The serendipitous “rediscovery” in the Princeton University Library of a wanted poster offering a $100,000 reward for Lincoln’s murderer “couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time,” says Curator of Manuscripts Don Skemer. The poster was found as Mr. Skemer and his team were completing descriptive labels for a new exhibition, “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox,” opening this Friday, February 22 in the main gallery of the University’s Firestone Library.
The important historical artifact will be among almost 100 items on view. “It’s a wonderful item that came to us with the Livingston and Delafield Family Papers in the mid-1980s,” says Mr. Skemer: “Because of its size, it was housed in a flat file, separate from the rest of the papers when they were being arranged and described; we rediscovered it in December when rehousing collections as part of the ongoing renovation of Firestone Library.”
According to Mr. Skemer such “discoveries” are by no means unusual. “The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has very rich and extensive collections, so we regularly discover or rediscover important items, especially in large collections that can contain hundreds of document boxes, cartons, and other containers,” he says.
Debuting on George Washington’s birthday, the free exhibition, which traces the American experience from 1607 to 1865, is open to the public through August with special events planned for Tuesday, March 5, in commemoration of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary.
Items on display, several for the first time, are drawn from the library’s holdings of American historical manuscripts and include: autograph letters, rare books, maps, photographs, and other materials from the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) and the Scheide Library. Besides the wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, there is a first-hand account of Colonial life in Jamestown.
Also on display will be such notable items as English writer William Strachey’s 1612 account of the early American settlement in Jamestown, Virginia; George Washington’s land surveys; John Trumbull’s final sketch for his painting of the Battle of Princeton; pages from Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book; a letter on slavery by abolitionist movement leader Frederick Douglass; Abraham Lincoln’s manuscript draft of a speech on sectionalism; and General George McClellan’s collection of Civil War photographs.
“The exhibition represents the growth of the American nation, from European colonization to the American Revolution, and from westward expansion to the end of the Civil War, against the background of an evolving natural and man-made environment,” says Mr. Skemer. “It bears witness to the diverse peoples and defining events that helped shape America and created an enduring political union.”
According to Anna Chen, assistant curator of manuscripts, it took more than a year to select items from the thousands in the RBSC and Scheide Library holdings. “We have a wonderful and deep American historical collection, but it’s rarely exhibited because there is just so much from which to choose,” says Mr. Skemer.
The exhibition title, “A Republic in the Wilderness,” was inspired by the 1866 writings of American historian George Bancroft, who summarized the nation’s previous 250 years thus: “In the fullness of time a republic rose up in the wilderness of America.”
“One of the themes that connects the pieces in the show is the importance of the land and the environment to America’s understanding of itself and the many cultures it comprises,” says Ms. Chen, citing examples such as a 17th century land deed of New Jersey signed by English settlers and Lenape Indians, and views of landscapes and wildlife by artists George Catlin and John James Audubon.
The exhibition also tells the stories of African Americans brought here as slaves, including a broadside diagram of a slave ship. Encounters between Native Americans and European settlers are also included. “The exhibition recognizes what happened to the indigenous people in America, as well as the history of slavery in this country,” says Mr. Skemer.
On March 5, there will be a one-day display of rare items from the Civil War, such as souvenir copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, both signed by Lincoln. Civil War expert James McPherson will give a public talk, “The Civil War and the Transformation of America,” at 5 p.m. in McCormick Hall, Room 101. On May 5, Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, will give a special exhibition lecture in McCormick Hall, Room 101. Both events are co-sponsored by The Friends of the Princeton University Library.
For more information on Firestone Library gallery hours, visit: www.princeton.edu/~rbsc/exhibitions/main.html.