Historian Gregory Schaaf Strikes a Mother Lode of History Among a Neighbor's Keepsakes
If there is such a thing as a hot young historian, Gregory Schaaf is it. Mail pours into his Santa Barbara, Calif. condominium from great libraries, museums and universities. The phone seldom stops ringing. Schaaf is besieged with requests to lecture. All the excitement is over a treasury of history-making documents unearthed last year by the 23-year-old scholar.
They are papers written by such Revolutionary figures as Washington, Jefferson, John Hancock and Benedict Arnold. Some of the documents provide new, detailed insights into the first American moves toward independence in 1776 and add considerable luster to the reputation of a little-known hero of the Revolution: Col. George Morgan, a daring Indian agent. “There is no question,” says Christian Brun of the library of the University of California at Santa Barbara. “These are documents of major significance.”
They were discovered in a breathtakingly casual way. Schaaf—the bachelor son of a cabinetmaker—specialized in art history at the U of C-Santa Barbara. After graduation he opened a gallery in town and continued to live with his parents and sister Kimberly, 19, in an apartment decorated with original etchings by Rembrandt, Chagall and Renoir. Schaaf stumbled on the cache about a year ago. “Someone mentioned to me that an old friend had some letters thought to be signed by Washington and Jefferson,” says Schaaf. “It sounded much too good to be true.”
The documents belonged to Mrs. Susannah Morgan, an 84-year-old resident of Santa Barbara whose late husband, William, was the great-great-grandson of Colonel Morgan. “It’s time to send the documents to a good home,” Mrs. Morgan told Schaaf when he approached her. She took him to the bank vault where they were stored.
Schaaf’s German grandfather, an amateur archeologist interested in Indian relics, had drilled into him the need to authenticate papers and artifacts. (“Every little bit of information,” the grandfather warned, “must be questioned, no matter how obvious it seems.”) Schaaf was careful to bring the tools of his trade to the vault. They included a magnifying glass, a high-intensity lamp and sheets of linen rag-base paper, neutral in acidity, to protect the documents’ surfaces from his fingers.
From a safe-deposit box Mrs. Morgan produced a cloth-wrapped cylinder tied with ribbons. In it were letters with familiar signatures: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the bold, unmistakable script of John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. The Hancock letter was dated April 19, 1776, only a few months before he was to affix the same signature to the Declaration of Independence. Schaaf found ancient watermarks, counted the faint lines left by the wire screens of an old papermaking process, compared the handwriting with specimens he had studied. All passed his first test of authenticity. But it was eight more months before he was certain of their significance.
Most of the letters, including those of Washington, Jefferson and Arnold, fitted neatly into history. Hancock’s, though, was a mystery. It directed Colonel Morgan to take a “Great Peace Belt with 13 diamonds and 2,500 Wampum beads” to the warriors of the Western Indian Nation to “Convince them of the good intensions [sic] of the [Continental] Congress.” Why? Schaaf could find no clue in the 350 pages of Colonel Morgan’s journal that have reposed in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library for about half a century (and which Schaaf had copied from microfilm). But in those pages a significant gap exists: there are no entries from April to November 1776. Reporting each week to Mrs. Morgan, Schaaf worked fruitlessly through four months of the Bicentennial year trying to fit the letter and the journal together. Many of those days were spent in solitude on the beach at Santa Barbara, where Schaaf, a sometime backpacker and swimmer, goes when he wants to think undisturbed.
“Then one day, out of the blue,” Schaaf recalls, “Mrs. Morgan said nonchalantly, ‘Oh, by the way, Gregory, here’s a packet of letters and documents I came across in an old chest. Maybe there’ll be something here.’ ” There was indeed: among other discoveries, the missing 73 pages of Colonel Morgan’s 200-year-old journal. “You could see,” says Schaaf, “where the pages had been removed from the journal.” Schaaf has no idea why it was done.
The newly found journal points up the significance of the Hancock letter, which clearly signaled the inevitable break with England. Before the Americans could declare their freedom, they wanted a treaty with the Iroquois, Delaware, Shawnee and other tribes guaranteeing the Indians’ neutrality in the Revolutionary War. The 73 pages contain a vivid account of Morgan’s prodigious efforts to carry out this policy. “Twice the British met with tribes to recruit the Indians for a mass attack that would have doomed the colonies,” says Schaaf. “Morgan had spies at both meetings—and at one his agent was the translator.” Morgan succeeded among the Indians because of his enormous personal prestige and their fear for the safety of their women and children.
In his journal Morgan also included eloquent pleas from the Indians to safeguard their tribal lands. Subsequently he supported the idea, considered by George Washington, that a 14th state be set up for them. But a Colonel Butler of the British army is quoted in the journal as warning the Indians: “They [the Americans] mean to cheat you and should you be so silly as to take their advice and they should conquer the king’s army, their intention is to take all your lands from you and destroy your people…”
“That,” says Gregory Schaaf sadly, “is exactly what we did.”