Inside Samuel Adams' 220-Year-Old Time Capsule

Can you imagine going about your usual day, and stumbling across a two hundred and twenty-year-old time capsule? This was the reality for some Massachusetts engineers who came across the oldest time capsule in the United States in a cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. Pam Hatchfield is the head of Objects Conservation and Boston Fine Arts Museum. She was excited to get into the box to see what secrets of the past it would reveal. Finally, after seven hours of chiseling away, conservationists got to open the box.

So What Was in the Box?

Time capsules offer an incredible glimpse into the past, and can often give us insight into what life was really like hundreds of years ago. However, this time capsule is particularly exciting. It's one of the oldest in North America and was created by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, one of America’s founding fathers and a revolution-era silversmith respectively. 

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Image credits: Drivepedia

Where Exactly Did They Find It?

The time capsule itself was planted in a cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House when it was built. Construction on the building took three years, and the house still stands strong today. The State House is a National Historic Landmark in the downtown area of Boston, which is the biggest city in the state and the Massachusetts state capital. This impressive structure, with its gold dome, was already an important piece of the city’s history, but with the discovery of the time capsule, the building has become even more of… well, a cornerstone.

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Not the First Opening of the Capsule!

Can you imagine that this two-hundred-year-old-time capsule has already been discovered once before? When the box was re-discovered in 1855 after initially being hidden in the cornerstone in 1795, workers removed the items from the box, adding new items to the collection of oddities, and putting them into a brass box for safekeeping. Then-Governor Winslow Harley held a new ceremony to put the historical relic back into the cornerstone, and this is the first time the box has been reopened since then.

Calling in the Big Guns

Of course, the time capsule had been in the cornerstone so long that there wasn’t anyone with a living memory of the capsule being re-buried in the granite. Fortunately for historians, engineers found the curious little box while surveying the area in the Summer of 2014 with a ground radar.

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Pam Hatchfield was among the first to receive a call about the item of interest, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Head of Objects Conservation was naturally very excited. She said of the discovery, “we received a call from the statehouse about a time capsule found in the cornerstone of the building. There were a lot of historical reports about the time capsule.”

It Took How Long to Get It Out?

You might assume that it didn’t take long at all to retrieve the artefact, given the expert team of excavators knew exactly where the time capsule was. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, the entire ordeal took seven hours. “We didn’t really know what we were getting into until that day,” said Hatchfield. “We had riggers working with us to make sure the stone could be safely suspended so that I could get underneath.” So did they manage to get the capsule free?

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They Did It!

After those seven long hours, the capsule finally fell free from the enormous granite cornerstone. It was the moment of truth! The hard work of Hatchfield and the team had finally paid off, and they had gotten what they had come for. But what would the conservationists find inside the box? Curiously enough, it was what was on top of the box that caught their eyes first.

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There was a strange little glint from the cornerstone! Pam and her team of riggers noticed that someone had left a few coins atop the mysterious time capsule. The team speculated that Governor Winslow Harley must have placed them onto the capsule before returning the brass box into the granite. An antique good luck charm!

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Prying the Capsule Open

You might wonder how conservationists go about opening such an old piece of history, especially a brass box sealed shut for hundreds of years! Pam Hatchfield had a few things up her sleeve, including bamboo, a porcupine quill, and a dentist’s tool passed on to her by her grandfather. Everyone in the room held their breath as she pried the capsule open. Reflecting on the big moment, Pam Hatchfield said: “I think the most exciting thing about this process really was the big reveal that evening to finally have an opportunity to look inside that box and see what was there and be able to show it to others.”

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Together with Michael Comeau, who is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum, Hatchfield slowly pulled each antique curiosity from the aged brass box. The whole room waited with bated breath. The items might have been from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, they were still recognizable as an assortment of coins and newspaper clippings. Without the right kind of equipment, the experts decided against unfurling the precious newspaper articles in case they damaged these pieces of history. The articles were thought to be from the Boston Bee and the Daily Traveller, placed into the capsule at the time when it had been re-opened and re-buried in the cornerstone in 1855. 

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What on Earth is a Quardollar?

Michael Comeau was just as excited as Pam Hatchfield and was particularly pleased to see some of the old coins that had been placed into the box. From the 1950s, there were old pennies, three-cent pieces, and even a “quardollar,” which is presumably an old quarter. Comeau couldn’t wait to examine all 24 of the coins inside. He said that “they deposited a number of items in the initial insertion in 1795. They included some coinage of the time,” While some of the coins were not in the best condition, others were in great shape. One of the coins, however, was particularly shocking.

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Coin of Independence

There were so many items in the box that it took some time for the conservationists to reach the oldest items in the box, placed there in the 1700s. Chief Historian at HISTORY, Libby O’Connell said that “there were a couple of things that were found that I found so exciting!” “One was the pine tree shilling from 1652 and the 17th century Massachusetts Bay colony produced their own currency which was illegal from the point of the King of England…So, having these coins was a way of saying ‘we have been an independent people for a long, long time.'”

