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Letter written by John Hancock found in box of books
|Written by ROBIN BROWN, The News Journal of Wilmington|
|Friday, 18 January 2013 10:06|
DOVER, Del. (AP) – A paper found in a box-lot of old books sold at auction is being hailed as a unique treasure of Delaware history.
History buff and author Robert Barnes – who found the quill-scribed letter in crumbling pieces held together by adhesive tape – knew it was special when he spotted the unmistakable signature of John Hancock.
Dated Dec. 30, 1776, and written from Baltimore, the letter beseeched the Delaware General Assembly “in the most urgent manner” to send soldiers and supplies to Gen. George Washington's headquarters before what would become known as the Battle of Princeton.
Barnes, a retired Newark police officer whose own books include a history of that force, knew the signature alone could fetch a goodly sum.
For example, the Raab Collection in Ardmore, Pa., currently lists four documents with Hancock's signature for $22,000 to $75,000.
But Barnes appreciated his letter's greater value as a piece of state history.
He took it to the Delaware Public Archives in Dover and gave the letter to Public Archivist Stephen M. Marz.
In making the donation, Barnes said, “as to where the letter came from, I cannot say, but it is now where it belongs.”
Among the archives' more than 10.4 million documents, it's the only one signed by Hancock.
“We are so excited to have this,” Marz said.
“It's wonderful to have a John Hancock document that relates directly to Delaware history,” Marz said.
Along with Tom Summers, the archives' manager of outreach services, and supervisor Randy Goss, Marz on Monday donned sterile, white gloves in a climate-controlled vault for its exclusive showing for the News Journal.
Clear corner bands gently and loosely held the tan sheet of tight cursive text to a sturdy, acid-free backing, its ink faded to dull brown. Half the sheet of rag paper is blank, the letter's cover when folded, noting only who was to receive it.
At the time, Marz said, Hancock was president of the Continental Congress. Yet he closed his letter to state officials, “Your most Obedient Servant.”
Marz said the letter is in better shape than when found. “We sent it to the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia,” he said.
There, Summers said, the surface was cleaned and adhesive tape removed. Chemical baths added an alkaline preservation buffer, and tears were mended with wheat starch paste and mulberry paper, he said. The process cost $2,005.
Viewed as priceless, the actual value of the letter will remain unknown, Marz said. “We don't put a value on anything,” he said.
But adding to its value is its crucial timing in the Revolutionary War.
“It was between the Battles of Trenton and Princeton,” Summers said, so Washington had crossed the Delaware River once and was about to go again.
Americans won both battles, he said, but Delaware suffered a key loss in the one following Hancock's letter. Col. John Haslet of Milford, first commander of the famed 1st Delaware Regiment, died Jan. 3, 1777, in the Battle of Princeton.
Hancock's letter soon will be digitized and posted on the archives website, he said.
Some may need help reading its script. “To some people, it's a foreign language,” Summers said.
Visitors unable to read cursive writing and Colonial-era script can read the a posted transcript, Marz said.
Marz said he expects the letter's donation will spark interest not only in the state's Revolutionary War role, but also the possibility of other rare documents lurking in attics.
“When someone donates a document of this stature to the State of Delaware,” he said, “it sets in motion for people to see how history can be saved and how it can be preserved in perpetuity.”
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ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE
|Last Updated on Friday, 18 January 2013 10:23|