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Centuries-old papers returned
BY KATIE THISDELL / THE FREE LANCE–STAR
It’s a winding story with many characters who at first seem to have little to do with a pair of 18th-century documents found in “the proverbial old trunk in the attic” of a Massachusetts parsonage.
A Union soldier likely picked up the two single-page court documents during the army’s occupation of Stafford County, which were found nearly 150 years later in the North.
Census records, town clerks and historical commission members in Stafford and various spots in Massachusetts helped George Bresnick, a semi-retired ophthalmologist, chase leads.
He put the puzzle pieces together, and during a short ceremony Thursday, returned the yellowed papers to their original home.
“It all started out very innocently, and now it’s turned into an adventure,” said Bresnick, who’s not sure whether his passion for nonprofit public health work or for uncovering history will prevail in the end.
Bresnick found the papers, in his words, in the “proverbial old trunk in the attic” of a woman who lived in the parsonage across the street from his home in South Worthington, Mass., in 2009. Bresnick has since moved to Minnesota to be near his grandchildren.
After the presentation to Barbara Decatur, Stafford’s clerk of the circuit court, county officials and local history buffs examined the two small papers in the circuit court.
Local amateur historian Jane Conner questioned a drop in the corner of one paper. Someone else surmised it was from a wax seal. And one name referenced may likely be a relative of a Fredericksburg clock maker.
“We thank you so much for giving us this information and filling in the little cracks,” Conner said during the ceremony, noting that Stafford’s history is tied closely to the country’s.
Bresnick believes Pvt. John D. Smith, originally from West Chesterfield, Mass., acquired the two documents when the 37th Massachusetts Regiment Volunteers Company D camped in Stafford. At some point, Smith likely mailed the documents to his family back home.
It’s through Smith’s brother that the documents likely ended up in the trunk, waiting to be found. He became active in the South Worthington Methodist Church a few years later, and a grandson—John D. Smith’s great-nephew—later owned the parsonage and sold it to an elderly woman who left the papers in the attic.
Some 130,000 Union troops ravaged Stafford County during their winter occupation of 1862, before the Battle of Fredericksburg, leaving the land a “scene of utter ruin,” according to a New York Times article from that December.
Fifteen inches of important deeds and documents littered the courthouse steps and yard, the story claims. “It is impossible to estimate the inconvenience and losses which will be incurred by this wholesale destruction.”
Many documents were stolen as souvenirs or burned. Few survived. And even fewer ever returned to Stafford.
In December 2011, a long-lost pre-Revolutionary court ledger was returned to Stafford. A manager at a New Jersey library found the leather-bound ledger while prepping for the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. It has since been cleaned, stabilized and copied for public use.
Two years later, Decatur, who also just restored and re-bound more than a century’s worth of county land records, was especially excited to see more historical items returned, and to finally see the actual papers, rather than JPEG images or photocopies.
She planned to have the returned records restored and mounted for the public to see.
The 1753 document is a court order for Robert Ashby Jr. to appear in court, for a debt worth 3 pounds and a fine of 79 pounds of tobacco. And the 1776 note obligates Joel Reddish to pay a loan to a Scottish merchant and tobacco shipper, who also ran a shop in Aquia.
Historic commission member Barbara Kirby said these were common situations of the time, and families with those names are still around in Stafford.
The commission’s chairwoman, Anita Dodd, noted that so much information—financial, family, cultural—could be gleaned from just two papers.
Bresnick said he’s always been passionate about local history, often pondering remnants that he passed in South Worthington.
“It’s just something I have no choice about,” he said at the morning ceremony, before driving back to Washington for his flight. His goal is twofold: to connect an object with a person of the past, and then to find who is most closely connected to it today.
A brother was an antiques dealer, and Bresnick had accumulated his own stash of historic items.
“This is the most important and exciting find,” he said.
Bresnick chronicled the details of his research as a guest post on the Emerging Civil War blog.
Wednesday, Bresnick had presented the two papers to a Massachusetts congressman, Rep. Richard Neal, who symbolically handed them over to Virginia’s 1st Congressional District representative, Rob Wittman. Bresnick also toured the Wilderness Battlefield, an experience he found particularly moving. He said the soldier he believes stole the documents—Pvt. John D. Smith—later died in the Battle of the Wilderness.
For being 151 years old, the papers are in fairly good shape, with very few torn edges and creases. Paper was of a higher quality back then, made of rags rather than tree pulp.
Bresnick has researched other items he’s found over the years, but nothing had been as exciting as this pair of papers.
“I did this all on Google, with very little paper research,” said Bresnick. “I couldn’t have done this five years ago.”
ABOUT THE PAPERS
The older document is a court order informing the sheriff of Stafford County to bring Robert Ashby Jr. to the courthouse for a hearing on the second Tuesday in May, 1753. Ashby, who lived on land now part of Marine Corps Base Quantico, owed money to a mercantile firm that operated a store in the town of Aquia, where Aquia Harbour is today, according to research by Stafford’s Jerilynn Eby MacGregor. If he failed to pay up, he would then be required to pay 79 pounds of tobacco as a court fine. In the 18th century, customers kept credit accounts at shops and were expected to repay bills after the fall tobacco harvest.
The second document is dated Feb. 24, 1776—mere months before the Declaration of Independence was ratified. The promissory note obligates Joel Reddish to pay “eleven pounds four shillings six pence half-penny current money of Virginia” on a loan from the James Ritchie & Company of Glasgow, Scotland, which also ran an Aquia store. After the Revolutionary War, the British Mercantile Claims Commission tracked down those who owed pre-war debts to English and Scottish merchants. Documents like this one would have been used to prove debts due to creditors, according to MacGregor. Reddish lived at Reddish Hill, now the site of Margaret Brent Elementary and Mountain View High schools.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975