Rare books

Gilbert Imlay

Gilbert Imlay (1754?-1828) has variously been described as soldier, surveyor, adventurer, writer, conman -- and cad.  He swindled land from Daniel Boone (among others) and is believed to be the cause of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft's (1759-1797) attempted suicide. 

Born in New Jersey, Imlay was a lieutenant in a Continental regiment and went west to make his fortune when the Revolutionary War ended.  He began as a land surveyor but by 1785 was already heading back east, in debt and wanted for unscrupulous land deals.  After losing money in yet another investment scam, Imlay disappears in 1787 and next surfaces in London as an author, and friend and lover of Mary Wollstonecraft.  After the birth of a daughter, Fanny, their liaison ends around 1796 and Imlay remains in Europe until his death in 1828 which is believed to have occurred on the Isle of Jersey. 

If Gilbert Imlay is an unfamiliar name to you, it's not so surprising.  As Wil Verhoeven puts it in his new biography, Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World, “Although by no means a major historical figure in his own right, Imlay unwittingly acted as an interface between figures of much greater historical significance.  Their diverse and often mutually exclusive ideas and ambitions, dreams and schemes he frequently borrowed and then disseminated across continents and across the Atlantic, whilst invariably serving his own, usually less than honorable interests.”

I hadn't come across Gilbert Imlay before reading Robert Morgan’s biography of Daniel Boone and became more interested when I discovered a copy of the 3rd edition of his A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America [RARE F 352 .I33 1797] in our collection.  You may remember from our previous post on Daniel Boone that not only did he cheat Boone of land, in later editions of his 1792 publication (such as ours), he included the chapter about Boone which first appeared in John Filson's The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucky without attribution (not an uncommon practice in the days before copyright).

Of the many ways Imlay reinvented himself through the years, the most improbable, it seems, is his short stint as an author. Imlay is on record as having published 2 books, the aforementioned travel guide and a novel, The Emigrants, or the History of an Expatriated Family in 1793.  Both works were published in London to generally good reviews.  His novel, published after Imlay met Mary Wollstonecraft, follows the adventures of an English family in America and espouses a progressive social agenda.  Some critics find its feminist tone more than could be reasonably expected of an 18th century man and attribute authorship to both Imlay and Wollstonecraft.  An entry in Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature wonders why, given Imlay's own colorful career, he bothered to write a work of fiction at all; a memoir "might well have been superior to his novel."

Ohio_imlayBut it is Imlay's first effort for which he is best known.  In true Imlay fashion, he describes himself as 'Captain' Imlay, the 'Commissioner for laying out Land in the back Settlements' and an 'intelligent and lively author'.  Topographical Description.... is written as 'a series of letters to a friend in England' and tied together by commentary from an English 'editor' who initially asked for 'a complete description of the western country of America'.  Though Imlay claims in the introduction 'it is certain that no work of the kind has hitherto been published in this country' most critics cite Letters from an American Farmer by Crevecoeur as something of a template -- and that both authors draw heavily from John Filson's more original work.  However, most also note that Imlay takes the genre a bit further and describes Western expansion as the obvious extension of the American Revolution.  According to Verhoeven, Imlay foresees "the wilderness frontier as the centre of a future American empire."

While Topographical Description.... includes detailed reports of roads, waterways, soil, flora and fauna and, basically, any and all information anyone thinking of settling in America would need to know, he also includes four maps.  Pictured above is 'A plan of the rapids of the Ohio'.  In 'Letter III....about Ohio", Imlay writes:  "The Rapids of the Ohio lie about seven hundred miles below Pittsburg, and about four hundred above its confluence with the Mississippi.  They are occasioned by a ledge of rocks that stretch across the bed of the river from one side to the other, in some places projecting so much, that they are visible when the water is not high...The fall is not more than between four and five feet in the distance of a mile; so that boats of any burden may pass with safety when there is a flood; but boats coming up the river must unload."

The other maps include: 'A map of the western part of the territories belonging to the United States of America drawn from the best authorities', 'A map of the Tennassee (sic) government formerly part of North Carolina taken chiefly from surveys' by Gene D. Smith and other, and 'A map of the State of Kentucky from actual survey by Elihu Barker of Philadelphia'.

