Digital Collections Highlight: The 1817 Presidential Inauguration and the Scottish Rite

James Madison letter to David Daggett 1817The Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Digital Collections website contains a rich collection of digitized documents from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library. As we approach Inauguration Day on January 20, it seems worth taking a look at a 200-year-old document in our collection (pictured here), which is related to both Scottish Rite Freemasonry and Inauguration Day. 

In this letter, dated January 1, 1817, President James Madison requests the presence of Connecticut Senator David Daggett (1764-1851) at a special session of the Senate held on March 4, 1817. At this session, Vice President elect Daniel D. Tompkins was sworn into office, just prior to the official inauguration ceremony of President-elect James Monroe. (Inauguration Day used to be in March, until the passage to the 20th Amendment in 1937, which moved it to January.) Tompkins was governor of New York from 1807 until 1817 and then served as Vice President under Monroe from 1817 to 1825. Tompkins’ name may also be familiar to you because of his Scottish Rite connection. He served as the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction’s first Sovereign Grand Commander from 1813 until 1825.

The Madison letter is among items digitized from the Library & Archives’ G. Edward Elwell, Jr., Autograph Collection which consists of documents collected by G. Edward Elwell, Jr., 33°, (1886-1969) a member of Caldwell Consistory (Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania) and a professional printer. The items in the Elwell Collection, which was generously donated to the Museum & Library by the Caldwell Consistory, span nearly 500 years of history (1489-1960), and each contains the signature of a well-known figure from American or European history.

The Sprague Family: An American Story

“William Sprague was the youngest of three brothers…who arrived in Salem in 1629, and from thence removed to Charlestown (then called Mish-a-wam by the natives) where they, with a few others, were the first to form an English settlement.” –Marcia A. Thomas, 1835

Sprague_Photo_1Thus begins the story of the Sprague family, an enduring, historically-significant group that calls New England home. The history of the Sprague family can be seen in a new collection at the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives. Through letters, manuscripts, genealogical charts, official documents, and photographs, a clear picture of the Sprague family develops—from their arrival in the 17th century up until the middle of the 20th century.

At the center of the collection is Harold W. Sprague, who assembled much of the material. Harold was an extremely active member in fraternal and civic organizations during his lifetime, being appointed Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in 1952, as well as being recognized by the Sons of the American Revolution. Harold’s involvement in these organizations demonstrates his sense of community and speaks to his interest in history and tradition. Much of the information gleaned from the collection comes from Harold’s own research into the Sprague family history. His investigations led him down a road of various Sprague relations, including the Burt, Taylor, and Adams families, among others.

It was through these familial connections that Harold was able to piece together the links between his ancestors and two great political families of the 18th and 19th centuries. William Sprague, who came to Salem in 1629, had numerous children with his wife Millicent Eames. Among these was Samuel (Harold’s ancestor) who remained in Massachusetts, and William, who moved to Rhode Island around 1664. William (the younger) established the Rhode Island line of Spragues that included two prominent leaders. The first, William Sprague III, was the 14th Governor of Rhode Island (1838-1839). William also served in Congress both before and after he was governor, first as a Representative (1835-1837) and then as Senator (1842-1844). His nephew, William Sprague IV, was greatly influenced by him and followed him into the political realm at an early age. In 1860, William IV was elected the 27th Governor of Rhode Island (1860-1863). He was only 30 years old at the time, making him one of the youngest governors in U.S. history. Like his uncle, William IV was also a member of Congress, serving two terms as Senator (1863-1875).

While the Sprague family in Rhode Island was certainly notable for their political power, it was through Harold Sprague’s mother that the family is connected to its most influential relatives. As Harold learned through his research, his mother’s side of the family could trace their lineage all the way back to Joseph Adams (1654-1736). Joseph was the uncle of founding father and statesman, Samuel Adams. Even more directly, Joseph’s grandson was John Adams, 2nd President of the United States. John Adams served as vice-president under George Washington from 1789-1797 before being elected president in 1797, serving one term. He was greatly influential as a political thinker and was one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. His political legacy was carried on by his son John Quincy Adams, who served as the 6th President of the United States from 1825-1829. He then had a long career as a representative in Congress (1831-1848), winning reelection eight times!

