American Revolution manuscripts found in LSU collections

A little bit of the American Revolution sits right here in Baton Rouge. Or, as it was known then, Baton Rouge, British West Florida.

Fifty-seven original letters and other documents were found in the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.

The materials include documents signed by or sent to members of the Continental Congress, politicians, diplomats, military leaders and three signers of the Declaration of Independence — Samuel Huntington, George Read and Benjamin Harrison.

Michael Taylor, assistant curator of books, found the materials in a collection of facsimile reproductions of Revolutionary War manuscripts produced by bibliographer B.F. Stevens in the 1890s.

He believes the original documents went unnoticed because they were included with the 2,107 facsimiles, which were published in 24 volumes as “B.F. Stevens’ Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773-1783.” The collection also included more than 400 engravings depicting Revolutionary events and people.

“In the 19th century, people often ‘extra-illustrated’ books by inserting prints, letters, autographs, newspaper clippings and anything else that supplemented the text,” Taylor said in a news release, adding that the materials are a good example of how people collected “relics” of the Revolution.

“Some of the letters are interesting in themselves, but I think they are more interesting as a group. How did the people who fought the Revolutionary War go from being ordinary men and women to national icons?” he added. “How did America create its own mythology? These materials can help teach students about that process.”

Taylor’s favorite document is a press copy of a passage from the news magazine the Maryland Gazette, thought to have been made for Benjamin Franklin.

“The paper is highly absorbent and as thin as tissue paper,” Taylor said. “When it was pressed against a letter that had been dampened, it soaked up some of the ink, producing an exact copy.”

James Watt, best known for his work on the steam engine, invented the process about 1780. The LSU document bears a watermark indicating the paper was made by Watt.

“This is just one example of the many exciting surprises that Special Collections staff and our visiting researchers find almost every day when working with our collections,” said Jessica Lacher-Feldman, head of LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.

The Special Collections in Hill Memorial Library is free and open to the public. Call (225) 578-6544 or email special@lsu.edu.