The first letter from Maryland History: Maryland Historical Society acquires a 1634 account of the Ark's voyage to the beautiful Potomac River and the very tall and well-proportioned Yaocomico people.

June 16, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A yellowed letter, believed to be the first account of Maryland's founding in 1634, has been acquired by the Maryland Historical Society.

Although unsigned and undated, the 12-page letter, handwritten in Latin, is believed to be the work of a Jesuit priest, Father Andrew White, who sailed aboard the Ark in 1633 with Maryland's first settlers and founded Catholicism in English America.

Titled "Relatio itineris in Marilandiam" (A brief relation of the voyage unto Maryland), it describes the settlers' stormy voyage to the Potomac River and their first encounters with the Yaocomico Indians.

The letter was spotted deep in the catalog of a June 4 auction of antique maps and atlases at Sotheby's in London. "This is a document of statewide interest and importance," said David deLorenzo, deputy director of the society's library.

Henry Miller, chief archaeologist at Historic St. Mary's City, where the settlers built their first permanent town, called White's report "the cornerstone of Maryland history."

White's original Latin version was written late in April 1634 -- a month after landing at St. Clement's Island in the Potomac. It was drafted as a report to the Rev. Father Mutius Vitellesetis, general of the Society of Jesus, in Rome.

Sent to London, it was copied, and the copy was sent on to Rome. White's Latin original had been missing until now. It still has not been translated directly into English. But English translations and abridgments of the copies have been published since the 18th century.

In one 1874 translation, White describes the "Potomeack" River with wonder: "Never have I beheld a larger or more beautiful river. The Thames seems a mere rivulet in comparison with it."

When the Ark reached the Potomac, he wrote, "we observed the natives in arms. That night, fires blazed throughout the whole country, and since they had never seen such a large ship, messengers were sent in all directions, who reported that a Canoe, like an island had come with as many men as there were trees in the woods."

The Historical Society already owns an English version believed to have been penned by Father White soon after he wrote the Latin one. The society believes this is the first time the two versions have been together since they were written in 1634.

The English version, however, was an effort to persuade businessmen and others to invest and settle in Maryland, and is quite different from the Latin.

Historians suspect that the copies and translations contain additions, deletions from White's Latin original, and that the rediscovery and translation of the original will soon shed new light on Maryland's earliest history.

Sotheby's did not identify the seller, but deLorenzo suspects the letter came from a private English collection. He hopes to work with the auction house to learn more about the manuscript's whereabouts since White sent it to London in 1634.

The report is written in reddish ink on six sheets of cream-colored paper, about 8-by-11-inches. The paper, handwriting and a water mark are said to be consistent with the time, and with other documents linked to White.

The letter was purchased June 4 at Sotheby's by the Historical Society's curator of manuscripts and archives, Jennifer Bryan. The society declined to disclose the final bid price, citing security concerns.

Bryan said the bidding took only a few minutes, with just one increase on her opening offer.

"If it had been an auction of just manuscripts, we would not have had the success we had," she said. Instead, the auction was dominated by excited bidding on 19th century photographs of the Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina. By the time the rare Maryland document came up for bid, many bidders had left the room.

"We got very, very lucky on this," said Dennis Fiori, director of the Maryland Historical Society. "The fear was it would go for at least twice what we ended up paying for it."

The Historical Society plans to exhibit the manuscript for several weeks among other recent acquisitions on the first floor of its headquarters and museum at 201 W. Monument St. It will then be removed for conservation work, and translation from the Latin.

Bryan said the reddish, iron-based ink has been slowly eating away at the paper, creating small holes that look like burns. "It needs to be stabilized," she said.

Miller said he learned of the document from Tom Davidson, an administrator at the historic 1609 Jamestown Settlement in Virginia. He had spotted it in a Sotheby's catalog.

"I knew this was something we should have," Miller said. He contacted state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse and the Maryland Historical Society. "They were very receptive and moved on it with great speed."

Money for the acquisition was available in the society's Judge Robert Stanton Fund, an endowment for new acquisitions. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein also agreed to provide some state funding if "backup" money had been needed during the bidding. It was not.

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