Thursday, November 9, 2017

Locating the Gage Trunks

Every manuscript collection in the Clements has its own tale of survival and travels from the time of its creation until safely ensconced on the shelves of the Library. One of the most interesting is that of the papers of Thomas Gage (1719-1787), British commander-in-Chief in America from 1763 to 1775. It was on Gage’s watch that the American colonies exploded into rebellion, and his papers are critical to understanding events of the time.

William L. Clements was fortunate to purchase the papers directly from General Gage’s descendants. Not only was their provenance perfectly documented, but the papers were even shipped from England to Bay City in the same twelve military document trunks in which they had been filed during Gage’s command and then sent to England in 1775. In 1937, following the settlement of Clements’s estate, the twelve boxes full of documents arrived at the Library in Ann Arbor.


The Gage Papers were mounted and bound to make them accessible to researchers. But what of the trunks? Each is a significant artifact of the American Revolution that had spent its days in America at the epicenter of the British command. Unlike the letters and documents, however, the twelve trunks were “realia,” (three-dimensional objects). To many archivists they were of little or no use in a research library. Over the twenty years after their arrival at the Library the trunks were gradually dispersed until only one remained. Even that one had been given away but was later returned to the Clements.

This lone box appeared to be of a standard design, 32 x 21 x 12 inches high, constructed of sturdy pine planks dove-tailed at the corners with wrought iron hinges and handles and a lock. The lid is covered with a sheet of canvas painted in “Spanish brown” (a reddish brown color) to repel water. The rest of the box is painted the same color. On the lid, spelled out in upholstery tacks is the message “Secty Off / N 7 / 1770.” We have interpreted this to mean “Secretary’s Office, Number 7, 1770.” The seventh year of Gage’s actual appointment as commander was 1770, which might explain the number and date. Coincidence? Inside is a level of built-in pigeonholes with 14 slots (2 x 7). Above this is a removable tray with another 14 slots. Small paper labels once identified the contents of each box.

Several members of the Library staff have become intrigued by the mystery of the missing 11 trunks and have resolved to find out what had become of them. The long-time answer is that “they went to good homes.” In the course of talking with Library “old-timers” we collected clues that might account for as many as 7 of the 12. Then we hit the jackpot and found two of the trunks in Ann Arbor! They have since been returned to the Library. Both are of nearly identical construction to No. 7. Both lack some of their internal components, and one has lost its canvas covering and tacking on the lid. The other, however, bears the message “Sectys Off / No 8 / 1771.” A 1937 photograph of four of the trunks together includes one readable lid. It says “Sectys Off / No 3 /1766.” It appears that our hunch that each box was labelled to a specific year of Gage’s command just might be correct.


So far, three of the trunks are in the Library, and rather shaky clues suggest what might have happened to another four. We are very excited about this development and invite anyone who might have seen one of the Gage trunks or know of its whereabouts to please let us know.

Brian Leigh Dunnigan
Associate Director and Curator of Maps

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