Among Dusty Documents in Forgotten Drawers, a Real Treasure
It’s a bit faded, not to mention at least a couple of hundred years old. Until recently, it lay in a drawer under tissue paper in the Braun Research Library at the Southwest Museum, and none of the current staffers knew it even existed.
But it appears that among the library’s holdings is a real treasure: an authentic document signed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two founding fathers of the fledgling United States of America.
“There’s absolutely a rush when you see things like that,” said Holly Rose Larson, the project archivist at the Braun who discovered the document in February. “You start having these moments of recognition, like, ‘Woah, that’s Thomas Jefferson? What?’ This man signed this paper that I have in my hands right now. That’s an amazing feeling, a totally incredible feeling.”
The document, a land grant dated 1803 but not signed until 1807, gifts one James Taylor, in place of William Taylor, a parcel of 889 acres of land in what is now Ohio, as a reward for William Taylor’s seven years of service in the young country’s military. It clearly shows Jefferson’s name at the top as the President of the United States, has a watermarked seal, and on the bottom right corner bears what appear to be the signatures of both Jefferson and Madison, then the secretary of state. Madison, of course, would go on to succeed Jefferson as President in 1809.
Larson is working on a grant-funded project from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to help record and catalog the backlogged trove of documents donated to the Braun over its more than 100 years of existence.
It’s actually a fairly common problem for museums and libraries across the United States and even in other countries, Larson said. Very often, there are many more donations than their invariably tiny staffs can manage. So the donated papers get carefully put away, sometimes with a note or two on the document or in a registry designating donor and date, until a future opportunity arises to examine, catalog and make the documents available to users of the library.
Just such an opportunity arose with the Braun’s eventual move to the new Autry Research Center in Burbank and the acceptance of its grant application to put the library’s papers in order before the move.
“Now that we’re all sort of taking stock of our collections, everyone’s realizing we’ve got too much stuff that’s completely undocumented or partially undocumented,” said Larson, whose project is set to last two years. “We don’t have a catalog for it. We don’t have a finding aid or an inventory for it, so if people are looking for this information, they can’t find it. There’s a lot of stuff.”
The whole documentation process is somewhat holistic, progressing from the broad to the specific. One archivist might take initial stock of a collection, entering a basic description of it into the library’s system, such as the name of the initial owner, the time span of the collection, and a few words on what is included: correspondence, reports, financial records, etc. Another archivist might later review the collection in more detail and add more information, such as the names of correspondents or a description of each document. The idea is to include enough that s researcher, say a doctoral candidate specializing in some historical figure or period, can do a Google search and, on the basis of the catalog entry, plan a research project that puts the documents in their historical context and reveals even more about them.
During her two years, Larson expects to process more than 1,000 linear feet of material, mostly documents: letters, business papers, legal documents, photographs, drawings, illustrations, announcements, newspaper clippings, ephemera — anything in a specific set.
When she found the Jefferson document, Larson was archiving and cataloging the Southwest Museum’s institutional archives, spanning from its founding in 1907 to its merger with the Autry in 2003. She was opening drawers in a wooden filing cabinet where she thought she might find documents belonging to Southwest Museum founder Charles Fletcher Lummis.
“I was told there were some items in there … that go with this institutional archives collection,” she said, quoting other staffers: “‘We know this, we know that, why don’t you just go through all the drawers and figure it out?’ So I went through the drawers.”
In the second column, in a drawer marked “unsorted drawings, honors for Charles Fletcher Lummis, miscellaneous” she saw something under a piece of tissue paper. She picked up what looked like a very old piece of parchment and began reading.
“Wait a minute, wait, what?” Larson recalls she said. “You have to read it like five times. Does that really say ‘Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America?’”
She scanned toward the bottom right corner and there, rather faintly, she saw what looked like Jefferson’s distinctive signature, with Madison’s own beneath it. She called the other staffers over, who couldn’t believe the find.
Since Larson’s discovery, the Braun has been in touch with research librarians both at Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home that is now a museum, and the Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University. Their answers, while not definitive on the authentication question, were encouraging.
Anna Berkes, research librarian at Monticello, said the granted land was in what was then known as the Virginia Military District, “a chunk of land in present-day Ohio that Virginia retained ownership of so that it could grant pieces of it to Revolutionary War veterans.”
Martha J. King, associate editor at the Papers of Thomas Jefferson,wrote back that the document appears to be legitimate “based on the seal, the contents, and the signatures. Land grants for military service were not unusual in this time period and we have seen other similar types of documents.”
Alas, King had no luck finding grantee James Taylor in the institution’s data base and published volumes. Larson, too, has had little luck finding much about the original donor, Mary or Macy Thomasset, who apparently gave the Southwest the document in 1957.
“We’re not sure who it is,” Larson said. “There is a chance (that) as I process the Southwest Museum’s institutional archives, I may come across the gifts and donations section, we may come across this woman’s name in some correspondence between somebody and somebody else. There could definitely be more information coming on this story.”