Tag Archives: John Greenleaf Whittier

Found in the Vault: An inscription from Henry Dearborn

Here’s a name that should be familiar to American history buffs and Michigan residents alike: Henry Dearborn, Revolutionary War Colonel, U.S. Secretary of War under Thomas Jefferson, Major General during the War of 1812, and the namesake of Dearborn, Michigan (the hometown of Henry Ford).

Title page

Title page of MSU’s copy of A Discourse, Delivered at Easton (XX AC901.H3 1779)

In  the summer of 1779, at the height of the Revolutionary War, Dearborn played a vital role in General John Sullivan’s campaign against the Iroquois Confederacy, an alliance of Native American tribes largely allied with the British army.  His journal of the so-called Sullivan Expedition is crucial for our understanding of what transpired during the campaign (credit for that PDF goes to the Lane Memorial Library of Hampton, NH).

It is appropriate, then, that Dearborn would have owned a copy of Rev. Israel Evans’ 1779 Discourse, a celebratory address delivered to Sullivan’s regiment at Easton, PA, the launching point for the campaign against the Iroquois (Full title: A Discourse, Delivered at Easton, on the 17th of October, 1779, to the Officers and Soldiers of the Western Army, After their Return from an Expedition against the Five Nations of hostile Indians).

And indeed, it is likely that Dearborn was the original owner of the copy now held by MSU Special Collections.  This fact is not given in our catalog record, but a note of unknown origin penciled on the verso of the title page seems to make the connection:


Annotation on the back of the title page.

Of course, we cannot rely on anonymous pencil notes as reliable records of provenance.  Fortunately, there are some marginal inscriptions that provide us with a primary source for this claim of ownership.

Moreover, these marginalia seem to suggest that not only did our copy of the Discourse pass through Henry Dearborn’s hands, but that Dearborn gifted the copy to a close family member.  Here is a close-up of one such inscription, at the top of the title page:


Inscription in the top margin of the title page.

The condition of the paper makes the full inscription a little difficult to read, but with close study and a few contextual clues we can make out:

Mr. Eliphalit Dearborn
                            from H. D.

And, at the top of the following page, there is another marginal note:


Inscription in the top margin, Page 1.

The two inscriptions seem to be in two different, but similar hands.  What can we say about them?  The first is clearly very old, predating most of the wear on the page, and as far as I can tell the handwriting (including the initials) is consistent with Henry Dearborn’s.

Examples of his hand can be found online, and seem to support this theory.  The formation of the in his signature, especially, is identical across all examples I have been able to find.  The D is more distinct, but not inconsistent.


Initials from our Discourse.

Example courtesy of Wikimedia


Example taken from scripophily.net

But what of this Eliphalet (Eliphalit, Eliphelet) Dearborn?  A little digging reveals that there were two members of Henry Dearborn’s somewhat-immediate family to bear that name: his older brother, who died in 1784, and his grand-nephew (his nephew’s son), who would have been 48 years old at the time of Henry’s death in 1829.  Either Eliphalet could have very well been the recipient of this book, although perhaps the elder brother is the more likely candidate.  It is likely that one of these Eliphalets was the source of this this second note, a straightforward ownership inscription (___ his book), with Henry’s name added (perhaps to document the transmission of the text from one Dearborn to another).

Are there any Henry Dearborn experts out there who can corroborate (or disprove) my analysis?  Based on what I’ve seen, I’m inclined to agree with our mysterious pencil-bearing annotator, and assign our copy of Evans’ 1779 Discourse a Dearborn provenance.

And again, the failure of our catalog to document the existence of these inscriptions demonstrates the importance of provenance research in special collections libraries like ours.


As an aside, during my genealogical research I discovered that the younger Elipahlet Dearborn, Henry’s grandnephew, married a Jemima Whittier — a third cousin, once removed of poet John Greenleaf Whittier.  Delving into historical family trees is a good way to find oneself frittering away an entire afternoon.


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Found in the Vault: A Letter from John Greenleaf Whittier

This week we’re bringing you some new content that’s unique to MSU Special Collections!  Each chapter of Found in the Vault is going to highlight some interesting examples of (potential) provenance evidence found in MSU’s rare books, uncovered during the course of this project.

For our first installment we’re looking at MSU’s first edition of Lays of my home, and other poems by 19th-century Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.  Whittier is perhaps best known today as one of the Fireside Poets, and as the namesake of the town of Whittier, California (and its eponymous liberal arts college).  Pasted inside MSU’s copy of this 1843 collection of Whittier’s works is the following note:

Note from John Greenleaf Whittier, found tipped into MSU's Lays of my home, and other poems (XX PS3259.L2)

Note from John Greenleaf Whittier, found tipped into MSU’s copy of Lays of my home, and other poems (XX PS3259.L2)

Whittier’s handwriting makes the note somewhat difficult to read, but it appears to be a letter of recommendation written for the poet’s nephew, Charles Franklin (C. F.) Whittier.  The note reveals that Charles is looking for work as a bookkeeper and clerk in New York, and praises the youth as being “Honest & capable” with three years of experience already as a clerk.  Whittier writes, “I have no doubt he would faithfully & satisfactorily discharge his duties,” and signs the letter “Your friend, John G. Whittier.”

Closeup of Whittier's signature

Closeup of Whittier’s signature

Unfortunately, someone folded the note right over the autograph, but once flattened out and pieced back together enough remains to authenticate the signature as belonging to the poet.  Underneath, a (later) note identifies Whittier as “The Quaker Poet” – lest the author be confused for another 19th-century John G. Whittier living in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

It is unclear how exactly this letter found its way into this collection of poetry.  There are no other markers of provenance in or on the book, so we have no way of knowing whether this copy may have belonged to Whittier’s nephew himself (unlikely), his potential employer, who would have presumably received the note (more likely), or some unrelated, unknown third party who decided to combine two rare items related to the poet in order to boost the book’s value (most likely).  We may never know the answer, but letters like this one will always be a fertile ground for study, as they are by their very nature unique.

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