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COLLECTION Identifier: MS Am 1704-1704.9, 1704.11-1704.21

Palfrey family papers


Papers of the Palfrey family of New England.


  • 1713-1915

Language of Materials

Collection materials in English.

Conditions Governing Access

There are no restrictions on physical access to this material.

Conditions Governing Use

In the more recently acquired papers, bMS Am 1704.21, the right of publication of the correspondence to and from Sarah Hammond Palfrey is restricted to Mrs Charles Woodrow until such time as she may rescind this restriction.

Images linked to the finding aid describing this collection are intended for public access and educational use. This material is owned and/or held by the Houghton Library, and is provided solely for the purpose of teaching or individual research. Any other use, including commercial reuse, mounting on other systems, or other forms of redistribution requires the permission of the curator.


60 linear feet (130 boxes and 9 volumes)
The material of this collection encompasses over 150 years of American history and many items of interest besides those documenting the life and works of John Gorham Palfrey, who is its central figure. A few of these may be briefly mentioned here.

The papers of William Palfrey include letters between John Wilkes and the Sons of Liberty and William Palfrey's personal correspondence with Wilkes at the time of the latter's imprisonment in 1769-1770, including Palfrey's description of the Boston Massacre. William Palfrey's business account and financial papers are extensive and range in subject from accounts of trade with Virginia in 1763 to the disposition of funds of the Continental Army during the time Palfrey was Pay Master General. His close association and correspondence with John Hancock should be noted. Several interesting items pertain to the dispute between Hancock and the Boston printer, John Mein, which resulted in Thomas Longman's suit against Mein and the latter's imprisonment.

The papers of John Palfrey deal mainly with his business affairs and the management of his plantation at Attakapas. However, several letters by his sons, Edward, William Taylor, and Henry William give first-hand accounts of battles in the war of 1812.

An almost complete set of MSS for the North American Review for the years of John Gorham Palfrey's editorship was retained among his papers and is catalogued under the signature bMS Am 1704.10. The catalogue sheets for these MSS are bound in a separate volume.

Letters to John Gorham Palfrey from over 1000 corespondents form the largest single section in the collection. Of special importance are 377 letters from Jared Sparks and 148 letters from Charles Sumner. Additional letters to J. G. Palfrey, which came to light after the catalogue was completed, are listed in bMS Am 1704a, directly following the main list of letters in this group. Among the compositions of J. G. Palfrey are certain items with notable co-authors. Principle among these are the Faneuil Hall Resolutions of November 4th, 1845, signed by J. G. Palfrey, Stephen C. Phillips and Charles Francis Adams, but written largely in the hand of Charles Sumner, bMS Am 1704.13 (130). Compositions and political resolutions by Richard Henry Dana, jr., Charles Sumner, Jared Sparks and others are grouped under bMS Am 1704.15.

Biographical / Historical

The central figure in this collection, John Gorham Palfrey (1796-1881), was a Unitarian minister, professor, editor of the North American Review, congressman from Massachusetts (1847-1849), postmaster of Boston (1861-1867), and historian, best known for his multi-volume History of New England. His grandfather William Palfrey (1741-1780) was a business partner of John Hancock and Pay Master General of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. His father John Palfrey (1768-1843) was a merchant in Boston and later owned a plantation in Attakapas, La. John Gorham Palfrey's son, John Carver Palfrey (1833-1906) was a military engineer during the Civil War and was later an officer in the textile manufacturing business. His daughter Sarah Hammond Palfrey (1823-1914) was a novelist and poet.


