany frame; H. 43, W. 32½, D. 31 in. Upholstered in gold damask by Scalamandre Silks, Inc., 1978. Gift of Edward F. Slafter, 1882.

Described by a nineteenth-century occupant of the house built for Boston merchant Thomas Hancock (1703–1764) as being among those pieces of furniture “covered with a rich damask,” NEHGS’ Hancock chair was part of an ensemble of six on view at the society’s former Somerset Street headquarters. Each of the chairs was owned by a governor of a New England state, and the Hancock chair—representing Massachusetts—is the only one remaining of that collection. Built in 1735, the Hancock house stood alone atop Beacon Hill for thirty years. Hancock’s wife, Lydia Henchman (1717–1776), inherited the house and willed it to her nephew, John Hancock (1737–1793). The famous signer of the Declaration of Independence lived there until his death. The house was torn down in 1863 to make room for a new wing for the Massachusetts State House. 

The Bark Macon at Smyrna (now Ismir, Turkey), by Rafaelo Corzini (active ca. 1820–1865), dated 1854. Gouache, 28¼ x 21¼ inches. NEHGS collections.

Rafaelo Corzini was the preeminent pier-head painter in Smyrna from the 1820s to the 1850s. The 325-ton Macon was built in the Ferry Village section of what is now South Portland, Maine, in 1853. The house flag on the ship is that of Israel Lombard & Co. of Boston, presumably the Macon’s home port. Having been painted in Smyrna one year after its construction, the Macon was probably engaged in the China trade and in port to load opium. British traders did not permit American ships involved in the China trade access to the port of Calcutta, which they controlled. Hence, the Macon was taking on cargo in Smyrna. Nothing is known of the ship’s master, Lorenzo Maya, and the Macon’s ultimate fate is unknown as the ship is not mentioned in the 1857 edition of Lloyd’s Register. 

“The Descendants of John and Peter Folger,” compiled and drawn by Nantucket genealogist William Coleman Folger (1806–1891), dated 1866. Pen and ink on paper, (framed). H. 32, W. 24⅝ in. Purchased in 2009 with funding from NEHGS trustee Bruce Bartlett.

This family tree shows the descendants of John Folger (1590–1660) and his son, Peter Folger (1617–1690). The Folger family came to Nantucket from Norfolk, England, in 1635. Among their descendants is Benjamin Franklin. Abiah Folger (1667–1752), daughter of Peter, became the second wife of Josiah Franklin (1657–1745). Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), the eighth son of Abiah and Josiah, was born in Boston. A later descendant, James Athearn Folger (1835–1889), went west during the gold rush and, in 1860, founded the coffee company that bears his name. A tenth generation descendant of Peter, Henry Clay Folger (1857–1930), became chairman of the Standard Oil Company and founded the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Highboy, attributed to the shop of Elijah Sanderson (1751–1825), Salem, Mass., ca. 1800. Mahogany; H. 87¼, W. 38½, D. 21½ in. NEHGS Atkinson-Lancaster Collection.

Elijah Sanderson was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, but had moved to Salem by 1779. By 1800 he and his brother Jacob (1757–1810) owned the largest of Salem’s cabinet-making establishments located on Federal Street in what is now the McIntire Historic District. Elijah was one of the founders of the Salem Cabinet-Maker Society; furniture produced by members was shipped on consignment to the southern states, West Indies, South America, Africa, and India.  This elegant high chest features a number of recognizable features associated with finer examples of Salem furniture including “creased” knees and an undulating skirt with central pierced diamond and pinwheel rosettes.

In addition to the high chest, a mahogany oxbow slant-lid desk, also attributed to the Sanderson shop, is in the collection. A handwritten label in one of the drawers reads: “This desk was made by Elijah Sanderson, who was the grandfather of William S. Roberts, who married Susan E. Cook (1914)”; family lore notes it was Sanderson’s personal desk. Another label reads “Now the property of John Atkinson, grand-nephew of Susan E. Cook.” A handwritten label in a drawer of the high chest associates it also with the Cook and Atkinson families.

Gookin hatchment, artist unknown, ca. 1690. Oil on board. Each side approximately 23 inches. Gift of J. Wingate Thornton, a founder of NEHGS, 1871.

This early example of heraldic funereal art was painted after the death of Thomas Gookin (1614–1690) and likely hung in the church of the manor of Ripple Court, near Dover, in Kent, England. The Gookin hatchment features the family’s coat of arms—a chevron and roosters—quartered with the arms of the Durrant family—the family of Thomas Gookin’s grandmother. The Gookin and Durrant arms are impaled with stars and a bear, the arms of Gookin’s wife, Jane Edolph (1616–1690). The hatchment’s black background indicates that Jane predeceased her husband (by five days). Had she been living, the right-hand side of the hatchment’s background would have been painted white or left as natural wood.

Fire Bucket, maker unknown, 1760. Painted leather;
H. 10½, Diam. 7½ in. Donor unknown.

This piece of decorative firefighting equipment is inscribed to “P. Johonnot”, presumably Peter Johonnot (1728–1809) a Boston distiller who married Catherine Dudley (1729–1769) in circa 1750. The son of Zacherie (Zachariah) Johonnot (1700–1784) and Elizabeth Quincy, Peter descended from a family of French Huguenots who arrived in Boston in the 1680s. Zacherie Johonnot was one of the Sons of Liberty and all his children, except Peter, were ardent supporters of the new nation.

