Colonial Charter May Go On Sale

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In 1629, colonists landed in Salem bearing the Royal Charter of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, granting permission "for the planting, ruling, ordering, and governing of Newe England in America." Massachusetts, as we know it, was born. And now, that mother of all real estate contracts, not to mention a foundational document in US history, could be up for sale.

The Salem Athenaeum has made preliminary inquiries about selling its copy of the Massachusetts Bay Charter to raise funds for its endowment. Critics fear that the document could end up in private hands or possibly a foreign country.

"I take it very personally when people try to sell off our history," said Bonnie Hurd Smith, executive director of the Ipswich Historical Society and one of many local history buffs steaming at the news. "People are just in shock."

Since the early 1900s, the Salem Athenaeum has kept the four-page charter in the Peabody Essex Museum for safekeeping. The athenaeum's 85 shareholders will meet April 3 to discuss the possible sale.

"It does have a financial value that, turned to investment dollars and utilized for our endowment purposes, could go a long way to helping us meet many of our goals," Salem lawyer Francis Mayo, president of the athenaeum's board of trustees, said last night, adding that he was unhappy with how infrequently the Peabody Essex Museum showed the charter.

He believes that the document may be worth millions of dollars. Representatives from several auction houses have visited Peabody Essex Museum to examine the document, but Mayo said that any deal with an auction house would have to stipulate that the charter be sold to a local institution that could display it publicly.

"Ideally, the document would remain in Salem," said Mayo, though he acknowledged that the athenaeum had no control over the charter once it was sold.

The document was brought here in 1629 by John Endicott, the original chief executive of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The charter was held by the Massachusetts Bay Company, based in England. In addition to securing the company's right to land a parcel starting 3 miles north of the Merrimack River and ending 3 miles south of the Charles River the document provided for governance, including a two-house legislature and an elected governor. It was the New World's first written constitution.

"It becomes the basis of the government of Massachusetts," said Francis Bremer, a history professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania and editor of the John Winthrop family papers. "It was a very important document."

The copy in Salem was the first to arrive in the New World. A year later, John Winthrop brought over the original copy, with the seal of King Charles I. That one is stored in state archives in Dorchester and is viewed by the state as the original. The first page was stolen in 1984. Police recovered the missing page two years later. There are four other copies of the document in England.

Though less celebrated than the 1620 Mayflower Compact, the charter was far more influential in shaping the government and economy of Massachusetts, historians say. It also influenced the drafting of the US Constitution.

Word of the charter's possible sale leaked Friday in the area's tight-knit historical community. That day, Dan L. Monroe, the Peabody Essex Museum's executive director, sent the Salem Athenaeum a letter opposing the sale.

"A decision to sell the Charter would, in our view, constitute a fundamental ethical breach," the letter said. "All indications are that the library has one primary motive for selling the Charter: to use the funds to help support operations."

Others echoed that sentiment. "They are not being good stewards of our history," Smith said. "How can they possibly think this is an ethical and appropriate decision?"

But Bremer was more sanguine. "If they can do something that enhances their collection, that may not be bad. I'd love to see them sell it to a museum," he said.

He also said that the document's true importance was not paper and ink but its words, which have been preserved in countless books and Internet sites. "We're not going to ever lose the text of the document," he said.

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