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Sifting through archives, a student discovers a letter written by Thomas Jefferson

Amanda Daddona ‘09 and Matt Davis catalog archives at the University of Delaware’s Rockwood Museum.

Few historians spend hours sifting through boxes of old letters and documents because they’re seeking glory and fame. But for Amanda Daddona ‘09, a box of material from the late 17th century unexpectedly presented her with her 15 minutes.

Daddona, a graduate student at the University of Delaware, was processing the archives of the Rockwood Museum, which had been acquired by the university’s library. While sifting through thousands of documents, maps, deeds, photos, and business records, she came across a letter with a familiar signature—Thomas Jefferson.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was so stunned. I couldn’t really speak,” says Daddona, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Lehigh and is now studying early American history at Delaware. “I read it a few times and just sat with it and enjoyed the moment. I’ve always been fascinated by Jefferson, so having it be from him was especially exciting.”

The archives span the 17th century to the late 1970s and document generations of the Shipley, Bringhurst, Hargrave and Sellers families, all of whom resided in the Victorian home that now serves as the Rockwood Museum in Wilmington, Del.

Among these documents was an original letter penned by Jefferson on Feb. 24, 1808—during the time of his presidency. The letter was addressed to Dr. Joseph Bringhurst and acknowledged Jefferson’s receipt of a letter from Bringhurst informing him of the death of another prominent figure of the era, John Dickinson.

“A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us,” Jefferson wrote of Dickinson. “Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government: and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.”

History: the “great undiscovered country”

Monica Najar, associate professor of history, who served as Daddona’s adviser when she was a Lehigh undergraduate student, calls the letter “a very exciting find.

“History can seem like something that’s past, known, and complete. But the truth is that history is still the great undiscovered country,” Najar says. “There are letters, diaries and other documents waiting to be rediscovered. Of course, we don’t all find letters by Thomas Jefferson; that’s the kind of discovery historians dream of. But Amanda reminds us that there are new stories to tell in history every day.”

Daddona and fellow graduate student Matt Davis were processing and cataloging the large collection—nearly 200 boxes—so researchers can more easily access the documents. Stumbling upon an original letter from Jefferson was an unexpected treat for the young historian.

“I love interacting with primary documents and holding these things that people held, even little scraps of paper,” says Daddona. “It’s like a connection to them.”

The letter, however, was not only of interest to Daddona and her fellow historians. Her discovery captured media attention—from the Philadelphia Inquirer, to the Hartford Courant and even CNN.

“We had no idea we’d be interviewed so many times, or that we’d get so much interest in it,” Daddona says. “It just shows us how many people are interested in history. It’s been really exciting.”

The letter, which was found in a protective sleeve but likely forgotten as the archives repeatedly changed hands, is now in the university archives and accessible to researchers. Daddona says she was sad to have to place the letter back into the vault.

“We spent about 45 minutes just looking at it and talking,” Daddona says. “There is a special connection you have with people through the things that they left behind.

“You realize they had lives and they’re not just names.”

Story by Tricia Long

Posted on Tuesday, June 29, 2010

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