Since its founding in 1893, the Society of Colonial Wars in Massachusetts has combined fraternal good fellowship with a dedication to promoting patriotic values and a knowledge of colonial American history, particularly its military dimension. Today, the organization has some 225 members almost wholly from Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts Society has sister chapters in thirty-one states and the United Kingdom1. The national umbrella organization, the General Society of Colonial Wars, approves and registers all state membership applications and supports the activities of the state societies in a variety of ways.
“The main objective of the Society of Colonial Wars is, as it has always been, the perpetuation of the American way of life, with its guaranteed liberties and its self-imposed restraints. Its members believe that they have an inherited responsibility, as well as a patriotic duty, to stand guard over our nation’s great heritage, along with all Americans, so that our hard-gained rights and cherished institutions may endure.” — Nathaneiel Claiborne Hale, Former Governor General of the General Society2.
The Society of Colonial Wars began in New York with the incorporation of the New York Society on 7 October 1892. The society was formed to perpetuate among their descendants the memory of the brave and hardy men who assisted in establishing the Colonies of America during the period from the settlement of Jamestown, May 13, 1607, to the battle of Lexington, April 19, 17753.
It was in 1893 that the concept of a General Society of Colonial Wars was first discussed and carried out. As early as January 20th the New York Society approved a request from a group of Pennsylvania members to form a State Society there, and all the members from that State were thereupon transferred out of the New York Society. Similar action was taken on March 15th when State Societies were formed in Massachusetts and Maryland. This led to the formation of the “General Society of Colonial Wars”, and the first General Assembly in New York City on May 9th and 10th, 1893 with members of the six new state societies4. The original name of the New York Society was changed to “Society of Colonial Wars in New York”. The Council of the General Society voted to hold a General Assembly every three years rotated among the Societies, at which the General Officers are elected.
In the autumn of 1892, Walter Kendall Watkins began to organize a group in Massachusetts3. Watkins, a professional genealogist and Assistant Librarian of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, became active in hereditary patriotic societies two years earlier as an outgrowth of the celebration of the Centennial of American Independence in 1876. Between 1 December 1892 and 21 February 1893, Watkins persuaded nine friends to join him applying to the New York Society, where the ten were elected as members on March 15th. On March 17th, they gathered at Young’s Hotel in Boston and agreed to associate themselves with the intent to incorporate as the “Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” The proposal was sent to the New York society along with a request to affiliate.
The very first meeting of the Colonial Wars in Massachusetts was held at the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, then at 101 Somerset Street, Boston, on 15 April 1893. There, the society elected officers to incorporate on April 29th. On September 19th, the society received its charter. Three days later, the officers met and chose delegates to the First General Assembly in New York to organize, adopt the constitution and elect officers of the General Society (The first president in Massachusetts was General William F. Draper, who was representing the state in Congress at the time.) Later that year, the society established an office at 101 Newbury Street Boston where the genealogical society relocated.
From the beginning the Massachusetts Society embraced the preamble to the General Society’s mission: “to collect and preserve manuscripts, rolls, relics, and records; to hold suitable commemorations, and to erect memorials relating to the American Colonial period; to inspire in its members the fraternal and patriotic spirit of their forefathers, and to inspire in the community respect and reverence for those whose public service made our freedom and unity possible.”
The focus on education — through monuments, publications, speeches, and charitable and educational awards — has characterized the Society since its start5. Beginning in 1895 the Massachusetts Warriors awarded prizes to school children for the best essays in various aspects of colonial history. Among the many commemorative monuments sponsored by the society in 1912 is a plaque commemorating The Louisbourg Cross, a crucifix captured by Massachusetts troops from the Fortress of Louisbourg was presented to Harvard University where the cross has been since about 1790. Since the 1930s, the Society has emphasized it role as a grantor to support organizations engaged in preserving and interpreting colonial history.
Scholarship, Education, and Philanthropy
The Massachusetts Society has a long record of undertaking, promoting, and funding projects on colonial history. These efforts have encompassed:
Research and Publications
In its early years, the Society sponsored an active publications program, issuing some twenty volumes of scholarly and antiquarian articles, transcribed colonial documents, and genealogical charts. More recently, the Society collaborated with the New England Historic Genealogical Society to publish volumes listing service records of thousands of Massachusetts colonial veterans serving in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Erection of Historical Markers
The Society has erected a number of monuments and markers commemorating places and events significant to our colonial past. These include a monument at the Eastham, Massachusetts, site of Myles Standish’s first encounter with local Native Americans; a tablet at Harvard College explaining the importance of the Louisbourg Cross-a relic captured in the 1745 New England siege of that French Canadian stronghold; and, not to neglect the Society’s convivial aspect, a tablet marking the site of Boston’s first tavern.
