Behind the Scenes at the VHS

Uploaded by vahistorical on 18.05.2010

Welcome to the first in a series of video presentations on collections
behind the scenes here at the Society.
With around 8 million processed manuscripts, nearly a quarter million rare or specialized
books and journals, hundreds of paintings, thousands of three-dimensional objects,
and a host of other items in the VHS collections,
it's really hard to pick out just a few to highlight, just a few to give you a sense
of what we collect and maintain for research and display.
So we decided to focus on some representative pieces that for preservation, or security,
or other good reasons, are not generally on public display.
So today we will go behind the scenes,
and our topic is Virginia's colonial history.
We've come to the manuscripts storage area to look at one of the most important pieces
donated to the Historical Society over the past forty years.
This document is one of 12 surviving plats: land surveys,
produced by George Washington as surveyor of Culpeper County.
It's a very precise depiction of the land involved, and unusual in the
intricacy of its compass rose, and in including an elevation
of nearby Mount Poney, outside of Culpeper Courthouse.
The earliest of these dozen known surviving surveys produced in 1749,
this description of land owned by Richard Barnes
is a remarkable work to be produced by a 17 year-old and perhaps an indication of
great things to come from this young Virginian.
We're here in the Paul Mellon Rare Book Room, and what better place to discuss one of
the volumes that is most closely linked to the early history of Virginia,
to England's first permanent settlement in America, Jamestown,
and to some of the English persons' first encounters with the indigenous population.
That book is John Smith's "Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, & the Summer Isles"
published in London in 1624.
Smith's recounting of the experiences of the colonists who landed at Jamestown
in 1607 quickly became a bestseller in England.
Admittedly self-promoting, his book provides a valuable account of that
early English settlement.
Among its lavish illustrations is an image of Princess Pocahontas in English garb,
which accompanies Smith's account of his rescue by the young Indian woman.
The buttons shown on her dress may be the very ones here in our collections.
Even more importantly, the book features one of the earliest and most detailed
maps of the Chesapeake Bay region and Virginia coastline,
a work so reliable that it became the basis for numerous maps produced during
the succeeding decades, which came to be called "Smith derivatives."
Much of what we know about how people looked and lived in the eighteenth century
comes from visual, rather than written evidence, such as portraits of prominent persons.
While these paintings show how the elite looked,
we can also draw general insights from these depictions,
and learn more about styles and life in general from looking at them,
such as the case with this portrait of Robert Carter.
Called "The Councillor" to differentiate him from his famous grandfather,
Robert King Carter, one of the richest men in colonial America,
the younger man went to England in order to be educated.
There he apparently spent as much time learning the social graces as he did
Latin and Greek, as evidenced by the costume he wears in this picture.
When Carter returned from England, however, he became serious about being
a planter, managed his plantation Nomini Hall in Westmoreland County,
built up his land holdings elsewhere in Virginia,
and increased an already large slave force.
He also served on the governor's council until the beginning of the American Revolution.
After the war, he experienced a religious conversion,
left the Anglican church to become a Baptist, and eventually freed nearly 500
of his slaves, probably the largest mass emancipation in America before 1860.