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Lost Revolutionary War-Era Legislative Minutes Returned

A lost original volume of the minutes of Pennsylvania’s unicameral Revolutionary War–era General Assembly was recently returned to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for safekeeping at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, Dauphin County. The book, with entries dated from March 16 through September 27, 1779, and pages numbered 1 through 183, is the volume that immediately preceded the oldest assembly minute book held by the archives that begins on page 184, dated September 28, 1779. The returned book, with numerous notations and insertions that had been attached by glue, may have been a “rough copy” of the assembly’s minutes.

In July 2018, Monica Rumsey, a member of the board of the Belden Noble Memorial Library in Essex, New York, reached out to Jonathan Stayer, supervisor of Reference Services at the Pennsylvania State Archives, regarding a historic book that had been placed at the library with other volumes for review. Stayer determined the volume was authentic and communicated the archives’ desire to see it returned to the commonwealth. The book’s owner, Edie Morris of Mechanicville, New York, agreed to present the book to the archives. Morris descends from families long settled in the Essex area. She had inherited a family homestead nearby in which the volume was found.

Many states have strong replevin laws to protect public records from intentional or accidental removal from public custody, but Pennsylvania has no such law. “Generally, in Pennsylvania, lost or stolen government records are returned to state custody only if they are in the hands of a person like Edie Morris, who believes in doing the right thing,” said State Archivist David Carmicheal. “More often, people sell such records for personal gain and ignore the fact that this is a public record, paid for by public funds, that belongs to the people of the commonwealth. I admire Ms. Morris for returning this document to its rightful home.”

On August 3, Stayer traveled to Essex to officially accept the donation from Morris at the Belden Noble Memorial Library. The State Archives preserves the volume in its high-security vault with the other Revolutionary War–era minute books of Pennsylvania’s legislature. The public may view the book by appointment only. Contact the State Archives at 717-783-3281 at least two days in advance of an intended visit.

 

Scholars in Residence at the State Archives

In 2017 the Pennsylvania State Archives reactivated its Scholars in Residence Program, providing support for up to four weeks of full-time research and study in the manuscript and state record collections maintained by the archives. The program evaluates applications from anyone researching Pennsylvania history, including professionals, graduate students, educators, writers and filmmakers, and selects scholars for in-depth explorations of the archives’ collections that will result in resources the bureau many use to update and refine its finding aids.

“As part of the state’s official history agency, we are interested in helping scholars do the research they want to do,” said archivist Richard C. Saylor, who coordinates the program. “We are interested in building relationships with scholars, so that we may have a network of people to draw from who are knowledgeable about various parts of our collection.”

After receiving multiple applications from across the world, the archives accepted Ian Noah Gavigan and Mark L. Thompson for research in 2018. Honored and thankful for the opportunity to further their work, both scholars immediately delved deep into their research. Saylor connected the scholars with other archivists and PHMC staff who are intimately familiar with specific parts of the commonwealth’s collections. “When I’m at the State Archives, I’m reminded again and again that the most valuable resources are the people who work here and know the collections inside and out,” Thompson said.

Thompson, senior lecturer of American studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, had been working on a multiyear research project on the land surveyors who acted as mediators between settlers and governments in Colonial America in the 17th and 18th centuries. He plans to integrate the story of the land surveyors he researched at the archives into a book.

Gavigan, a doctoral student in history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, had been developing a research project that deals with socialists and the Great Depression in Reading, Berks County. Within days after arriving at the archives, he found documents on a grassroots socialist movement that stretched just beyond the limits of Reading. Soon, his research lead to holdings that detailed how people from across Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region converged on 1930s-era Reading, building political networks throughout the region. Gavigan plans to publish his research. “I like the storytelling aspects of history . . . our ability to draw connections to the past. What I learn here will be the basis for that research, so this is an invaluable opportunity to be able to spend time with these documents,” he said.

 

Sean Adkins is digital director for PHMC. Look for his updates at Pennsylvania Trails of History on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.