Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Dinwiddie Collection

Saving America's Treasures
During the middle nineteenth century the famous English autograph collector Henry Stevens assembled an extraordinary collection of manuscript items relating to the service of Robert Dinwiddie as lieutenant-governor of Virginia. When it was offered for sale at auction in the early 1880s, W. W. Corcoran, a prominent American banker and collector in his own right, secured the papers and donated them to the Virginia Historical Society, an organization of which he was then vice president. The Society, recognizing the collection's immense value as a historical resource, commissioned its corresponding secretary, Robert A. Brock, to produce an edited version of the documents, with copious annotations and transcriptions of some additional, related documents from other sources. That two-volume work, The Official Records of Robert Dinwiddie, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1751–1758 (1883), has provided the primary access to this collection for more than a century.

Contents of the collection
The Robert Dinwiddie papers consist of twenty-two separate items. These include four letter books, which contain contemporaneous copies of letters written by Dinwiddie as lieutenant-governor of Virginia (the absentee governor's personal appointee directly responsible to the British crown and ministry) from the date of his arrival in Virginia in 1751 through his retirement from office in 1758. These copies were made by clerks in the governor's office, but also include emendations in the hand of Dinwiddie himself. More than 900 in number, the letters provide a remarkable window on the administration of Great Britain's largest, wealthiest, and most influential North American colony. They focus squarely on the coming and early years of the war against France and its Native American allies on the colonial frontier. In addition, the collection includes seventeen letters written by George Washington, then a young militia officer, between March 1754 and April 1756, primarily to Governor Dinwiddie, as well as a contemporary record of a court martial of a Virginia militia officer in 1756 related to wartime events on Virginia's western frontier.

About Robert Dinwiddie
Robert Dinwiddie's name is little known today, but this Scottish merchant turned government official played a key role in the coming of the French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years' War in England and Europe) and in early successes in it by the British in North America. Frank Grizzard, former senior associate editor of the Papers of George Washington, in turn describes this collection of Dinwiddie’s papers as "the foundation of our understanding of the American colonial experience during the early years of the French and Indian War."

Restoration of the collection
Given the significance of this collection, its restoration has long been a goal of the VHS, one that has now also garnered the support of the Save America's Treasures program jointly administered by the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

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