Last October the Vinalhaven Historical Society received one of its most historically significant artifacts to date. Island natives Jack and Angie Olson donated an original document signed by John Hancock in 1785. The document appoints William Vinall as Justice of the Peace of the Fox Islands back when what is now Maine was still a part of Massachusetts. It is the oldest original document owned by the museum.
The certificate heading reads “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” The text that follows is incomplete due to paper loss, but can be read for the most part. It says, in part, “To all unto whom these presents shall come, Know Ye That I have, by a _____ with the Advice and Consent of the Council, assigned and constituted, and do by these Presents assign, constitute and appoint William Vinall of Fox Island to be one of the Justices to keep the Peace in the County of Lincoln to this Commonwealth for the next Seven Years…Dated at Boston, the thirty first Day of January in the Year of our LORD, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty five and in the Ninth Year of Independence of the United States of America.” John Hancock signs it at the bottom of the front side, as well as on the back.
The brittle document is in poor shape with tears along the creases and significant loss of paper on one of the corners. It contains several areas of discoloration where previous owners tried to tape it. On the upper left corner is a circular spot with a bit of brown or red residue, believed to have originally held a wax seal. When the museum first acquired the document Vinalhaven summer resident and historical society volunteer Ken Reiss looked it over and tried to tidy it up by removing as much of the old tape as possible. According to Reiss, “The wear is consistent with its having been folded and carried in a wallet or a pocketbook, which is reasonable considering that, in the days before tin stars and police badges, this document would have proved the authority of William Vinall as Justice of the Peace, the officer who was charged with apprehending, arresting and bringing to justice any and all lawbreakers in his district.”
Jack and Angie Olson were cleaning out a closet last fall in what used to be Jack’s parents’ house when they came across this document. The document has been in Olson’s family throughout its existence, as William Vinall is Jack’s fourth great-grandfather. The Olsons decided that, given the poor condition of the document, it should be donated to the historical society.
Jack’s grandmother, Min Vinal, was the last Vinal in his lineage. Originally the Vinals, for whom the island of Vinalhaven was named, spelled their name with two “l’s”. It is unclear when the second “l” was dropped from the spelling, as island Vinals for generations have used only one “l”.
Bill Chilles, president of the Vinalhaven Historical Society, says that despite the poor condition of the document, the museum staff is extremely grateful for such donations. “It’s amazing that these things survive through the years,” he said. “Anything is worthy of donating if it has ties to Vinalhaven history.”
John Hancock is an important historical figure as he was the President of the Continental Congress and first to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He wrote his name in the center of the Declaration in extra large script. At that time the British had put a bounty on the heads of revolutionaries, regarding which Hancock proclaimed “The British ministry can read that name without spectacles, let them double their reward.” Henceforth, “John Hancock” became slang for any signature. An authentic John Hancock signature can be worth anywhere from $2,000- $50,000.