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History in Action

This coin was printed following King Charles I’s execution in the mid-1600s. It was among many other fascinating pieces of history that really shows us what life might have been like back in the time around the burying of the capsule in the cornerstone. There was also a George Washington copper medal, and the official seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the official state emblem.

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If you were going to bury a time capsule, what else do you think you’d put in it? It seems that Samuel Adams and Paul Revere had also included one of the earliest copies of the colony’s records, from right back in the 1600s! But what they pulled out next surprised even the most experienced conservationists in the room...

A Peculiar Silver Plate

Michael Comeau revealed that the founding father and his comrades “had put in a silver plate which basically said the purpose of the mission they had.” This item was of particular interest to the museum staff, who were enthralled by the discovery. Can you guess what the silver plate said that made them so enlivened?

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So What Did it Say?!

Before this point, the conservationists had no idea who had buried the brass box in the cornerstone, or why they had placed it there. They were elated to discover the message inscribed on the unusual silver plate from the capsule. Hatchfield read: “this cornerstone of a building intended for the use of the legislative and executive branches of government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams Esquire, governor of said commonwealth, assisted by the most worshipful Paul Revere, grandmaster, and the right worshipful William Sculley, deputy grandmaster.”

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Left by Samuel Adams Himself!

The Head of Objects Conservation was amazed! This discovery meant that the time capsule had been left by none other than founding father Samuel Adams and Paul Revere! While we might not know the latter name now, these two men were "in fact" some of the most significant in all of American history. Michael Comeau said that the discovery was “the stuff that leads us to Sam Adams, to Paul Revere. [It helps us to] better understand not only what happened before us but also helps to better understand ourselves, because it’s this power of memory, of shared memory and heritage.”

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Paul Revere, the Midnight Rider

If you haven’t heard of Paul Revere, he was a silversmith who probably engraved the very silver plate that Hatchfield and Comeau uncovered in the 220-year-old time capsule. Historians remember the militia officer for his service in the American Revolution, during the formation of the country. You might not think that a militia officer is that important in the context of all the military men in American history, but Revere was particularly known for his “midnight ride.” The classic American hero rode his horse right through the darkness of the night to warn folks that the British had arrived to arrest founding father, Samuel Adams. Because of Revere’s forewarning and his bravery, the British forces were fought off by the rebels! 

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A Third Important Historical Figure!

While the third name inscribed into the silver plate wasn’t quite as prominent as the first two, he remains an important figure. William Scollay was a real estate developer who shared significant connections with both Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, as well as the historic Massachusetts Masonic lodge. William Scollay, who had a town square named after him, eventually became a militia officer like Revere during the time of the revolution. Unfortunately, the silver plate and the time capsule he contributed to are some of the only records of his legacy. The three men together had masonic ties, a connection which helps us to understand why they buried their historic capsule in the granite of the Massachusetts State House.

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The Freemasons’ Values

“What’s important about the Freemasons is that they believe in very radical, revolutionary concepts of equality and liberty,” said Libby O’Connell. The historian went on to advise that the values of the founding fathers formed the values that we have today in the United States alongside those formed by the masons themselves. Scollay, Revere, and Adams all had important masonic beliefs that fundamentally set the tone for what would become American values in the twenty-first century. O’Connell continued: “Today, those are things that we take for granted but 400 years ago, these guys were on the cutting edge of what became an ideology of the republic.”

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A Ceremony for the Ages

With his incredible historical knowledge, Michael Comeau managed to ascertain that there would have been a masonic ceremony when the time capsule was buried. He said, “Samuel Adams was a mason. He was attended by Paul Revere, who was the grandmaster of the grand lodge of Masons of Massachusetts.” Michael Comeau seemed pretty sure of the fact. “This was a mason ceremony, start to finish.” What’s more, is that the date that the cornerstone was laid just so happened to be one which millions of Americans commemorate every year! 

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A Time for Celebration

Did you guess which special day they chose? Comeau said that “the date that they chose of the laying of the cornerstone was highly significant because remember, this was July 4th. This is 1795. This is the 20th anniversary of American independence.” The experts believe that the three men who laid the cornerstone would have been well aware of the significant date.

A Message for the Future

Michael Comeau was convinced that William Scollay, Paul Revere and Samuel Adams would have understood just how unusual their historical moment was trying to communicate this for the benefit of future generations. After all, they were probably quite well-known in Massachusetts and further abroad at the time because of their military and masonic reputations.

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“They were aware of the fact that they lived in turbulent and important times,” Comeau said. “What was happening then was really something very special. I think they were aware of that fact. I think they were trying to pass that message on forward.” Isn't it simply wonderful that these men came together to leave a historical memento for generations of the future to find?

