Time Capsule Buried By Sam Adams Offers A Look Into The Past

Artifacts from the past can tell us so much about the way people used to live hundreds and even thousands of years ago. A lot of the historical artifacts archeologists have found are remains of civilizations. Those items weren’t intentionally left for historians to find. Time capsules, however, are intended to be viewed as artifacts. They are purposeful historical lenses.

Recently, a time capsule was discovered that was created and buried by one of the founders of America, Sam Adams, along with Paul Revere and William Scollay. Keep reading to find out what they decided to put in that capsule.

The Inspection Begins

gloved hand holding Inscribed silver plaque
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

On January 6, 2015, academics, journalists, politicians, and other interested spectators gathered around as conservators from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts inspected a copper box that had corroded over several years. This was no ordinary box. It was a time capsule created by Sam Adams, Paul Revere, and William Scollay.

People from all over the country came to see what one of the founders of this great nation left behind when he took his leave of this realm. “It was like brain surgery, with history looking down on us,” Malcolm Rogers, the museum’s director, told CNN.

The Earliest Known Time Capsules

Time Capsule held with gloved hands
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Time capsules have become quite common in our day and age. Many school teachers have their students create time capsules as a class project, so that future students can learn more about the past.

The earliest time capsules that we know of were buried in the 19th century. These boxes contain public records, newspapers, works of art, pieces of literature, and personal letters, among other artifacts. Many of these capsules are hidden or buried underground.

The Oldest Time Capsule In American History

two men Opening the Time Capsule
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

That’s what makes this particular time capsule so special. It actually predates all of those other time capsules, and it’s the oldest time capsule ever found in the United States. This time capsule has been labeled the Samuel Adams and Paul Revere Time Capsule.

Historians estimate that it was buried around 1795, which is 20 years after the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. America was a brand-new country when this time capsule was buried.

Where It Was Buried

Massachusetts State House in Boston MA
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This time capsule was buried at an event that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the American War of Independence. Documents and items of importance were placed in a simple leather pouch, and that pouch was buried under the Massachusetts State House in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

That building wasn’t yet completed when the time capsule was buried under it, but a year later, construction was finished and that iconic gold dome could be seen from miles around.

The First Time It Was Found

black and white photo of State House 1875
Photo Credit: And This Is Good ‘Ol Boston Blog
Photo Credit: And This Is Good ‘Ol Boston Blog

In 1855, some workmen were repairing the Massachusetts State House when they came across the leather pouch. These workmen correctly assumed that this was an item of national importance, so they passed it along to city officials.

All of the artifacts in the pouch were cleaned and then placed into a brass and copper box, which was much sturdier than a leather pouch. Some new items were added to the time capsule as well. It was then reburied by governor Winslow Harley.

The Second Time It Was Found

oxidized time capsule before opening
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

This time the capsule stayed buried for much longer. It wasn’t until December 11th, 2014 that workers repairing some water pipes felt their shovels hit something strange. The actual exhumation of the capsule took a full seven hours. Workers had to be careful not to damage the now very corroded box.

Eventually, Boston Museum of Fine Arts conservator Pam Hatchfield finally chiseled it free. She noticed that someone had placed coins on top of the capsule, probably as a sign of good luck.

Opening The Capsule

Pam Hatchfield opening box
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Pam Hatchfield invited some important members of the public to attend an event at which she would slowly and carefully open the time capsule. The event took place in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ American gallery.

Pam used very specialized tools for this delicate work, including a porcupine quill and a dental instrument which had belonged to her grandfather. She painstakingly went through each item while invited guests watched in complete silence. There were some occasional gasps from the crowd.

Clues From The Past

pam hatchfield removes top lid of time capsule
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Pam carefully removed the lid of the capsule and inspected the first item— a collection of coins from the mid-19th century. Pam also removed five newspapers from the time capsule. There was a very old copy of the Boston Daily Traveler and an old copy of the Boston Bee.

The newspapers were folded up, so it was still unclear how much of the text would be legible. Pam didn’t yet know what condition the interiors of those newspapers were in.

The Oldest Coin In The Box

copper and silver coin collection
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Some of the coins were in good condition, and some were in poor condition. After Pam removed the newspapers from the box, she discovered a collection of much older coins dating back to the 1780s.

There was even one “pine tree shilling” from 1652. That coin was minted illegally just after the reign of King Charles I. King Charles I was executed in 1649, which you can imagine led to a period of political instability.

