Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jefferson & the Gloucester Hickory

Ah, the treasures hidden right beneath our noses! It was announced on President's Day that 74 books once belonging to our third President, Thomas Jefferson, were discovered in the rare books collection at Washington University Library in St. Louis, MO. These books have been held by the library for over 130 years and were originally donated by Jefferson's granddaughter, Ellen Coolidge, who actually bought them at auction. Jefferson apparently marked his books in a unique way, and the provenance from his estate to Ms. Coolidge, then eventually to the library, is quite clear. The library merely searched the pages of the books from the Coolidge donation and found that 74 of them had Jefferson's mark. Some of the books even had his handwritten notes in the margins!

Not planning a trip to Missouri any time soon? Might you nevertheless wish to see Thomas Jefferson's handwriting in person? Well it just so happens that right under your noses, here at The Alice T. Miner Museum, are housed a few letters written by Jefferson that are possible for you to read!

I'll be happy to tell you about two of the letters, one written by Jefferson, and the other the reply from a Mr. Philip Tabb, Esq. The Alice holds two other letters written by Mr. Jefferson, one of which was penned in 1816, and the other in November 1801 while serving in his first year as President. The latter I have previously written about in the blog, and you can read it here,

The Jefferson letter is dated January 8, 1809, from Washington,


Being desirous of planting some of the famous large Gloucester hiccory nut, now I believe nearly extinct, I take the liberty of solliciting your friendly aid in procuring them. a dozen or two, or even a smaller number, if quilted in a wrapper of linen, or covered between two bits of paste board, will come handily in the mail, and in time to be planted this season. retiring shortly to these occupations, you may judge of my enthusiasm in them, when at the age of 65 I am proposing to plant hiccory nuts. I pray you excuse the trouble I propose to you, and to accept my salutations & assurances of esteem & respect.

Thomas Jefferson"

The reply from Philip Tabb was written January 21 from Toddsbury, his family estate. Here is an excerpt,

"I am sorry it is not in my power to send you as many of the large hickory nuts of this country as you wished to plant ~ a few trees of the best kind are now left, the small quantity obtained from those were soon consumed in the family, four only were left by accident which I now forward by post...

I beg you Sir to accept my best wishes for your health & happiness & believe me to be respectfully yours

Philip Tabb"

It appears from my research that Philip Tabb suspected his letter, as well as the hickory nuts, had been stolen while en route to Jefferson. He writes another letter to the President qouting his previous note. This letter has been digitally archived by The Papers of Thomas Jefferson - Digital Edition, The University of Virginia Press. They have the reply from Jefferson to the Tabb letter and both can be read at the bottom of this blog posting.

To read more about Philip Tabb and the Gloucester Hickory trees Thomas Jefferson coveted, check out this article, Scroll down to page 12 for the article "The Elusive and Enigmatic Gloucester Hickory" written by Wesley Greene, Garden Historian, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Our Tabb letter to Jefferson is qouted in that article. Apparently the nuts Tabb sent to Jefferson were then forwarded on to Philadelphia, and just a few years later Thomas Jefferson planted a few more Shellbark Hickory (also commonly referred to as Gloucester Hickory) trees at Monticello.

If you would like to see the Jefferson and Tabb letters in person, come visit The Alice starting in May!

Below are the texts of two related letters found on The Papers of Thomas Jefferson - Digital Edition, The University of Virginia Press:

"Sir Toddsbury 7th April 1809
Having just learnt from Captn Decatur who delivered a moleboard I did myself the pleasure to send you at Washington, that you had not received my letter post which left Gloster Ct House about the 2oth of Jany last - & which I expect was destroyed by a villainous rider who we now know was in the habit of robing the mail about that time, I trouble you with the copy, not willing that the appearance of neglect sould pertain to one who will always feel himself honored by an oppy (opportunity) of rendering you any services in his power -
I am Sir mo. Respecfy Yours
Philip Tabb"

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson - Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. Original source: Retirement Series, Volume 1 (4 March 1809 to 15 November 1809)

Dear Sir Monticello June 1. 09

Your favor of Apr. 7. has been duly recieved, with the copy of that of January. on reading the first paragraph of it respecting the nuts, I was confident I had recieved it, as I had forwarded the nuts on to a friend in Philadelphia. on searching my letter bundles, I accordingly found that of January recieved on the 27th of that month. yet when Capt Decatur sent me the Mould board, the part of your letter respecting that had as entirely escaped me as if I had never seen it. indeed I had found on other occasions that for1 the immense mass of matter which I was in the way of recieving, the memory was quite an insufficient storehouse. I thank you for the mould board. it’s form promises well, & I have no doubt of it’s good performance. it resembles extremely one which I made about 20. years ago, which has been much approved by the agricultural societies of England and France, the latter of which sent me a gold medal as a premium. the form as I observed is very much that of yours, with the advantage of being made by so easy a rule, that the coarsest negro workman can do it, & cannot possibly make it a hair’s breadth different from the true form. if I can find a conveyance, I will send you a small model, with it’s block which will shew you at once how to make it. a description of it may be found in Mease’s2 edition of Reese’s domestic encyclopedia. in agriculture I am only an amateur, having only that knolege which may be got from books. in the field I am entirely ignorant, & am now too old to learn. still it amuses my hours of exercise, & tempts to the taking due exercise. I salute you with great esteem & respect.

Th: Jefferson

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson - Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. Original source: Retirement Series, Volume 1 (4 March 1809 to 15 November 1809)

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