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HUM 26

Winthrop William, 1753-1825. William Winthrop Collection, 1782-1825: an inventory

Harvard University Archives

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Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: HUM 26
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Creator: Winthrop, William, 1753-1825.
Title: William Winthrop Collection, 1782-1825
Date(s): 1782-1825
Quantity: .63 cubic feet (16 volumes)
Language of materials: English
Abstract: William Winthrop (1753-1825 Harvard AB 1770, AM 1773) was a prominent member of the Cambridge community, a benefactor of Harvard College, and a biographer of Harvard alumni. The collection holds the correspondence and research notes compiled by Winthrop, often in the form of annotated Harvard Triennial Catalogues, as he attempted to create comprehensive biographical histories of all of Harvard's graduates. The collection reflects information Winthrop collected from alumni, published local histories, manuscripts, newspapers, and government records. Winthrop's research was never published, but was an important resource for the Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1642-1774 series. His emphasis on collecting the memories of individuals through his network of correspondents saved information that otherwise would have been lost, and helped to promote Harvard's alumni as a unique and historically important community.

Acquisition information:

The complete provenance of most of the annotated Triennial Catalogues in the collection is unknown. Eleven volumes were acquired in 1950 by the Harvard University Library; two of which were originally given to Winthrop by Harvard President Joseph Willard. The volume of research memoranda and the substantially annotated 1794 Catalogue were gifts of the heirs of William Winthrop.
The Triennial Catalogue of 1809 was donated by Elizabeth Harris, originally from the papers of Rev. Dr. McKean. The name "McKean" is also inscribed on the front of the 1782, 1809, and 1815 Catalogues in this collection, and the 1773 Catalogue in the collection of Triennial Catalogues annotated by unknown hands, suggesting a shared provenance, and perhaps annotations by multiple hands. Reverend Dr. Joseph McKean (1776-1818, Harvard AB 1794) was the College's Boylston Professor of Rhetoric, Oratory and Elocution from 1809 until 1818 and a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society; his son, Dr. Joseph William McKean (1800-1839), graduated from the College in 1819. The relationship of the McKeans to Winthrop and the Catalogues is unclear, though Winthrop recommended the younger McKean to Harvard President Kirkland for a transcription task in 1822 (College Papers, Volume X, January 5, 1822).
Specific acquisition information is noted at the item level

Processing Information:

The material was first classified and described in the Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980 as individual items. The material was re-processed in 2010 to form the William Winthrop Collection. Re-processing involved a collection survey and the creation of this finding aid.
This finding aid was created by Diann Benti in June 2010.
Preservation and description of the William Winthrop Collection was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Researcher Access:

The William Winthrop Collection is open for research.

Copying Restriction:

Copying of fragile materials may be limited.

Preferred Citation:

Winthrop, William, 1753-1825. William Winthrop Collection, 1782-1825. HUM 26, Harvard University Archives.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives

Historical Note

William Winthrop was born on April 19, 1753 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the youngest son of Harvard Professor John Winthrop. Winthrop received an AB from Harvard in 1770, and an AM in 1773. He was a prominent member of the Cambridge community, a benefactor of Harvard College, and a biographer of Harvard alumni.
After graduating from the College, Winthrop was minimally involved in troop movement to Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War before playing a small role in John Hancock's problematic tenure as Harvard's Treasurer. Hancock authorized Winthrop to escort the College's financial records from Boston to him in Philadelphia in 1776. After the war, Winthrop held several civic appointments including Town Clerk and Selectman in Cambridge. In 1784 was appointed Justice of the Peace and Register of Deeds for Middlesex County.
Winthrop spent many years researching the biographical histories of Harvard's graduates. Winthrop described his hobby in a September 28, 1797 letter to Benjamin Pickman of Salem, noting that in his "leisure hours" he first began researching the professional placement and places of residence of alumni clergymen. Successful, he explained that, "I then enlarged my plan, & endeavored to find out the residue and after some trouble have ascertained most of them." His work served as an important reference for the 18-volume Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University created by Harvard Librarian John Langdon Sibley in 1873. Winthrop's own entry in Biographical Sketches notes that, "Winthrop never married, and the devotion which would otherwise have gone into a family he lavished on an effort to determine the profession, resident, and date of death of every man listed in the Harvard Alumni Catalogue" (Vol. 17, page 462). He served as a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, American Antiquarian Society, and the New York Historical Society. Winthrop died in Cambridge on February 5, 1825.

References

Arrangement

The collection is arranged into two series:

Scope and Content

Beginning with an annotated 1782 Triennial Catalogue, the collection holds the correspondence and research notes compiled by William Winthrop until his death in 1825, as he attempted to create comprehensive biographical histories of all of Harvard's graduates. The collection reflects information Winthrop collected from alumni, published local histories, manuscripts, newspapers, and government records. For each alumnus, he hoped to find, at the least, birth and death dates, profession, places of residence, and for ministers, the date of ordination. A request to a Judge Parker in 1813 serves as an example: "Doct. Isaac Parker graduated at Harv. College 1739. The enquiry is, where did he reside, & practice; when did he died & his age? And any other particulars respecting him." Winthrop often used interleaved Triennial Catalogues to organize the information collected from letters and written on scraps of paper, as well as to update the number of deceased alumni. He wrote in a July 4, 1808 letter that he had managed "to collect some biographical sketches of more than three thousand Graduates" with the goal of "forwarding a work, that had for its object the transmitting their characters to posterity."
Winthrop's notes were never published, but they were thoroughly reviewed and utilized by Sibley in the mid-19th century. While Winthrop joined Nicholas Gilman (AB 1724), Jeremy Belknap (AB 1762), and John Pierce (AB 1793) in gathering information about their fellow Harvard alumni, Winthrop was by far the most prolific. His emphasis on collecting the memories of individuals through his network of correspondents saved information that otherwise would have been lost. In his work, Winthrop emphasized the role of Harvard alumni in United States history, "many of whom have made a conspicuous figure, from the early settlement of the country to the present time, both in the learned professions, as well as Statesmen & warriors" (July 4, 1808 letter), and helped promote Harvard's alumni as a unique and historically important community.

General

This document last updated 2014 February 24.

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