Current Issue

Mar. 20, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 9


True treasures

Two and a half centuries of American history are on display in Firestone

By W. Barksdale Maynard ’88
Published in the March 20, 2013, issue

Our University predates the United States of America, so it is appropriate that Firestone Library contains almost bottomless riches from every period of the nation’s history. Some of the very best are on view in an exhibition called “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox,” in Firestone’s Main Gallery. 

The exhibition displays nearly 100 items, some of them never shown before. At least one, a wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Lincoln, was seemingly unknown to anybody, languishing in a box in the depths of the library until it was discovered by chance several weeks ago. The great difficulty, says Don Skemer, Firestone’s curator of manuscripts, was to narrow down the selection: “Our collections are so rich, we could barely scrape the surface.”

Skemer long had wanted to launch such a show, but the opportunity finally arose with a gift from Margaret Nuttle of Virginia, a descendant of the patriot and orator Patrick Henry and mother of the late Philip E. Nuttle Jr. ’63. Before her death in 2009, she established the Barksdale-Dabney-Henry Fund to support the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in highlighting early American history. Appropriately, the show is formed entirely of materials already in Princeton’s collection, and includes a 1778 letter in which Patrick Henry warns settlers not to encroach on Cherokee lands.

The exhibition’s title, “A Republic in the Wilderness,” refers to an 1866 description of the early nation by historian George Bancroft. Skemer and the show’s curator, Anna Chen, have woven together the country’s political life and its spectacular natural environment. Manuscripts, letters, maps, broadsides, and photographs all are included. “It was an immense pleasure to discover one treasure after another,” says Chen. “I’m still finding things I wish I could have put in the show.”

George Washington is well-represented, from a 1750 survey he did of his brother’s land in Virginia, to a draft of an inaugural address he never gave, to a list of his slaves. Also on display is one of the approximately 175 letters by Abraham Lincoln that are in the library’s possession: Writing to Francis Preston Blair shortly after his election, Lincoln makes clear that federal forts seized by seceding states before his inauguration must be retaken. There are numerous Princeton connections: artist John Trumbull’s sketch for his painting “The Battle of Princeton”; Louis-Alexandre Berthier’s map of the town at the time of the Revolution, showing a certain “Collège”; a poetry manuscript written by Annis Boudinot Stockton, about all she saved after Cornwallis’ troops ransacked her home, Morven.

The show prompted curators to conserve many items, including the 423-year-old, hand-colored engravings that accompany William Strachey’s eyewitness account of the Jamestown colony. “They were all folded six different ways,” Skemer says, “and all had to be reinforced.”

The show’s organizers are hard-pressed to pick their favorites. Skemer likes the “Plan of West Point” by Berthier, who drew more than 100 maps of the epic march of Rochambeau’s army south to Yorktown in 1781. Chen singles out the poignant contents of a wallet belonging to Capt. Isaac Plumb, a 2012 acquisition. The wallet was in his pocket when he fell, mortally wounded, at the Battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia in 1864, fighting with the Union Army in a battle noted for its purposeless slaughter. Among other things, the wallet held a telegram and letters from home, which are far rarer than letters from the front, Chen explains.

“That is of considerable interest, to see these items belonging to Plumb, who lost his life in one of the most dispiriting of battles,” says Princeton professor emeritus James McPherson, perhaps the nation’s most renowned Civil War scholar. 

Chen does not disguise her excitement over the project. “It’s a very rare opportunity to see treasures of this magnitude in one room,” she says. “I hope that visitors will experience some of the excitement I felt when I was assembling them.”

The exhibition will remain on display through Aug. 4.

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 is the author, most recently, of Princeton: America’s Campus (Penn State Press).

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1 Response to True treasures

John Cardwell, Ph.D. '68 P99 Says:

2013-03-21 09:27:11

When my 2nd great grandfather, William Holley, (born in 1826 in Chowan County, North Carolina, USA), had a baby boy (Edward Holley) in 1850, William was a 24 year old white man and Ed's mother (Nellie Backus) was a 14 year old colored girl. All of Ed's offspring would be colored and doomed to a status less than human. I was viscerally moved from simply reading about the exhibition, "A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox," in Firestone's Main Gallery and not 100% certain that I would be able to survive psychically being present in the same space with the actual documents depicted in PAW Online regarding Sally Hemings and her children, Madison and Eston, or the haunting albumen prints of Native Americans. Reality rushes through the centuries when you've actually lived and gone to school with descendants of men who enslaved your ancestors and scammed them, you, and your progeny into living lives as inferior human beings. My colleagues in psychology tell me that the rejection of colored people, today, is subconscious and not limited to white people as colored people, too, reject themselves as hopelessly subhuman. This is horrific. And I have to ask myself, "Is our display highlighting early American history still a spectacle when I understand my mother and, indeed, I and my children and their children are destined to join the public show along with George Washington's list of slaves?"
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