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Eleanor B. Adams

Born: 5-14-1910

By Rick Hendricks

Eleanor Burnham Adams was born on 14 May 1910 in Cambridge Massachusetts.[1] Her father, Charles Waldron Adams, was a physician in general practice.[2] Charles was a Provincetown Adams, that is, the Adamses who fought on the losing side of the American Revolution. Her mother, Faustina Burnham, was born to natives of Nova Scotia, Canada, although her parents relocated to Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick.[3]  Adams was the first of three children; she had a sister,Virginia, and a brother, Charles Waldron, Jr. Adams attended Cambridge Latin School and earned a degree from Radcliffe College in romance languages, graduating cum laude in 1931.[4] Adams studied for a summer at the University of Liverpool and pursued graduate studies in history at the Centro de Estudios Históricos at University of Madrid for one year.[5] In addition to her training in sixteenth-century Italian and Spanish literature, Adams was interested in art, music, and modern dance.[6]

Leaving from Cherbourg, France on the Mauretania and coming home from Europe, Adams arrived in New York on 17 June 1932 and returned to her parents' home at 27 Garfield Street in Cambridge.[7] She began her career as a historian in 1934 in the Division of Historical Research of the Carnegie Institution, which was housed in the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. At Carnegie Adams began a lifelong collaboration with France Vinton Scholes, head of the Post-Columbian History Section.[8]

Within a few years Scholes and Adams began to publish their Yucatán studies, the product of what Lewis Hanke described as "the most sustained and important cooperative research project carried on by a United States institution in Latin America during the twentieth century."[9] Adams also began her own studies on colonial New Spain and New Mexico. Adams and Scholes published fourteen volumes together.

In 1938 Adams travelled to Mexico on assignment for the Carnegie Institution. Working from lists of documents Scholes provided, she transcribed and or photographed documents in the Archivo General de la Nación de México. Surprisingly, her parents either accompanied Adams on this trip or more likely joined her during her sojourn in Mexico. The three of them returned to New York by way of Veracruz, arriving on 9 May 1939.[10] In that year the Carnegie Institution relocated to Washington, D. C.[11]

In 1941 the Carnegie Institution arranged for Adams to join Scholes at his request at the University of New Mexico.[12] She remained in the employment of the Carnegie Institution until the Division of Historical Research closed in 1949.  Adams spent a year as curator of the microfilm collection of Hispanic manuscripts at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1951 Adams she returned to UNM with the title Research Associate in History. She remained at UNM until her retirement in 1975. Between 1955 and 1961, Scholes and Adams published seven documentary histories on sixteenth-century New Spain. In 1956 Adams and Fray Angélico Chávez published their monumental The Missions of New Mexico, 1776: A Description by Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez with other Contemporary Documents. A second edition appeared in 1976.

Adams took over as editor of the New Mexico Historical Review beginning with the July 1964 issue.[13] She remained in this post until 1975. Over the course of her twenty-four years at UNM, Adams often had to fight off criticism from some members of the History Department who did not consider her their equal because of her nontraditional career path, particularly because she did not have an advanced degree.[14] Adams's backers pointed to her stellar publishing record, which easily outdistanced that of all her detractors. Adams eventually won the fight, and UNM named her Research Professor‑at‑Large in 1974. Tulane University conferred upon her the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters on 10 May 1984.[15]

In retirement in her home at 413 Bryn Mawr, Adams kept company with her two Maine Coon Cats. Hobbled by osteoarthritis and needing first one then two cane to help her move around, Adams could still put a lobster to sleep by rubbing its belly before plopping in the pot like a true native of the Bay State. Having outlived most of her colleagues in New Mexico and suffered a serious fall, Adams's family came out west and took her back to Massachusetts in 1995. She passed away there on 15 January 1996.[16] As John L. Kessell noted, Adams "ranked among the few women scholars of her day to achieve international acceptance in the historical profession."[17]


[1] Eleanor B. Adams, Social Security Death Index, (accessed 25 October 2011).

[2] 1920 United States Federal Census, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and John L. Kessell, "Eleanor Burnham Adams: Woman of Letters, 1910-1996," vol. 75, no. 3 (July 2000): 305.

[3] 1930 United States Federal Census, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[4] Richard E. Greenleaf, "Eleanor Burnham Adams: Historian and Editor," New Mexico Historical Review vol. 60, no. 1 (January 1985): 6.

[5] Frank D. Reeve, "Miss Eleanor B. Adams," New Mexico Historical Review vol. 39, no. 3 (July 1964): 250.

[6] Greenleaf, "Eleanor Burnham Adams," 6.

[7] New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, (accessed 25 October 2011).

[8] Greenleaf, "Eleanor Burnham Adams," 6.

[9] Ibid., 6-7.

[10] New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, (accessed 25 October 2011).

[11] Greenleaf, "Eleanor Burnham Adams," 6.

[12] Kessell, "Eleanor Burnham Adams," 308.

[13] Reeve, "Miss Eleanor B. Adams," 250.

[14] Kessell, "Eleanor Burnham Adams," 311.

[15] Greenleaf, "Eleanor Burnham Adams," 9 n. 1.

[16] Eleanor B. Adams, Social Security Death Index

[17] Kessell, "Eleanor Burnham Adams," 305.