Monday, June 13, 2011

Sarah Henshaw's Embroidery

Sarah Henshaw embroidered the
Henshaw and Bill coat of arms about 1748
when she was about twelve years old
I saw this schoolgirl embroidery at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There is an exhibit there called Boston Colonial Embroidery: Schoolgirl Pictures from April 2, 2011 until August 20, 2011. Many of the embroideries had family names, and each had an identifying sign with information on the schoolgirl, her teacher and school.  This was as important a skill for a young lady as learning Greek or Latin was for her brother in the 1700s.

This embroidery by Sarah Henshaw had the Henshaw and Bill family crests. I knew I was related to the Boston Bill family, so as soon as I returned home I researched the family genealogy. Fascinating stuff!

Joshua Henshaw born 2 August 1703, Boston, Massachusetts. ( He was born in the house owned by his parents in Boston on the corner of Hayward's Place and Washington (then Newberry) St. He was the son of Joshua Henshaw and Mary Hay Webster. He married Elizabeth Bill, daughter of Richard Bill and Sarah Davis on 27 December 1733 in Boston. They were married by Reverend Benjamin Colman of the Brattle Street Church, Boston.

Richard Bill, an influential and opulent merchant of Boston, on Jan 16, 1741-2 conveyed to Joshua Henshaw and wife "the house and land in Sudbury street on the S.S.E., there measuring forty feet; ... on the south west on land of Thomas Cooper, late deceased, there measuring 99 feet; N.W. on Bartholomew, three needles nineteen and a half feet". (1)

At a Boston town meeting held March 2, 1764, Joshua Henshaw was chosen first on the list of Selectmen, the then chief elective office of the town. Appointed to several committees with John Hancock, assisted by John Adams as counsel, just before and after the "Boston Massacre". Also a member of the (colonial pre-Revolution) House of Representatives. (1)

In 1774, in consequence of the enforcement of the "Boston Port Bill" and the occupation of Boston by royal troops, Joshua was forced to move to Leicester in the county of Worcester, Mass., where his brother Daniel lived. He boarded for a short time with Rev. Conklin, then moved to Dedham, near Boston, where he resided until his death in 1777, most of the time an invalid.4

Joshua Henshaw died Aug 5 1777, at the house of Hon. Sam Dexter, Dedham, Massachusetts. (1) A portrait of Joshua Henshaw was painted about 1770 by the noted colonial artist John Singleton Copley. This painting is currently in the collection of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. Copley's painting can be seen on this link


1. Sarah Henshaw 16 January 1736-4 January 1822
2, Richard Bill Henshaw, 1737-?
3. Elizabeth Henshaw, 1744-?
4. Joshua Henshaw, 1746-1823
5. John Henshaw, 1749-?
6. Andrew Henshaw, 1752-1782

Sarah Henshaw was born 16 Jan 1736 in Boston, and she married Joseph Henshaw on 25 May 1759 in Boston, son of Daniel Henshaw and Elizabeth Allen Bass. (2) They were first cousins, grandchildren of Joshua Henshaw and Mary Hay Webster. She died 4 January 1822 in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. (1) Sarah Henshaw was a student of Elizabeth Murray, a Boston schoolteacher.   Her embroidered, above, was made in 1748, when she was about 12 years old.  It is silk satin embroidered with silk and metallic thread.  According to the sign at the MFA "Henshaw's embroidery...introduced a new level of opulence for these symbols of social and economic status".     There were several other embroideries by Sarah Henshaw on display.

The teacher Elizabeth Murray (1726 – 1785) was born in Scotland and was also painted by John Singleton Copley. Over her lifetime she had three husbands, and made a fortune by arranging lucrative pre-nuptial agreements. She had a shop selling the latest fashions, and she taught embroidery to the upper class young ladies in Boston. But also taught them to gain economic independence through business.

(1). The "New England Historical and Genealogical Register", vol 22, 1868, The New England Historical and Genealogical Society. This issue includes a complete copy of the recorded pedigree of Joshua Henshaw.

(2). Manuscripts relating to William Henshaw, archived at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA, including a handwritten family lineage

For more information:

The History of the Bill Family, by Ledyard Bill, 1867, see pages 141 – 143. A biography of Elizabeth Murray, Schoolteacher in Boston.  a page of information on the exhibit Boston Colonial Embroidery: Schoolgirl Pictures.

Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Very cool! I have one from my 3rd gr grandmother who made it in the early 1800s. I've been meaning to learn more about embroidery and just haven't gotten around to it yet.

  2. Oh yeah, extraordinarily cool! Thanks for sharing your find and the story behind it. I think this has inspired me to make a needle stab at embroidering one for myself.
    Ronda Henshaw

  3. Ronda, are you a descendant of this family?

  4. awesome post i m a relatve my gramma was a henshaw