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Historic Letter Collection

Scope and Content:

The Historic Letters file consists of correspondence, in folders arranged alphabetically by sender. They are primarily letters to Asa Gray, dating from the 1830's (before Gray's appointment at Harvard) up to 1888 (the year of his death). The two largest sets of correspondence are from George Engelmann (over 500 letters) and John Torrey (over 300 letters). Other large sets of correspondence (100 or more letters) include letters from George Bentham, William Darlington, Charles Darwin, Joseph Henry, Joseph Dalton Hooker, William Jackson Hooker, Charles Christopher Parry, Charles Wilkins Short, William S. Sullivant, Edward Tuckerman and Charles Wright. In the case of the Wright letters, the Gray Herbarium owns a companion set of letters from Gray to Wright. The collection of letters from Darwin to Gray is probably the most well known, as it includes a letter which was offered as proof of Darwin's precedence in developing a theory of natural selection.

A smaller section contains random letters of historic interest. These include letters to Mrs. Gray after Asa Gray's death, such as a letter from Susan M. Hallowell dated Oct. 28, 1890. In some cases, more recent gifts of correspondence have been interfiled with the Historic Letters or called part of the Historic Letters. For example, a portion of the George Davenport letters given by his daughter in 1924 was interfiled with the Historic Letters by C.A. Weatherby in 1925. Similarly, a group of letters from Henry Muhlenberg to Stephen Elliott, originally part of a set of papers of Stephen Elliott given to Charles Sprague Sargent by Mrs. J.A. Huger in 1894 and then lost from view until 1933, came to be stored with the Historic Letters.


The process by which the Historic Letters file was built up is somewhat unclear.

Asa Gray's personal correspondence files probably developed into the correspondence files of the Gray Herbarium in much the same way that his personal herbarium became the Gray Herbarium, but it is also possible that some or all of this correspondence was presented as a gift by Jane Gray.

Mary Day took charge of a file of historic letters during her tenure as librarian of the Gray Herbarium, 1893-1923 (B.L. Robinson, "Mary Day," Rhodora 26: 41-47). Since the Historic Letters file contains letters dating up to around 1906, additions were probably made by Miss Day; unfortunately, we have no information about any guidelines she may have established for the file. We know even less about the roles of succeeding librarians or other staff in relation to the Historic Letters. There seems to have been a general sense that whatever was most valuable historically would end up in the Historic File, either culled from the Semi-historical Letters or otherwise acquired. Thus, letters of a significant person that were given to the Gray Herbarium had a good chance of being interfiled in the Historic File with no systematic record kept of the provenance or scope of the gift.

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