Katy Sternberger, Archivist
In 1782 amid a smallpox epidemic, doctors Joshua Brackett, Ammi Ruhamah Cutter, Hall Jackson, and John Jackson built a hospital on Henzell’s Island, now known as Shapleigh Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They led an inoculation program on the island and kept careful records in a four-by-six-inch ledger, which the Portsmouth Athenaeum now holds and makes available for research.
A 1977 gift to the Athenaeum from a local physician, the Henzell’s Island inoculation ledger is an invaluable resource for both medical history and genealogical research. The ledger is written in the hand of Joshua Brackett; he recorded data on 365 patients who received inoculations at the island hospital between March and May 1782.
Volunteer Sue Polidura originally indexed the ledger in 2019. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted Athenaeum activities in early 2020, the process of adding the names to our catalog was put on hold. Archivist Katy Sternberger took on the task of completing the finding aid for this ledger, which included researching all 365 names.
As with other genealogical research, some names were difficult to identify for a few reasons: only a nickname was recorded, spelling was inconsistent, or there were several people with the same name who lived at about the same time. But the benefit of the inoculation ledger is that it provides ages, so we can calculate the approximate birth year for each patient. We also know the patients’ residences, so we can trace a particular branch of a family. Furthermore, we can establish relationships among patients who arrived together to receive their inoculations.
To avoid duplicating authority records already in the Athenaeum’s catalog, each name needed to be researched. An authority record provides the preferred form of a name, generally including birth and death years if known, allowing researchers to identify a particular person. Resources consulted include genealogy databases, newspaper databases, and genealogical records both in the Athenaeum’s research library and online. Based on the information detailed in the inoculation ledger, we now know approximate birth years for people who formerly had none; we found family members who were previously not documented in our genealogical records; and we improved the ability to search the catalog by merging duplicate records for the same person.
Besides names, ages, and residences, some of the data are not as easy to understand because we are not aware of contemporaneous accounts describing exactly how the inoculations were administered. However, we can compare with John Adams’s inoculation experience during the Boston smallpox outbreak of 1764. In a letter to his future wife, Abigail, dated April 14, 1764, he wrote after just having received his inoculation, “Perkins, Sprague and Lord, are the Physicians that attend this House. Each has a few Particulars in Point of Diet, in which he differs from the others, and Each has Pills and Powders, different from the others to administer, different at least in size, and shape and Colour.” The 1782 ledger includes data about the number of pills given; it appears that nearly all patients received seven pills, which came in different sizes, very similarly to Adams’s account. In addition, the ledger includes a column for the number of “cathar.” given, which we might presume is an abbreviation for “cathartick [cathartic],” a term John Adams used in an April 26, 1764, letter to Abigail referring to a medication that induces diarrhea. Each Henzell’s Island patient received four doses of this purgative substance.
As a rich source of information, there are multiple ways to consider the ledger’s data, including geographically, genealogically, and racially.
About eighty percent of the Henzell’s Island patients resided in Portsmouth, but they also came from the New Hampshire towns of Dover, Exeter, Greenland, Lee, Newington, Newmarket, Somersworth, and Stratham as well as the Massachusetts towns of Amesbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury. Despite initial fears of inoculation, people from around the region traveled to Portsmouth in the spring of 1782 in hopes of avoiding more severe illness.
Henzell’s Island patients were of all ages—as young as one year—and came from a variety of backgrounds, including tradespeople, mariners, soldiers, and merchants. Often, entire families would come to the island to receive their inoculations and stay together at the hospital during the three-week quarantine. Mothers brought all of their children, a young child was accompanied by an elder sibling, or a father came with his son. By investigating which patients arrived with others, we can glean additional context about the people who sought treatment at the Henzell’s Island hospital.
While the ledger does not trace patients’ race consistently, with only a few specific people called out because of their “outsider” status, young people of color were not excluded from inoculation. Corydon (age 16), Nero Pickering (age 16), and Dinah Shapley (age 14) are all labeled “Black” in the ledger. Corydon resided in Portsmouth, but we have no additional information about him. Nero arrived at the Henzell’s Island hospital with the wife and children of John Pickering (1737–1805), so he was presumably owned by the family. Dinah was likely enslaved by the Shapley family of the Isles of Shoals because she arrived at the Henzell’s Island hospital with James Shapley (c1763–1821). Additionally, Landy, just two years old from Dover, is explicitly noted as “molato [mulatto],” being of Black and white heritage; he is the last person listed in the ledger. Other people of color may have been inoculated as well, but their race was not specifically noted in the ledger. For example, Pedro Wentworth (age 10) is almost certainly another Black boy, as “Pedro” was a name commonly given by enslavers. Although we currently lack contextual information for these individuals, they live on in the inoculation ledger.
The Henzell’s Island inoculation ledger provides a unique perspective on the smallpox epidemic of 1775 to 1782. It serves as an example of how we can learn from our history to the benefit of our future—and as a reminder that we can and will emerge from a pandemic.
The finding aid for the inoculation ledger (S0047) is now up to date in the Athenaeum’s catalog and digital images are available for research use. [See below.] If you have questions or additional information, contact Archivist Katy Sternberger, firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view the Henzell’s Island Inoculation Ledger, 1782 (S0047), click on the button.
1. Massachusetts Historical Society. Adams Papers Digital Edition. John Adams to Abigail Smith, April 14, 1764. masshist.org/publications/adams-papers/index.php/view/ADMS-04-01-02-0024.
2. Massachusetts Historical Society. Adams Papers Digital Edition. John Adams to Abigail Smith, April 26, 1764. masshist.org/publications/adams-papers/index.php/view/ADMS-04-01-02-0031.