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Joseph Barlow Felt

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Joseph Barlow Felt

Joseph Barlow Felt was born on December 22, 1789, in Salem, Massachusetts, to John and Elizabeth (Curtis) Felt. His parents, especially his mother, served as a great inspiration to him.

When Felt was 14, he worked for a store merchant to qualify himself for mercantile life. What leisure time he had, he spent reading biographical works of men educated through their own endeavors. These examples inspired him to earn an education and, when he was 18, he entered the Atkinson Academy in New Hampshire. In 1809, Felt began attending Dartmouth College and graduated in 1813. Dartmouth bestowed a Doctorate of Laws on Felt in 1857.

Right after graduating from Dartmouth, Felt became a merchant partner in a business in Salem. Then, in January of 1814, he began theological studies and taught at a private school. Felt was licensed as a minister on March 2, 1815, from the Essex Association, after which he ministered to congregations in Salem and Hamilton while continuing to teach.

Felt married Abigail (Adams) Shaw on September 18, 1816. He was ordained as a minister of the Congregational Society at Sharon, Massachusetts, and remained there until April 19, 1824. In June, his family moved to Hamilton, Massachusetts, where he preached until 1833, when ill health ended his pastoralship.

While living in Hamilton, Felt addressed the Masonic Assembly at Ipswich in 1825 and the Ipswich Academy in 1829. Many of his articles were published in John Farmer’s New-England Genealogical Register. One of his most noteworthy works, Annals of Salem, was published in 1827, and his “History of Ipswich, Essex, and Hamilton” was published in 1834, when he and his family moved to Boston. In 1835, his “Ecclesiastical Statistics of Essex County” was published in the American Quarterly Register, and then, in 1836, he provided a large portion of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collections.

In April of 1836, the Massachusetts governor commissioned Felt to arrange the state archives, which resulted in 241 bound volumes of papers, classified and chronologically arranged. In May of 1839, he was appointed to visit England to obtain duplicates of provincial records and papers; however, the British authorities were not allowing Americans access to their offices at that time. Finally, in 1845, his commission to visit England materialized and he spent six weeks looking for the original documents. After completing the work in England, he traveled through France, Scotland, and Ireland en route to Boston. Once home, he resumed his work on the state archives, which he completed in the early part of 1846.

History of Massachusetts Currency
Facts and Thanksgivings of New-England
Collections for the American Statistical Association
Memoir of Roger Conant
Annals of Salem
Genealogical Items for Gloucester
Genealogical Items for Lynn
A Memoir, or Defense of Hugh Peters
The Kidd Papers
Memoirs of Francis Higginson
Sketch of Abigail Brown
Memorials of William S. Shaw
Who Was the First Governor of Massachusetts?
Customs of New-England

On December 29, 1836, Felt was chosen as librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, but stepped aside to allow the Rev. T. M. Harris to hold the position. When Harris died in 1842, Felt succeeded him and remained in that office until 1854.

Felt became the recording secretary of the American Statistical Association in 1839 and served in that capacity for more than 19 years. During this period, he wrote Collections of the American Statistical Association, consisting of three parts [Statistics of Towns in Massachusetts (Vol. 1, part 1, Boston, 1843), Statistics of Population in Massachusetts (Vol. 1, part 2, Boston, 1845), and Statistics of Taxation in Massachusetts Including Valuation and Population (Vol. 1, part 3, Boston, 1847)], with the three-part collection published in 1847. The second volume was printed, but never published.

Felt was elected a member of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries in 1841 and a corresponding member of the New-England Historic Genealogical Society in 1845. Later, he would become a resident member, honorary member, and finally president of the New-England Historic Genealogical Society, as well as edit the January and April New-England Historical and Genealogical Register for 1852. In 1846, he was invited to succeed the Rev. William Cogswell as president of the Gilmanton Theological Seminary in New Hampshire, but declined the invitation, as he had already declined two other invitations to take charge of literary seminaries.

In 1852 and 1853, Felt became secretary and librarian of the Congregational Library Association, respectively. Under the association’s auspices, he published his first volume of Ecclesiastical History of New-England in 1854. The association remarked on the work: “We take pleasure in certifying that, in our judgment, it everywhere discloses a thoroughness of research and an accuracy of statement in regard to matters of fact, which the early history of New-England has never before had, and will never again need. No other writer on the subject, among the living or the dead, has devoted the time, or enjoyed the facilities which have been afforded to the author of this work. Twenty years of investigation among the best libraries of this country, and a visit to those of England, together with the overhauling of an incredible mass of old manuscripts in the archives of Massachusetts and elsewhere—undertaken con amore, and pursued with ever-freshening zeal—leaves small hope of original acquisition to those who may glean after him.” The second volume was published in 1861.

Felt was a benevolent contributor to many public institutions of science and literature. A notable instance of this may be recalled from History of the Boston Athenaeum, when, as the legal representative of his brother-in-law, William S. Shaw, who died leaving claims against the Athenaeum amounting to $10,000, Felt “voluntarily and most liberally executed a release of the whole claim and thereby constituted Mr. Shaw a benefactor to the institution to that amount.”

Felt was married to Abigail (Adams) Shaw for 43 years, before she died in Boston on July 5, 1859. In June of 1861, he moved to Salem and, in 1862, he married Catharine Bartlett Meacham of Haverhill, Massachusetts.

On September 3, 1863, Felt returned home after church and sat down to write in his diary. He had written the text of the afternoon sermon: James 4:14—”Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away.” With the last word of the text, his pen wandered over the page and he fell back in his chair paralyzed. He partially recovered and lived for another four long years, passing away on September 8, 1869, at the age of 80.

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