There's no evidence Gilbert Imlay ever returned to America, but surely his work encouraged many to emigrate, and still others to write about it.  Irish Poet Thomas Moore, in highlighting the romantic nature of his work, proclaimed it 'would seduce us into a belief that innocence, peace, and freedom has deserted the rest of the world for...the banks of the Ohio."  Add 'marketeer' to the list of ways to describe Gilbert Imlay!

Reference sources:

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature.  New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Filson, John.  The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucky.  Wilmington, Delaware : Printed by J. Adams, 1784.  An online version available here.

Imlay, Gilbert.  A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America.  London, Debrett, 1792. 

Richards, Cynthia D "Romancing the Sublime: Why Mary Wollstonecraft fell in love with that cad, Gilbert Imlay." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 25.1 (Spring 2006)

Saint John, J. Hector, pseud. van Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur.  Letters from an American Farmer.  London : Printed for Thomas Davies, and Lockyer Davis, 1782.

Verhoeven, Wil. Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World.  London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008.

Wollstonecraft, Mary.  The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1979.

A (Vigilante) Masonic Funeral

Vig_2 Amidst the mayhem and murder recounted in Vigilante Days and Ways, Nathaniel Pitt Langford's (1832-1911) classic tale of settling the Northwest, comes a small story of Masonic grace and brotherhood.  One William H. Bell was the first citizen to die of illness in the Bannack, Montana settlement which, thanks to the discovery of gold, was quickly populated in the early 1860's.  Most deaths in the area at the time were the result of violence, as Langford's 2 volume work graphically illustrates.  But, when Bell knew he was dying, he requested a Masonic burial.  Langford, also a Mason, at first deemed the request impossible as he didn't think enough Masons could be found.  Nevertheless, Langford writes in Chapter XXIII....

A request for all the Masons in the gulch to meet on Yankee Flat at the cabin of Brother C.J. Miller, on the evening of the day of Mr. Bell's death, greatly to our surprise, was so numerously responded to, that we found it necessary to adjourn to more commodious quarters.  It was past midnight before the forms of recognition were fully administered, and preparations completed for the funeral.  So delighted were all to meet so many of the order, that before we separted it was virtually understood that early application should be made to open a lodge.  In the meantime, we agreed to hold frequent meetings.

The funeral ceremonies, the next day, were conducted by myself.  The strange peculiarities of the occasion added a mournful interest to the impressive truths of the ritual.  A large congregation had assembled,  Near by, and surrounding the grave, stood the little band of brethren, linked by an indissoluble bond to him for whom they were performing the last sad office.  With clasped hands and uncovered heads they reverently listened to the solemn language which in that far off land committed one of their number to his mother earth; while farther away, and encircling them, stood a curious multitude, whose eager gaze betrayed that they were there for the first beheld a Masonic burial ceremony.  Among this latter number might be seen many whose daily lives were filled with deeds of violence and crime...How strange it seemed to see this large assemblage, all armed with revolvers and bowie-knives, standing silently, respectfully....

The ceremonies were conducted to a peaceful conclusion, and the assembly quietly dispersed.  But from this time onward, the Masons met often for counsel.  Among them there was no lack of confidence, and very soon they began to consider measures necessary for their protection.....It is a remarkable fact that the roughs were restrained by their fear of the Masonic fraternity, from attacking its individual members.  Of the 102 persons murdered by Henry Plummer's gang, not one was a Mason.

Langford continues that he and others requested a dispensation to form a Lodge in Bannack but by theVig_4 time it arrived from Nebraska, most had moved on to Virginia City.  He was instrumental in starting the Lodge in Virginia City, Montana in 1864 and went on to be named Grand Historian in 1866 and Grand Master of Montana in 1869.  Though known for bringing the institution of Masonry to Montana, he is also known as one of the early founders of Yellowstone National Park.  He was part of the Washburn party in 1870 and later named first Superintendent of the park.

Callaway, Lew L.  Early Montana Masons.  Billings : Western Litho-Print Press, 1951.  Call no.  16.1 .C 156 1951

Langford, Nathaniel P.  Vigilante Days and Ways : the Pioneers of the Rockies ; the Makers and Making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.  Boston : J.G. Cupples, 1890.  Call no.  F 721 .L275 1890.  Online edition here.

Additional information on Langford may be found in both Montana and Minnesota archives:

Nathaniel Pitt Langford and Family Papers, 1707-1942, Minnesota Historical Society.

Nathaniel P. Langford Papers, 1862-1909, at the Montana Historical Society.


Illustrations all from Vigilante Days and Ways : the Pioneers of the Rockies ; the Makers and Making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.  Boston : J.G. Cupples, 1890. 