In 1776 Peter left Boston for Halifax and then sailed to England. He was listed in the Massachusetts Banishment Act of 1778 and named in a 1780 lawsuit wherein his property was seized by the colony because he “levied War and Conspired to levy War against the Government & People of this Province, Colony & State, & then adhered to the King of Great Britain….”

Death portrait of Elizabeth Royall, painted by Joseph Badger (1707–1765), 1747. Oil on canvas. (framed). 31¾ x 26⅝ inches (framed). Gift of Dr. T. Larkin Thomas, 1874.

Elizabeth Royall (1740–1747) was born in Medford, Massachusetts, the daughter of the wealthy Loyalist merchant Isaac Royall (1719–1781) and his wife, Elizabeth McIntosh (1722–1770). An early posthumous portrait, it was undoubtedly painted as a memorial of the couple’s young daughter, lying on her death bed. Until 1989 the portrait was mounted on the obverse of the same stretcher holding the portrait of her younger sister, Mary McIntosh Royall. The artist, Joseph Badger, was born to a family of modest means in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a glazier, house and sign painter, and a self-taught portraitist. Badger’s career flourished in the 1740s and 1750s, but was eclipsed in the 1760s by the emergence of the eminently talented Boston artist John Singleton Copley. When Badger died his wife was required to sell their modest house to pay his debts.

“The military and historical portrait group of the officers of the third North Carolina U.S.V. infantry in the war with Spain,” Lithograph printed by Thomas L. Leatherwood at Ashville, North Carolina, ca. 1899. H. 36⅞ , W. 25¼ inches (framed). Purchased at auction, 2012.

This broadside features the portraits of the officers of the Third Carolina Volunteers commanded by Col. James H. Young together with a biographical sketch of each officer and a short history of the regiment. James H. Young (1860–1921) was an African-American politician in North Carolina. Educated at Shaw University, Young was appointed colonel of the all black volunteer regiment organized to fight in the Spanish-American War. Although the unit did not see action, Young was believed to be the first African-American to hold the rank of colonel in the United States Army. Following the war, he received a federal appointment from President William McKinley and served as deputy revenue collector for Raleigh, North Carolina.

The manufacture of clocks in America began in the first years of the eighteenth century. Among the earliest recorded New England clockmakers was Benjamin Bagnall, who apprenticed as a watch and clockmaker in England before settling in Boston in around 1712. In the records of the selectmen of the town, August 13, 1717, the following is written: “that Joseph Wadsworth, William Welstead, Esq., and Habijah Savage, Esq. be desired to treat with Mr. Benjamin Bagnall about making a Town Clock.” The first documented domestic Bagnall clock was a pendulum model, made in 1722.1 On the inside of the lower door was written: “This clock put up January 1o, 1722.” Enclosed in a tall case of solid black walnut, a wood used in the earliest American-made cases, the clock is similar to the one owned by NEHGS. Benjamin Bagnall married Elizabeth Shove (born at Charlestown, Massachusetts, ca. 1696). Among their children were two sons, Benjamin Jr. and Samuel, who were also clockmakers.

Tall Clock, dial inscribed by Benjamin Bagnall (ca. 1689–1773), American, 1725; maker of the case unknown. Black walnut case; H. 91½, W. 19 (at base), D. 10½ in. Bequest of Miss Martha Wheelwright, 1867.

Edward Rawson was born in Gillingham, Dorsetshire, England, April 16, 1615, and came to Newbury, Massachusetts, in 1636 or 1637. He married Rachel Perne (d. 1677), daughter of Richard Perne (1583–1636), fathered twelve children, and moved to Boston, living on “Rawson’s Lane,” now Bromfield Street. From 1650 to 1686 he served as third Secretary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. An anonymous Boston artist, the Freake Painter (so-called because two of his paintings were of members of the Freake family) produced ten oil-on-canvas paintings of prominent Bostonians between 1670 and 1680. He is thought to be an English immigrant who painted in the Elizabethan-Jacobean style, emphasizing linear depiction of forms and surface ornamentation.  The works of the Freake painter are considered seminal in the history of American folk painting. Another NEHGS portrait, of Edward Rawson’s ill-fated daughter, Rebecca (show inset), is also attributed to the Freake painter.

Portrait of Edward Rawson (1615–1693), attributed to the Freake Painter, 1670. Oil on canvas. 44 x 36 inches. Gift of Reuben Rawson Dodge, a descendant of Edward Rawson, 1884.

While many of the thousands who come to the society’s Boston headquarters each year seek information found in the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections—more than 5,000 linear feet of manuscripts including unpublished genealogies, diaries, letters, and account books—researchers can also consult NEHGS’ fine and decorative arts collections to unlock clues to their past. Paintings, furniture and decorative arts tell their own stories and provide genealogical and historical clues not found in manuscripts. Such identifiers range from personal possessions and style of dress that may help identify the time period and potential subject of a portrait; family notes attached to objects that reveal ownership histories and the aesthetic tastes of the original owners; or the identification of a craftsman through labels or chalk scrawls that provide information on stylistic identifiers. The beneficiary of gifts of Americana since the nineteenth century, including the Atkinson-Lancaster Collection of American Furniture, NEHGS continues to purchase select objects with documented family histories. Those illustrated in this article represent only a portion of the collection.

D. Brenton Simons, president and CEO of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, is eager for those who come to NEHGS to discover the stories that the fine and decorative arts collections have to tell. “Those who use the resources of the society have a terrific opportunity to research family history in two ways, through our art collections and—more traditionally—by consulting the Avery Special Collections and our other library resources both in person and online.”