  1. I. bMS Am 11703-1704.8: Correspondence of the Palfrey Family
  2. ___bMS Am 1704: Part I. a) Letters to John Gorham Palfrey:
  3. ___bMS Am 1704a: Additional Letters to John Gorham Palfrey
  4. ___bMS Am 1704.1: Part I. b) Letters from John Gorham Palfrey
  5. ___bMS Am 1704.2: Part I. c) Other letters relating to the John Gorham Palfrey Family
  6. ___bMS Am 1704.3: Part II. a) Letters to William Palfrey, 1741-1781
  7. ___bMS Am 1704.4: Part II. b) Letters from William Palfrey; 1741-1781
  8. ___bMS Am 1704.5: Part II. c) Sheets with Letters by William Palfrey; 1741-1781
  9. ___bMS Am 1704.6: Part II. d) Other letters from the papers of William Palfrey
  10. ___bMS Am 1704.7: Part III. a) Letters to John Palfrey; 1768-1843
  11. ___bMS Am 1704.8: Part III. b) Letters from John Palfrey, 1768-1843
  12. ___bMS Am 1704.9: Part III. c) Other letters from the papers of John Palfrey
  13. II. bMS Am 1704.11-1704.17: John Gorham Palfrey Papers
  14. ___bMS Am 1704.11: Sermons and Lectures
  15. ___bMS Am 1704.12: MSS., Proofs and Annotated Copies of Palfrey's Histories of New England
  16. ___bMS Am 1704.13: Compositions of John Gorham Palfrey
  17. ___bMS Am 1704.14: John Gorham Palfrey; Journals and Autobiographical Material
  18. ___bMS Am 1704.15: Miscellaneous Compositions and MS Documents from the Papers of John Gorham Palfrey
  19. ___bMS Am 1704.16: Miscellaneous Diaries, Journals and Notebooks from the Papers of John Gorham Palfrey
  20. ___bMS Am 1704.17: Miscellaneous MSS., Printed Matter, Clippings and Memorabilia from the Papers of John Gorham Palfrey
  21. III. bMS Am 1704.18: Miscellaneous MSS. from the Papers of William Palfrey
  22. IV. bMS Am 1704.19: MS Books not in boxes
  23. V. bMS Am 1704.20: Miscellaneous Sets of Proof Sheets
  24. VI. bMS Am 1704.21: Additional Palfrey family papers

Physical Location


Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Dr. and Mrs. James B. Ayer; received: 1941, and of Mrs. Charles Woodrow; received: 1964.

The main part of the papers of the Palfrey family (bMS Am 1704 -1704.20) was given to Harvard University in 1941 by Dr. and Mrs. James B. Ayer. Additional correspondence, largely from the period of the children and grandchildren of John Gorham Palfrey, the historian, was received in 1964 as the gift of Mrs. Charles Woodrow. This latter material was catalogued separately and placed at the end of the collection (bMS Am 1704.21).

Digitization Funding

Collections and items have been digitized with the generous support of The Polonsky Foundation.

Processing Information

Processing Information: In organizing the main collection, an attempt was made to separate the papers into three groups, corresponding to the generation of William Palfrey, 1741-1781, John Palfrey, 1768-1843, and John Gorham Palfrey, 1796-1881. Letters and documents of an earlier date are grouped with those of William Palfrey, those of a later date with the papers of John Gorham Palfrey. Thus, deeds and accounts of William Palfrey, the sail-maker, 1682-1766, are to be found under bMS Am 1704.18, miscellaneous MSS. from the papers of William Palfrey, 1741-1780; and letters of the descendants of John Gorham Palfrey are grouped under bMS Am 1704.12, letters relating to the John Gorham Palfrey family. An exception to this chronological division is made in the case of the brothers of John Gorham Palfrey who settled in Louisiana and whose letters (when not to J. G. Palfrey) are grouped with the letters from the papers of John Palfrey of Louisiana, bMS Am 1704.9. As a general rule, the user of this catalogue is advised to consider, when in doubt, first the possible provenance of a given item and then the general time of its composition. An invaluable aid is the register of the Palfrey family, bMS Am 1704 (1).
Link to catalog
Palfrey family. Palfrey family papers, 1713-1915: Guide.
Houghton Library, Harvard College Library

Repository Details

Part of the Houghton Library Repository

Houghton Library is Harvard College's principal repository for rare books and manuscripts, literary and performing arts archives, and more. The library's holdings of primary source material are managed by an expert staff and shared with scholars, students and the public in the reading room.

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