State seal

Native American wearing moccasins, a disembodied arm holding a sword, and some words in Latin that hardly anyone can understand. How did Massachusetts end up with this conglomeration of images as its state seal? For that matter, why does the state have a seal at all?

We turned to the stewards of the seal, the Secretary of State’s office, to find out. Here’s the scoop:

Centuries ago, seals were more than bureaucratic decorations. Most people could not read or write. So in order for someone to sign or verify a document, his (at that time, it was almost always “his”) family coat of arms was formed into wax and made into a “seal.” This seal would then be pressed into ink and stamped onto paper to mark his signature. Governments adopted official state seals and used them to give documents legal authority. Over time, seals came to symbolize the tradition and authority of the state.

In 1629, when King Charles I granted its charter, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to create a seal in order to certify official documents. The first seal showed a Native American wearing only a leafy skirt (rather inappropriate for Massachusetts weather). This portrait pays homage to the Massachusett tribe, for whom the colony was named (the colonists added the ‘s’). The name means “at or about the Great Hill.” The words put in the Indian’s mouth–“Come over and help us”–suggest, however self-servingly, native acceptance of the missionary and commercial intent of the early settlers.

In 1692, the state began using the English royal coat of arms, the lion and unicorn. But with the beginning of hostilities in 1775, the King’s seal fell out of favor. Paul Revere engraved a new seal, depicting a colonist, sword in hand, holding the Magna Carta. Encircling him is the Latin motto still used today, “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem”–“By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”–a slogan credited to the English soldier and politician Algernon Sydney.

After the Revolution, Paul Revere engraved another seal for the Commonwealth, this time reverting back to the image of the Native American. However, subsequent engravers took great liberties and produced many variations. Finally, in 1885, a more strict description of the seal passed the Legislature. In 1898, Edmund Garrett’s design was made the official version through a statewide contest, and it remains the seal we use today.

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The shape of the shield, called a “plantagenet,” is from the Algonquin nation. The arrow in the (now more fully-clad) Native American’s hand points downward to signify peaceful intent. The star in the upper left hand corner represents Massachusetts as one of the 13 original colonies. The arm raised with the sword illustrates the Latin motto.

Today the seal can be found on state police cars, official documents, and the state flag. Its use for advertising or commercial purposes is prohibited by law.