Friday, January 21, 2011

Wheeling And Dealing In 1785

In the age of email what's so special about a meatspace letter, words scratched in ink on paper? That depends upon the letter.

"We have accounts that the Spaniards and the Americans have had two or three skirmishes on the Mississippi & that they were assembling on both sides in force ___ But what occasioned the rupture in not known here..."

That statement is from a letter written by Melancton Smith on June 6th 1785. Librarian Kelly Julian Sexton discovered it in the Plattsburgh Public Library Historical Archives while inventorying the collection.

PPL's historical collection started accumulating back in 1890. For decades all sorts of stuff was gathered, books were shelved but manuscripts were just placed in a pile on the floor. Like stuff that collects in your home, if you pile and don't file, you end up with a semi-organized mess.

In the 1980s G. Glyndon Cole, a former librarian at SUNY-Plattsburgh, worked as a volunteer on the collection, putting the items in acid-free boxes. Acidic products like untreated cardboard leach damaging chemicals into historical paper items, ergo, brittle deterioration. He also started sorting out the collection, a considerable task since very little had been done for 90 years. The PPL archives are housed in the Cole Local History Room, so named to acknowledge his efforts. After Mr. Cole died, some work was done but the collection needed much more attention and focus. It wasn't until last year that the library hired a full time archivist.

Enter Kelly Julian Sexton, a former library clerk who finished her Master's Degree in Library Science and was promoted to the position of Reference/Local History Librarian. Now the task of making order of semi-disorder is hers, a mountain of work. Kelly says that no one knows the full extent of what has been donated to the library. She is in the process of accessioning (not to be confused with accessorizing). On occasion she will open up a box and be surprised by a document like the Melancton Smith letter.

Melancton is a notable historical figure. A New York State delegate to the Continental Congress, he was a leading anti-federalist, i.e., he opposed ratifying the Constitution because it gave the national government too much power over the states. In modern vernacular he was a states' rights dude. (Hey, who says history has to be dry and boring?)

Mel's letter, addressed to “The Honourable Zephaniah Platt, Esq.,” mentions "Land" deals in the areas of Plattsburgh and "Mohawk Country." (That's Platt as in Plattsburgh.) Apparently Zeph was interested in buying land or making money through property deals (Note: Mel liked punctuating with dashes between sentences):

"I received a Letter from Mr. Hugh White, this day, a copy of which I inclose __ I have wrote him an answer, of which you have herein also a Copy ___ My answer is sent by Col. Floyd to whom you see I refer him __ Col. Floyd accompanies the Governor to Fort Schuyler, where a Treaty is to be held with the Indians to purchase Lands __ I believe an opportunity will offer for some handsome speculations to the westward, as the Governor has intimated to me that it is probable a number of claims put in for the Lands, will be adjusted invalid __ "

In his letter he adds:

"I thought it proper to suggest this matter, that you may turn your attention to the object in time __ In any speculations you may make, either that way or on the Lake, I wish to be interested as far as you can take me in."

Reading through the letter one learns that Melancton was trying to arrange business deals. Networking ain't new.

In confiding to the addressee, Melancton mentions that he visited the Governor to talk business but the Guv had "Company" on those occasions. I suspect the Company was probably other wheeler-dealers. Lobbying ain't new.

Kelly points out that there was more involved in these matters than just business. New York State was still generally unsettled in those days and the Constitution wouldn't be ratified for another four years. Some people were trying to win positions in the new government. The push was on to secure land by making treaties with Native Americans and getting people to live on the acquired lands.

Power playing ain't new.

Mel's manuscript gives an intriguing glimpse into the past that in some ways mirrors the present. Like I say, those who aren't entertained by history are doomed to boredom.

The PPL Historical Archives are open to the public but with the understanding that the collection is still a work in progress. Kelly has started to wrestle the mountain and I don't know if she can see the peak. (And please don't bug her about when the archives will be digitized. First things first: a complete inventory -- oops, I mean accessioning.)

For information about the Cole Collection, contact Kelly at 518-563-0921 or email her at . If you prefer the old-fashioned ink-on-paper, grab a quill pen and snail mail her at Plattsburgh Public Library, 19 Oak St., Plattsburgh, NY 12901-2810.

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