The last founder

In researching the origins of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, I came across an article about the Society’s fiftieth anniversary in the Boston Post dated 20 April 1895, which omitted the names of founders Charles Ewer, Lemuel Shattuck, Samuel Gardner Drake, and John Wingate Thornton, but credited the efforts of William H. Montague specifically.[1] Surely the Post had a reason to single out Montague; though he had died by 1895, he was the last surviving founder of NEHGS.

William Henry Montague was born in Granby, Massachusetts on 29 February 1804 to William Montague and his wife Jane.[2] His father, on becoming rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Dedham, relocated the family to Dedham while William was an infant, and the boy attended Dedham schools until he was around nine years old. By that time, the Rev. William Montague was working in New Hampshire under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, so the younger William received his education in the various boarding schools of Cornish, Claremont, Unity, and Charlestown. But this arrangement was only temporary. After finishing his education at Dedham in 1822, he relocated to Boston and began working in the dry goods store of Leonard & Adams. He entered the merchant business on his own account a few years later and developed a profitable business throughout the 1820s and 1830s.[3]

On 18 March 1829, William Henry Montague married Jane Glover in Boston.[4] In their twenty-three years of marriage the couple had six children, only two of whom survived to adulthood. These were twins—Jane “Jennie” and Sarah—born ca. 1845.[5] After the death of Jane Glover Montague on 16 January 1852,[6] the girls went to live in Dorchester with Glover relatives.[7] Their father, who had gone blind but continued to exercise his authority on historical and genealogical matters, lived out the rest of his days at Boston’s Home for Aged Men.[8] William H. Montague died 15 May 1889 of “old age.”[9]

“[His] end was peaceful and resigned, and his wonderful intellect bright and clear to the last.”

From these biographical details, it may be surmised that Montague’s hardships affected his quality of life. But his daughter, Mrs. Jennie Montague Morris, believed that “his end was peaceful and resigned, and his wonderful intellect bright and clear to the last.”[10] His contemporary William Trask affirmed that Montague’s loss of sight did not diminish his intellect: “Possessed of a remarkable memory he could point out, often, even during his years of blindness, the way and the where to obtain the right information on many given subjects.”[11]

A discrepancy about the first formal NEHGS meeting in the Boston Post’s fiftieth anniversary article is worthy of notice: according to that article, the five founders of NEHGS had gathered at Montague’s Orange Street residence during the early planning stages of the Society in October 1844.[12] While the founders did convene at Montague’s home, the Register presents a different view of events, stating that the first official meeting was held at the Lemuel Shattuck residence in November 1844. Charles Ewer had intended a meeting at Montague’s home the previous month, but only three of the five men were in attendance that day.[13]

May it be a testament to Montague’s fascination with antiquities that the October 1844 meeting had not been expressly called for business purposes. Montague had invited over the group of five men to “taste some apples borne that year on the tree planted by Peregrine White” and to view his most coveted relic: the bullet that killed General Joseph Warren during the Battle of Bunker Hill, still partially wrapped in bloodied cartridge paper.[14] A former Boston customs officer by the name of Arthur Savage entrusted the bullet to William’s father, the Rev. William Montague, while Montague was in London.

In his 1833 affidavit regarding the bullet’s provenance, William Montague recalled Savage’s statement: “This ball I took from [General Warren’s] body; and, as I never shall visit Boston again, I will give it to you to take to America, where it will be a valuable relic of your Revolution.”[15] In 1843, Richard E. Newcomb of Greenfield, Massachusetts, implored the Rev. William Montague to “part with that fatal piece of lead,” as General Warren had been Newcomb’s father-in-law and Newcomb’s son was the General’s only surviving descendant.[16] Ultimately, the bullet did not end up in the personal possessions of Newcomb or any other claimant; William H. Montague presented it to the New England Historic Genealogical Society at the March 1884 monthly meeting.[17]


[1] The Boston Post, 20 April 1895, p. 8.

[2] Tribute to William Henry Montague in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 44 [1890]: 341.

[3] Ibid., 341-52.

[4] Boston Marriage Publications, 1828-1833, Vol. 11, p. 102.

[5] 1850 United States Federal Census; Boston Ward 11, Suffolk, Massachusetts, p. 351; Register 44 [1890]: 348.

[6] Massachusetts Registration of Deaths, Vol. 68, 1852, City of Boston, p. 4.

[7] 1860 United States Federal Census; Dorchester, Norfolk, Massachusetts, p. 320.

[8] 1870 United States Federal Census; Boston Ward 11, Suffolk, Massachusetts, p. 49.

[9] Massachusetts Registration of Deaths, Vol. 402, 1889, City of Boston, p. 164.

[10] Register 44 [1890]: 349.

[11] Ibid., 350.

[12] The Boston Globe, 18 April 1895, p. 7.

[13] Register 9 [1855]: 10.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Register 52 [1898]: 148.

[16] James Spear Loring, The Hundred Boston Orators Appointed by the Municipal Authorities and other Public Bodies, From 1770 to 1852 (Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1853), p. 68.

[17] Ibid., 147.

About Jennifer Shakshober

Jen Shakshober earned a dual BA in English and Economics from Westfield State University, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bennington College, and a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University. She is currently pursuing an MLIS in Archives Management from Simmons University. Her past research has involved nineteenth and twentieth-century Vermont records from local and state-level repositories. Most recently she wrote two articles about the murder of labor organizer Joseph Shoemaker for The Walloomsack Review, a biannual publication of the Bennington (Vt.) Museum, and she is always interested in crafting narrative genealogical reports.

5 thoughts on “The last founder

  1. Really? The bullet that killed Joseph Warren? How is it catalogued in Special Collections or does it come under another designation, such as curios? How much of Arthur Savage’s account be trusted? I thought the Brits buried Warren on the spot, rather than taking his body back to Boston where Savage as a customs officer would have been stationed. FYI: Warren, Oregon is named for Joseph Gill’s hometown of Warren, Massachusetts, which in turn was named for JW. The large historical marker near this unincorporated township specifically mentions JW.

    1. He was exhumed ten months later by his brothers and Paul Revere, and buried in Boston…three different times! I would imagine they could have removed the bullet at the time of his first reburial. And I didn’t know the provenance of Warren, Oregon’s name. Fascinating!

  2. Not to be TOO macabre but if wrapped in a bloodied cloth, it would have been dug out of the body that day as the aftermath would have seen souvenir hunting by all Brit ranks. And it purportedly came from a Brit customs agent in Boston at the time, later resident in London. So, passed around at HQ to be seen, then likely bought by the customs guy.

    Just CSI-ing Breed’s Hill.

    Does the Society still have it? Or a record of its deacesioning? It’s the kind of small thing that could easily could missing during moves.

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