Boone: A Biography

Brown University historian Gordon Wood, who spoke at a Lowell Lecture on Benjamin Franklin at our Museum recently, observed he thought Carl Van Doren's classic biography on Franklin is the one that has best stood the test of time.  I wonder if the same might eventually be said about Robert Morgan's Boone: a Biography, published last year.  Morgan admits he entered an already crowded field of books about Daniel Boone when he began his first biography, and reviews many of the earlier efforts in his introduction.  Yet he maintains he was compelled to write about his boyhood hero because, through his research, he "found Boone a much more complex person than I had noticed before."

Morgan draws heavily on the Draper Manuscripts at the University of Wisconsin, a rich resource gathered by Lyman Copeland Draper (1815-1891) who's life's work was assembling information about the 18th century American frontier.  Among those Draper interviewed were Boone's son Nathan and his wife.  Though Draper planned to write biographies of Daniel Boone and other pioneers, he never actually did.  Many others have used his material, however, including, most notably, Boone biographers Ted Franklin Belue, Neal O. Hammon and Michael A. Lofaro.  One of the areas Robert Morgan ventures into that hasn't been covered before is Boone's ties to Freemasonry.  Although I thought his documentation somewhat scarce, he does provide some circumstantial evidence that Boone and other members of his family were Freemasons.

Boone Most acknowledge John Filson (ca. 1747-1788) as the person who first brought wide attention to Daniel Boone.  He published The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucky in 1784 and included a chapter "The adventures of Col. Daniel Boon" written as an autobiography.  Interestingly, Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828), who swindeled some land from Boone, also lifted the chapter and placed it in his own work: A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, (RARE  F 352 .I33 1797) -- the first page of our library's copy of the 'borrowed' chapter appears at left.  While Filson's work introduced Boone to a larger American audience at the time, Imlay, through his association with Mary Wollstonecraft, and her ties to many of England's literary figures, broadened his fame to Europe.

If your image of Daniel Boone is Fess Parker or if it in anyway includes a coonskin cap, this very readable biography will introduce a much more interesting, multi-dimensional man.  He worked closely and fairly with Native Americans, was a skilled legislator yet saw himself as a simple woodsman with deep ties to family and community.  And, as America moved west, he lived in some very interesting times.

Some of the many resources available on Daniel Boone in our collection include: 

Bakeless, John.  Master of the Wilderness: Daniel Boone.  N.Y.: Morrow, 1939.
Call number:  F 454 .B724 1939

Imlay, Gilbert.  A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America.  3rd ed.  London: Printed for J. Debrett, 1797.
Call number:  RARE  F 352 .I33 1797.

Morgan, Robert.  Boone: A Biography.  Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007.
Call number:  F 454 .B66 M67 2007

Additional resources that may be of interest:

Filson, John.  The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucky.  Wilmington, Delaware : Printed by J. Adams, 1784.  An online version available here.

The Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky provides information and resources about the history and culture of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley.

Also, The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820 at the Library of Congress contains  "15,000 pages of original historical material documenting the land, peoples, exploration, and transformation of the trans-Appalachian West from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century."

Bancroft's History of the United States

File0001In a recent article in the New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore provides some perspective on historical writing. She begins by asking "What makes a book a history?" and notes that "in the 18th-century novelists called their books 'histories'"....

In spite of some recent, notorious examples to the contrary, it seems most people today have a pretty clear idea of what constitutes a novel versus a history book.  But after reading about one of Lepore's more blatant examples of a 19th-century work reconsidered now, I went looking in the stacks for George Bancroft's History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent [RARE E 178 .B2276 1874-75].  We own several editions, but our library's copy (volume 1 spine shown at left) of the 10-volume, 12th edition is a particularly handsome set:  tan 1/2 calf, backs gilt, with red and green leather labels and marbled edges.  It's pleasure to pick up and leaf through.  The table of contents is lengthy and detailed.  The font is large and the pages uncrowded.  What could possibly have caused Charles McLean Andrews of Yale to describe Bancroft's work, a generation later, as "nothing less than a crime against historical truth"?

