How a George Washington Letter Discovery is Like the Surface of the Moon

An Original Washington Letter from 1777, Written Days After the Battle of Saratoga and Praising Heaven for the Victory, Whose Survival Was Unknown


When it comes to historical discovery, many collectors and casual historical enthusiasts imagine the scene is akin to the landscape of the globe: we know the major features of the earth, and while some of the lesser traveled surfaces might be hiding a nook here or a cranny there, Lewis and Clark have effectively marked this path. In short, there is not much of great importance left to find. What there is has been discovered by others long ago. 

The reality is that far from being a landscape of earth, ours is more like the landscape of the moon. Much we can see but much we don’t yet know. And there is a universe of things hidden on the other side that is outside our field of vision. 

Historical Discovery Begins With a Question

As so often is the case, the path of discovery begins with a call. This time from a woman, a descendant of Revolutionary War General James Potter, who had a question about a family heirloom. She had read our recent coverage in the New York Times and fortunately picked up the phone to contact us. She sent us a digital image of the letter, and our excitement at being likely the first outside the family in generations to see this was immense, a generous benefit of our chosen line of employment. 

What she had was a great letter of George Washington, one never owned by a collector, known only from a letterbook copy, the original assumed no longer with us, in which Washington praised God and heaven for the Americans’ first great victory against the British, the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga. You can read at length about that piece here, and enjoy our video:

What the descendant had proved in that phone call is the essence of our point above, and a lesson we have been fortunate to learn in the course of our work: You cannot know what you cannot see. And in this case, knowing that such an heirloom remained in the family was not a predictable piece of information. It’s not something you can seek out. It has to find you. So in a sense we have discovered the letter by diligence and work. But in another sense, it found us, a great shining beacon from a time when our country was struggling to find itself and struggling to be free.

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