In recent years, the Society has helped to underwrite public programming on colonial history and the preservation of colonial-period sites through grants to organizations like the Shirley-Eustis House Association, the Royall House and Slave Quarters, the National Society of Colonial Dames in Massachusetts, and the Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map Center.
In 1995 the Society returned to its earlier tradition of initiating its own historical projects by taking a leadership role in mounting the 3,000 square-foot museum exhibition Siege at Louisbourg, 1745: New England and the Struggle for World Empire. Displayed in National Park Service gallery space at the Charlestown Navy Yard, the exhibit was viewed by nearly 50,000 visitors during the summer and early fall of 1995.
In 2013, the Society again led the way in commemorating a Colonial Wars anniversary of great significance, the 250th anniversary of the 1763 Paris treaty formally ending Anglo-French hostilities in the “French and Indian” or Seven Years War. A commitment from Massachusetts launched the fundraising effort that made possible the Old State House museum exhibition 1763: A Revolutionary Peace, which featured an original signed copy of the 1763 Paris accord loaned by the British National Archives. The exhibit, which attracted in the neighborhood of 50,000 visitors during its four-plus month run, lives on in an enhanced digital form at this website.
Meetings of the Society
Members of the Society gather for a variety of events over the course of the active season from September through June. Dates for each event appear on our calendar.
From September to May, mid-day meetings are held on the third Thursday of the month (except December) at the Union Club of Boston and include a lecture on an historical subject or other topic of interest. The number of Business Courts the Society has held from its founding to the end of calendar year 2014 was in the vicinity of 750.
General Court and Annual Dinner
The Society’s annual meeting is held each December at The Country Club in Brookline in commemoration of the landing in Plymouth of the Pilgrim Fathers. The program generally concludes with an after-dinner address from a distinguished guest speaker.
Burr Punch Bowl Party
The Society honors the memory of the late David Eugene Burr, who for two decades honorably served in the office of Secretary, at a cocktail party each autumn. Punch is served at the event from a silver bowl bequeathed by past-Secretary Burr.
Muster and Field Day
The Society’s yearly outing is held each June, generally at either the Eastern Yacht Club or Manchester Yacht Club. The event’s military function has has gradually been eclipsed by its social aspect and the carriage of firelocks by members attending is no longer required.
Stewards Committee Events
To further its work of grooming future Society leaders, the Stewards Committee has from time to time organized events designed to instill among younger members an enhanced understanding of our mission, operations, and governance in an atmosphere of good cheer.
Joint Events with the Colonial Danes
The Society periodically joins forces with the Massachusetts Society of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America to present events promoting good relations between Dames and Warriors. Generally focused on either younger or prospective members, most of these joint gatherings have taken the form of cocktail parties at Prescott House, the Massachusetts Dames’ elegant Beacon Hill headquarters, but have also included joint luncheons and harbor cruises on an historic gaff-rigged schooner.
1893-1896Francis Ellingwood Abbot
1896-1905Arthur John Clark Sowdon
1905-1921Joseph Grafton Minot
1925-1927Francis Henry Appleton Jr.
1927-1941Frederick Silsbee Whitwell
1941-1945Richard King Hale
1945-1948Walter Merriam Pratt
1948-1951Raymond Brewer Bidwell
1951-1954Davis Goodwin Maraspin
1954-1957Edward Walker Marshall
1957-1960Robert Humphrey Montgomery
1960-1963George Otis Russell Jr.
1963-1965Asa Emory Phillips Jr.
1965-1966Henry Hornblower II
1966-1969Harborne Wentworth Stuart
1972-1975Wellington Wells Jr.
1975-1978Henry Hall Newell
1978-1981Robert Livingston Niles
1981-1984Robert Henry Jackson
1984-1987Robert Salmon Kretschmar
1987-1990Franklin Wyman Jr.
1993-1996William Pearce Coues
1996-1999Kenneth Millard Hills Jr.
1999-2002Thomas Howard Townsend
2002-2005Thomas Warren Thaler
2005-2008Charles Arnold Tarbell
2008-2011Scott DeForest Shiland
2011-2013John Van Rensselaer Norfleet
2013-2014Howard B. Hodgson Jr.
2014-Bradford Vaughan Rowell
- Currently, there are state societies in 32 states — Alabama, British Isles, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
- General Society of Colonial Wars, “Society of Colonial Wars 1892-1967 Seventy-fifth Anniversary”, Winchell Company, Philadelphia, 1967.
- General Society of Colonial Wars, “The Centennial History 1892-1992”, The Winchell Company, Philadelphia, Vol. 43, No. 1, 1992.
- The six states admitted in 1893 were New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and District of Columbia.
- General Society of Colonial Wars, “Honoring our Colonial History: To Members Past and Present of the Committees on Tablets and Monuments of the General Society and the State Societies”, Advantage Press, Charleston, 2011.