Numerous letters, notes, and genealogical charts in the collection show the familial links between the Adams and Sprague families. In addition to these documents, the collection includes autograph books containing a variety of signatures, including those of John Quincy Adams and his son Charles Francis Adams. The presence of these signatures shows just how close the families were. In fact, numerous letters between prominent members of the two families can be seen in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Family Papers. A quick search through the MHS Online Adams Catalog reveals dozens of letters between the Adams and Sprague families.


The story of the Sprague family is a familiar one in American history. Beginning with a long voyage across the sea, three brothers set forth to explore and establish a new land. They made their home among the wilds of North America and built towns, cities, and families along the way. As time passed, the Sprague family expanded, and the founders of towns gave way to founders of countries and leaders of states. Theirs is certainly an American story, one that can be discovered in the collections at the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives.

If you want to learn more about the contents of this collection, we've made the Sprague Family Papers finding aid available online.

Photos from the Sprague Family collection, USM 077, Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives

All Around the United States: A Traveling Book of Autographs

A2010_41_1a_DI_from_existing_photographIn 1914, in order to promote the fraternity's patriotic goals, the East End Council No. 101, Jr. Order of United American Mechanics, Brooklyn, New York, conceived of circulating an album around the United States to collect autographs of the president and the governors of all the states. 

The Junior Order of United American Mechanics is a fraternal organization, which was founded in 1853 in Philadelphia. The major objectives of the order are stated in their bylaws of 1959.  These are:

  •  "To maintain and promote the interest of Americans and shield them from the depressing effects of unrestricted immigration, to assist them in obtaining employments, and to encourage them in business."
  •  "To provide for the creation of a fund or funds for the payment of donations incase of Sickness, Disability or Death of its members, to members, their legal dependents or representatives."
  •  "To uphold the American Public School System, prevent interference therewith, and to encourage the reading of the Holy Bible in the Schools thereof."
  • "To promote and maintain a National Orphans Home."

In 1900, there were over 200,000 members. However, by the 1960s and 1970s its popularity had declined to about 8,500 members. It still exists today with its national headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The story of the journey of this book is particularly American one.  The first person to sign the album was President Woodrow Wilson on June 15, 1915 (as seen in photograph above).  After leaving Wilson's hands, the leather album was sent to each state's governor, who was asked via correspondence by the album's author and editor, Joseph Wright Wootton (b. 1870), to sign his designated page.  The album was sent to states in the order in which they were admitted to the union.  Because of this, the album began its journey in Delaware in 1915 and ended in Arizona in 1916 and was then sent back to Brooklyn, New York.   

During the album's journey around the United States, a committee of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics decided to circulate an American flag with the album.  The wife of each governor was asked to sew on one star onto the blue square of the flag and send Wootton her calling card, signed with her name.  Before the book was circulated to collect all of the autographs, artist, Albert Heinmuller (b. 1862), made watercolor drawings of each state seal and decorated each title page with gold letters. Both Wootton and Heinmuller lived in Brooklyn, New York and were members of the East End Council No. 101, Jr. Order of United American Mechanics.

The traveling album had several mishaps during its journey. The album and flag were lost several times. Often the governor of a state kept the album longer than was intended, but, by way of showing how the book struck a chord, some governors showed the album off at various state events.  When the album was sent to the Governor of Massachusetts, Samuel Walker McCall, in 1916, he mistook it for a bomb and almost destroyed it!  The last person to sign the album was President Warren G. Harding on May 11, 1921, quite a while after its journey around the United States.

Both the album of autographs and the flag were carefully kept by the East End Council, No. 101 (which merged with Franklin Council No. 16). In  2010, the album of autographs, the flag, and associated correspondence were donated to the National Heritage Museum.


Autograph Album, Joseph Wright Wootton and Albert Heinmuller, 1915-1916.  Gift of Dr. & Mrs. John F. Ladik, Mr & Mrs. John d'Agostino, Alfred Thomson, Mr. & Mrs. Ronald Thomson, Jr., A2010/41/1.