Origins of Massachusetts’ state seal

  • The Massachusetts state seal hanging above Goodell Hall on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/22/2019 3:57:33 PM

Edmund H. Garrett, a well-known 19th-century illustrator and painter, was charged with making revisions to the state seal in 1885, though he left intact the most elements of the design from a century earlier.

In creating the illustration that continues to be seen on the state flag and in various places, such as on courthouse doors and state police cruisers, Garrett noted in an article published 118 years ago that there was pushback from people who no longer wanted an American Indian depicted on the seal.

In New England Magzine: An Illustrated Monthly Volume 23, Sept. 1900 to Feb. 1901, Garrett wrote: “During the progress of the work of preparing the seal, many people objected that an Indian did not and should not stand for the state of Massachusetts.”

As he moved forward with his work, he sought a more accurate depiction of the American Indian “not only an artistic figure, but also one that will be correct in form, appearance and costume.”

He did this by refining a portrait of a Chippewa Indian called Essence, or Little Shell.

“Little Shell’s picture was selected not only because he was a fine specimen of an Indian, but also because his tribe, the Ojibway, belong to the great Algonquin family of which the Massachusetts were also members,” Garrett wrote.

After putting time and effort into the redesign, it seems Garrett was pleased.

“I would like to express a wish that all matters pertaining to the decoration of our public buildings and all symbols or badges used by our state should be as carefully considered as this one was,” Garrett wrote.

But those supporting legislation in favor of changing the state seal have several concerns about the depictions as outlined in resolutions that have been adopted, most recently in Northampton and Amherst. 

Among these concerns are the naked colonial broadsword, modeled on one used by Myles Standish, and its proximity to the head of the American Indian depicted on the seal; that the Ojibway chief is from Great Falls Montana, not Massachusetts; and that the bow held by the figure is modeled after an American Indian who was shot and killed by a colonist in Sudbury in 1865.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.




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