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The Society was founded on January 24, 1791, by Reverend Jeremy Belknap to collect, preserve, and document items of American history. He and the nine other founding members donated family papers, books, and artifacts to the Society to form its initial collection. Its first manuscript was published in 1792, becoming the first historical society publication in the United States. The society incorporated in 1794; signatories included William Baylies, Jeremy Belknap, Alden Bradford, Peleg Coffin, Manasseh Cutler, John Davis, Daniel Davis, Aaron Dexter, John Eliot, Nathaniel Freeman, James Freeman, Thaddeus Mason Harris, Isaac Lothrop, George Richards Minot, John Mellen Jr., Thomas Pemberton, William Dandridge Peck, John Prince, Ezekiel Price, James Sullivan, David Sewall, Peter Thacher, William Tudor, Samuel Turell, Dudley Atkins Tyng, James Winthrop, Thomas Wallcut, Redford Webster, and William Wetmore. Indeed, the Society claims to have been the only historical collection in the United States until establishment of the New-York Historical Society (1804) and the American Antiquarian Society (1812), after which time the Society's collecting activities began to focus primarily on Boston and New England. In 1849, Frances Manwaring Caulkins became the first woman elected to the society's membership.
"The society, for several years after its organization, met in the attic of Faneuil Hall; afterwards rooms were occupied in Hamilton Place, and then in Franklin Street. In 1833 ... quarters on Tremont Street were occupied" in the building of the Provident bank through the 1890s. The society's current building in the Back Bay was built in 1899; it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 in recognition of the society's distinctive contribution to historic preservation.
Today the Society continues to collect, preserve, and communicate historical information about Massachusetts and the United States. It is now organized in five departments: Library, Publications, Education and Public Programs, Research Programs, the Adams Family Papers, and Administration. Major collections include:
Thomas Jefferson - the library holds Jefferson's handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Coolidge Collection, a collection of "Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts" containing thousands of pages of Jefferson's correspondence, manuscripts of writings, Monticello records including account books and journals, and more than 400 of Jefferson's architectural drawings.
The Society continues to produce scholarly books, but now augments these publications with digital editions available through its website and other online resources. The Massachusetts Historical Review has been published annually since 1999.
The Fellows of the Massachusetts Historical Society are elected and serve as the Society's legal governing body. Notable fellows include: