Saturday, June 12, 2010

Discovered documents

Imagine the thrill of finding a historic document of unrecognized importance in an archive or even more unexpected place. At least 4 such finds have occurred recently:
  • In November 2009, lawyer and founding president of the Constitutional Sources Project Lorianne Updike Toler (3rd image) was researching papers at the Historical Society in Philadelphia when she recognized an early draft of the U.S. Constitution by one of its framers, James Wilson (1742-1798). "This was the kind of moment historians dream about....It was difficult to keep my hands from trembling," Toler reports.
  • In January 2010, Dutch scholar Erik-Jan Bos, an expert on René Descartes (1596-1650), was searching for autographed letters of the French philosopher on the web. What he found in a database of the Special Collections Dept. at Haverford College in Pennsylvania was a letter that had gone missing more than 150 years ago. Along with thousands of other documents, it had been stolen and sold in the 19th c. by Italian count Guglielmo Libri, when he was teaching math and in charge of inspecting archived papers in France. Bos notified the administration at Haverford and was present when the letter (2nd image) was repatriated to the Institut de France in a special ceremony.
  • In February 2010, Julia Gaffield (1st image) discovered a document that had been eluding scholars for 2 centuries - the only known printed copy of Haiti's Declaration of Independence. A graduate student in the History Dept. at Duke University, Gaffield was consulting the British National Archives when she came upon the pamphlet - a denunciation of French rule of the former slave colony - in a book of correspondence between Jamaica and Great Britain. "It was an odd moment. I'm smiling to myself and bursting with excitement while at the same time trying to keep my composure," she describes. The discovery may be seen as symbolic, restoring a piece of Haiti's history less than a month after its devastating earthquake.
  • In May 2010, a 4th grade teacher in Peabody, Massachusetts, uncovered a Colonial-era document in her classroom. Michelle Eugenio was cleaning up in preparation for a move when she came across a yellowed sheet protected with plastic. It turned out to be a 1792 receipt for the payment of a debt by Jonathan Bates (d. 1808), a Vermont veteran of the Continental Army. It has been authenticated, although no one knows how it ended up in Eugenio's classroom.
While archaeologists may have their Harrison Ford moments, scholars occasionally get to feel like Nicholas Cage.

1 comment:

  1. I can't even find a receipt from last week. I need it. *sigh*


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