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Finding an unexpected treasure in the Archives

August 12, 2011

A safe but sometimes chilly way of recalling the past is to force open a crammed drawer. If you are searching for anything in particular you don't find it, but something falls out at the back that is often more interesting. -- J.M. Barrie, 'Dedication,' Peter Pan, 1904

 I've always liked this quotation, and my appreciation of it has only grown since I began interning at Drexel's archives. I feel that the essence of archives can be found in Barrie's words. However, it would be unfair to say that one never finds what one is looking for when digging through the contents of acid free boxes.

Frequently I am proud to relate to a researcher that her great aunt was a champion fudge maker in 1918, or that I have found proof that the Anthropologie store on Walnut St. was once a Drexel family home. However, it is often what I am not searching for that turns out to be what is most intriguing.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is the 1872 telegram I uncovered the other day while scanning documents for a researcher. Appearing in a folder containing similar yellowed and fading documents, it almost evaded my notice. However, giving it a second glance I was able to discern the addressee's name. In baroque Victorian font it read 'General G.A. Custar.' Custar? They had to have meant General George Armstrong Custer, who four years after receiving the telegram would fall at the Battle of Little Bighorn. I never knew we had a document of Custer's here at Drexel. Neither did anyone else. This may be surprising since the collection I discovered it in, the Frank Thomson papers, has been in Drexel's possession for at least a century. However, anyone familiar with archives can attest that it really isn't surprising at all. Unlike the library's books and journals, archival materials are not cataloged on an item level. In other words, each photograph or document held by the archives does not have its own record as a book would.

Although there are exceptions, this is generally the rule. However, I do not mean to suggest that archivists are lazier than their librarian colleagues. For one thing, there are often millions of documents stored at an archives, and cataloging each one separately would take decades. Furthermore, archival materials are unique and don't come with a neat little title page to guide a cataloguer. This may make searching the archives a bit more difficult, but it is also half the fun. The Frank Thomson papers is an interesting collection. Thomson (1841-1899) was a senior administrator of the Pennsylvania Railroad and served as its president from 1897-1899. A large portion of the papers documents Thomson's role as manager of transportation overseeing the Russian Grand Duke Alexis's official visit to America from 1871 to 1872. This visit was one of the biggest news stories of the day, as it heralded the first time a member of Russian royalty visited the United States. Included in Frank Thomson's papers are invitations to events held in the duke's honor and gilt-edged railroad timetables illustrating his journey across the country. There is also evidence of the great preparations involved in the visit, in particular the correspondence between Thomson and various railroad and hotel officials. It was among these letters and telegrams that I discovered the telegram addressed to General Custer. Its appearance among these documents is not entirely mysterious. After touring America's cities and dining with the American elite, the Grand Duke Alexis traveled to Nebraska in order to hunt buffalo with William Frederick 'Buffalo Bill' Cody and the ill-fated General George Armstrong Custer. The hunt was a success, and for each buffalo felled, another bottle of costly champagne was opened in celebration. Furthermore, the bonds formed during this expedition would result in a friendship between the Grand Duke and Custer that would last until the latter's death in 1876. The telegram only gives us the slightest glimpse of a moment of history, one that tantalizingly combines the rugged adventure of the Wild West with the wealth and splendor of 19th century Russian royalty. Nevertheless there is something exciting in this small and increasingly brittle slip of paper, perhaps more so than the impersonal black and white text of a history book. Quite simply it is the fact that a piece of past can be held in one's hand. For me this is what archives is all about. It contains a past that has fallen out from the back of a desk drawer, waiting to be discovered.  

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