A Message from the Past

When experts realized just how significant the items was, they became like teenage Beatles fans! Libby O’Connell said “Paul Revere touched these things. Sam Adams touched these things.” It was as if they had reached out from the seventeenth century right to the twenty-first!

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“This is like a voice coming to us 200 and many years later.” When you think about it, the time capsule is truly an amazing discovery! Michael Comeau even called it “a tangible bridge to history. It’s a tangible bridge to people like [Paul] Revere and [Sam] Adams.” Indeed, it's not every day that you come across a 220-year-old time capsule, let alone one from a founding father and a military hero!

Men Who “Got Things Done”

Museum staff and conservationists were enthralled because they hadn’t only found an important piece of history, but an example of American ingenuity from the formation of the country itself. The inscriptions on the mysterious silver plate, along with some of the rare coins and aged newspaper clippings, give us some insight into the tumultuous history behind the formation of the United States.

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The current Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth said “I think that those two remarkable, big figures were men of action. They clearly were people who not only debated things in a time when so much of politics is a conflict with words and inaction. They were men of action who got things done.” And thank goodness they did!

The Values of the Founding Fathers

Scollay, Adams and Revere truly showed us that while governments may change, and people may come and go, American values live on throughout history. Michael Comeau reinforced this, saying “I think that’s why our founding generation always resonates with Americans because the ideals that they pass forward never really are absent from our lives.”

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Image credits: Drivepedia

“In a time when…on a global scale we see these basic concepts…threatened and at risk. I think it’s really important to remember where they came from…how hard people fought to give them to us.” There is so much that this historic capsule can teach us in the contemporary age. It especially reminds us to be grateful for the rights and freedoms that we enjoy today and to remember all the brave folk that risked their lives in years gone by.

The Numbers Tell All

Good things come in small boxes! And this was one small box, weighing only 10 pounds, or 4.5kg, and measuring only 5-1/2 x 7-1/2 x 1-½ inches. CNN Correspondent Alexandria Field reported that “the box itself is actually pretty small, just 5 and a half by 7 and a half inches.” Who could have imagined that so many key historical secrets could be contained in such a small brass container?

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Image credits: Drivepedia

Pam the Celebrity

Since the big time capsule reveal, the Head of Objects Conservation at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has become a local celebrity in Massachusetts. Pam Hatchfield has also been interviewed on many local news channels, even appearing on the WGBH News for Greater Boston! We wonder if anyone's asked her for her autograph? Go Pam!

Massachusetts, A Founding State

The Pilgrim State of Massachusetts is remarkable for many reasons, but as secretary Bill Galvin highlights, there is so much that this time capsule discovery can teach us. In planting such an important piece of history in the cornerstone of this state landmark, Scollay, Revere and Adams prove to us that Massachusetts is a key part of America’s formation.

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“These symbols, when they were placed in the State House in 1795…represented the aspirations of the founding fathers and those who came after,” he said. “The history of Massachusetts is the history of America.” Who knew that Massachusetts had such an important place in the nation's past? 

But Wait… Another Time Capsule?!

Around the same time as the first capsule was discovered, yet another time capsule was found in Boston from 1901! Many historians were very excited about this discovery, and curiously enough, it was found in the head of a lion statue in the city’s Old State House. A small crowd gathered to watch the capsule be removed from the antique statue.

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The more recent capsule was removed from its century-long hiding spot, and put back into the scroll of a lion statue for future generations to find. Bostonians included an iPhone 5 and new letters written by three Boston journalists in the capsule as they returned it, and also included a baseball signed by the Red Sox! Do you think they will still be playing baseball in 100 years time?

The Capsule on Show

Soon after the discovery of the historical time capsule, conservationists put an exhibition on to share the special moments from the past with members of the public at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Many people were just as excited as Pam Hatchfield and Michael Comeau to see such an incredible piece of America’s history at home in their very own city. 

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Image credits: Drivepedia

The museum curators chose to display the contents of the time capsule next to an enormous and famous painting entitled The Passage of Delaware, painted by Thomas Sully in 1819. Since some years have passed, the museum eventually returned the contents of the capsule back to where they came from, placing the box back into the granite cornerstone.

One of the Oldest Capsules Ever!

It’s very likely that this important piece of history just so happens to be the oldest time capsule ever discovered in the United States of America! If you can remember, the capsule was originally buried in 1795, twenty years after the American War of Independence. This makes the capsule 220 years old! Isn't it interesting to think about what people might think about our civilization in 200 years?

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Image credits: Drivepedia

What’s Next?

While the contents of the capsule were displayed for some time at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, conservationists and historians thought it best that they return the time capsule to its original place in the cornerstone. However, together with the original contents, the 2015 crew added American coins with faces of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

These new coins, along with the old ones and the newspaper clippings, were all put back into a stainless steel box in the Massachusetts State House for someone else to discover in another 100 years. Can't you just imagine how exciting that discovery will be? If you enjoyed reading about the discovery of these incredible pieces of history, we bet you'll love our other articles.