So What Else Was Inside?

silver coin in the time capsule
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

As Pam delved further into the time capsule, she found an imprint of the Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a copy of colonial records from the 17th century. She also found a copper medal of George Washington that proclaimed him President of the United States and general of the American armies.

These treasures are absolutely priceless, and they give us so much insight into the state of our country so many years ago.

The Most Impressive Item

GettyImages-461100310
Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images
Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

Finally, Pam got to an item that knocked her socks off (figuratively, of course). Without this item, we wouldn’t know who was behind this now invaluable piece of history. Pam found a silver plate on which the capsule’s creators had engraved their names.

That plate bore the names of Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and William Scollay. Paul Revere most likely engraved the names on the plate himself because he was a talented silversmith. This was the most precious item in the box.

The Importance Of History

GettyImages-465797106
Paul Marotta/Getty Images
Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Michael Comeau, the executive director of the Massachusetts Archive and Commonwealth Museum, told The Guardian, “This is 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…”

Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, but also, those who don’t study history are missing out on a heck of a story.

Samuel Adams Helped Build America

GettyImages-3227010 The revolutionary politician Samuel Adams (1722 - 1803)
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Samuel Adams was born in Boston. He went to Harvard University and he became an influential philosopher and politician. He is a huge part of the foundations of republicanism in America.

Samuel Adams contributed to the Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts Constitution. He was also involved in the famous Boston Tea Party, a mercantile protest that occurred in 1773. America would not be the country that it is today without this impactful founding father.

The Truth About Samuel Adams

samuel adams statue outside hall
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Most Americans view Samuel Adams as a national hero, but in recent years, some politicians and journalists have painted him as a propagandist and an instigator of populist violence. Like all people, Samuel Adams wasn’t all good or all bad. He had some character flaws, as did all of our founding fathers.

It’s still unclear whether these criticisms of Adams are rooted in truth or myth. That’s why we need historians to parse through artifacts and primary texts. Each time we find a clue like this time capsule, we get one step closer to learning the truth.

What Paul Revere Was Up To

Paul Revere portrait
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Paul Revere was born in Boston. He was a silversmith and an industrialist, and he was a military officer during the American Revolution.

Revere married a woman named Sarah Orne and the two of them had eight children together. Unfortunately, two of their children died when they were very young, and only one child actually outlived Revere. Revere is most well known for his “midnight ride” which helped America succeed in their revolt. America would be a very different place without Paul Revere.

Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride

Paul Reveres rides a horse in portrait
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On April 18th, 1775, Paul Revere received some intelligence that British troops were moving towards Lexington and Concord. These British soldiers were going to arrest Samuel Adams along with some other American revolutionaries.

Paul Revere heroically rode through the night to inform the revolutionaries about what he had heard. Equipped with information, Samuel Adams and the rest of the militia were able to fight off the incoming British soldiers. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow later wrote a poem about Revere’s midnight ride.

Who Was William Scollay?

GettyImages-461100278
Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images
Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

This time capsule was created by three men: Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and William Scollay. Even if you didn’t know very much about Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, you had probably heard their names before. William Scollay is less well-known.

Scollay was also born in Boston. He was a real estate developer and a Deputy Grand Master in the masonic lodge of Massachusetts. He served as a colonel in the Boston militia during the American Revolution.

Items Of National Importance

historians at boston museum of fine arts open time capsule
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

William Galvin, Massachusetts’ secretary of the commonwealth, told The Guardian, “This is more than simply looking at some historical artifacts, trinkets or curiosities. These symbols, when they were placed in the State House in 1795… represented the aspirations of the founding fathers and those who came after. The history of Massachusetts is the history of America.”

Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and William Scollay knew what they were doing when the buried that leather pouch all those years ago. They were giving us a gift.

You Can See The Items For Yourself

newspapers in time capsule
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

If you want to know more about the items found in this time capsule, you can actually see the newspapers, coins, and other artifacts for yourself at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The artifacts from the capsule are located underneath The Passage of Delaware, which is a painting that Thomas Sully created in 1819.

You won’t be able to see all of the items though, because some of the less delicate artifacts were reburied in 2015.

The Future Of This Time Capsule

inscribed silver plaque time capsule
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

So now you’re probably wondering if new items were added to the time capsule just like they were when the capsule was first dug up in 1855.

In 2015, the time capsule was put back where it came from, but this time it contained a few new items: several letters and an iPhone 5. One day, future Americans (or future people living in this place that we currently call America) will dig up that time capsule and learn so much about the mark we left on the world.