As Lepore documents, historians and historical writing change.  Worcester-born and Harvard educated George Bancroft  (1800-1899) is often described as an educator, historian and statesman.  Some have hailed him the 'Father of American History' yet today his classic work is largely unknown.  George Athan Billias, in a Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, (Vol. 111, Part 2, 2001) article "George Bancroft: Master Historian" discusses Bancroft's neglect but reveals not everyone shared Andrews' opinion.  "Daniel Boorstin wrote that to learn what the period 'adds up to,' one must turn to Bancroft."  And, Edmund Morgan (writing in Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789) "claimed that Bancroft knew 'the sources better than any one has since'."  Billias, a professor emeritus at Clark University, presents a balanced view of Bancroft and underscores the need for him to be judged in context.

But is there a place for Bancroft to be taught in middle, high or college history courses today?  Surely there are any number of ways for creative teachers to re-introduce the History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent to students.  Comparing the sections on Bancroft's hero George Washington, or his excrutiating detail on the start of the American Revolution to more recent publications could provide a start.  Reading Bancroft as an example of 19th century nationalism also offers lots of intriguing possibilities. Fortunately, many volumes of his History are available online so access is easy.  But if you can get hold of one of his beautifully bound earlier editions, and can provide students a chance to appreciate the workmanship of the volumes themselves, so much the better.

George Bancroft's Papers may be found at the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library.

'An Old Bible'

Oldbible_4What immediately gets your attention when opening the VGW Library & Archives copy of The Genealogies Recorded in the Sacred Scriptures According to Every Family and Tribe... by John Speed [Rare BS 569 .A4 1625], is the number of well known, early New England family names recorded on the endpapers and family information recorded within. This rare 1625 edition was donated to our library by the Wadsworth Family in 1982 but the documentation indicates connections to earlier Wadsworth, and also Glenson, Salmon, Stansill, Stoddard, Tappan, Pierce, and Cowles families. 

The earliest notes indicate John Glenson and Christopher and Thomas Wadsworth landed in Boston on September 16, 1632 on the ‘Lion’.  Wadsworth and Glenson family births are recorded for 1629 and 1633.  Thomas Stansill family birth records for 1722 and 1724 are included.  It is noted that Lewis Tappan Stoddard, born in 1807 in Northampton, MA presented the Bible to his uncle, John Pierce (1773-1849) of Brookline, MA, on April 11, 1833, and that his son, John Tappan Pierce, of Genesco, IL, sold it to S.W. Cowles in July, 1882.  An S.W. Cowles Bookplate lists his address at 891 Main St. Hartford, Conn. and handwritten are the dates 1882-1887.  It  is believed that the Bible passed again into the Wadsworth family from Cowles. An article entitled ‘An Old Bible’ which appeared in the Nov. 1, 1883 Hartford Courant, details much of the Bible’s provenance, and is affixed to the endpaper.

John_pierce_bookplateJohn Pierce’s bookplate appears as well.  Pierce was minister of the First Parish Church in Brookline, Massachusetts from 1797 to 1849 and looms large in much of Brookline’s early history.  According to the History of the Town of Brookline by John Gould Curtis, Pierce played an integral part in many of the civic and educational activities of the Town, and delivered some important speeches.  He was called upon to speak at Brookline’s memorial service for George Washington on February 22, 1800 and delivered a discourse at the 1805 Centennial for the Town.  Intensely interested in all things having to do with Brookline’s progress, it was once noted by another minister, "As I understand it, Dr. Pierce is Brookline, and Brookline is Dr. Pierce." 

Pierce married Lucy Tappan of Northampton, MA in 1802.  Her brothers, Arthur (1786-1865) and Lewis Tappan (1788-1873) were noted philanthropists and abolitionists and for a time Lewis lived in Brookline.  In fact, John Pierce officiated at the marriage of Lewis Tappan and Susan Aspinwall in the parlor of the Aspinwall home in Brookline in 1813. 

The Bible itself is of interest on several counts.  It contains engraved genealogical charts of prominent families from scripture, interesting old engravings and a map of ancient Palestine and Egypt.  According to Alister McGraph's In the Beginninng: the Story of the King James Bible and how it changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture [BS 186 .M33 2001], mapmaker and entrepreneur John Speed negotiated a special arrangement with King James I in 1610 to include these additional pages thus providing extra income for himself and the crown for each bible sold. 

Additional resources:

Dr. John Pierce's papers are held at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  See Lewis Tappan's papers at the Library of Congress; additional Tappan family material may be found at Oberlin College.  More on Lewis Tappan's anti-slavery activities may be found here and in:

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram.  Lewis Tappan and the evangelical war against slavery.  Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1969.