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September 8, 2014

Recommendations Required

Filed under: What's New — Lori Williamson @ 9:00 am

October 4, 1848, then President of the American Fur Company Ramsay Crooks writes from La Pointe Lake Superior:

Na-gwon-ay-bie, Chief of the Mille Lac [sic] Band of Chippewas has uniformly conducted himself with uncommon propriety for an Indian.

With his traders he has proven himself an honest, trustworthy man, while with the agents of the United States he enjoys the reputation of a prudent, sensible, well-disposed Chief, whose good example and discreet counsel have had a salutary effect on the characters of his people—I therefore recommend Na-gwon-a-bie [sic] to the kind consideration of all who esteem public and private worth as a person fully entitled to their confidence and good offices.

The preceding transcription is from a document in a newly acquisitioned collection that gives a glimpse into the complex relationships between Native American and European fur traders in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Crooks letter of recommendation for Chief Negwanebi.

Negwanebi was First Chief of (what was then known as) the Mille Lacs Indians. He served as a tribal representative for the 1825 Treaty of Prairie du Chien Council and was also a signatory on the 1826 Treaty of Fond du Lac and the 1837 Treaty of St. Peters.

Ramsay Crooks (1787-1859) was an early Scottish-Canadian fur trader, who served as General Manager (1817-1834), then President of the American Fur Company (1834-1859). Early 20th century historians describe Crooks as exceptionally gifted in creating positive diplomatic relationships with Native fur traders. {1}

This new acquisition is a signed and sealed letter of recommendation written by Ramsay Crooks for “Na-gwon-ay-bie, Chief of the Mille Lac [sic] Band of Chippewas” (also known as Nayquonabe/Negwanebi or Tallest [Quill] feather). The letter’s value goes beyond its connection to one of the Great Lakes area’s most notable industries. The existence of such a letter begs for deeper consideration of the sort of environment where such a recommendation was necessary. So pervasive were the stereotypes of native peoples in the European ethos that a signed and sealed certificate by a well-respected white trader was considered a valid method of proving trustworthiness.

Before these important pieces of our past could be made available to our researchers, we had to address the 168 years of damage and deterioration that our staff members could repair.

Images of the letter pre-conservation work. Image courtesy of the MNHS Book and Paper Lab.

Extensive conservation work was performed on the Ramsay Crooks letter of recommendation for Chief Na-gwon-ay-bie and related papers. The letter was the oldest document in this collection and was most in need of care. It appears that as the letter deteriorated from age and use, layers of paper and cloth were adhered for support, with further damage caused by the addition of two now rusting metal fasteners.

The cloth backing of the letter shows damage left by a rusted paperclip and a yet to be removed metal fastener in the upper right hand corner. Image courtesy of the MNHS Book and Paper Lab.

Tears were apparent along the folds of the document and the ribbon and seal were frayed and cracked respectively.

Close up showing tears and cracked wax pre-conservation treatment. Image courtesy of the MNHS Book and Paper Lab.

Conservation staff cleaned and removed adhesive and metal fasteners from the document. Creases were removed by relaxing the paper with a moist swab and applying light pressure. Treatments disclosed a previously unseen line of text on the lowest crease of the letter. Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste were used to mend the tears along the edges of the document and the folds. A custom sink mat with cover was made to protect the document’s raised ribbon and wax seal.

Letter of recommendation following conservation treatment. Note the entire line of text uncovered during treatment! Image courtesy of the MNHS Book and Paper Lab.

A more detailed description of the conservation work done for these materials is included in the papers.

Special thanks to Society conservationists Sherelyn Ogden and Jenna Bluhm. The Conservation web page available on the MNHS’s website is a great resource for those interested in learning more about the Society’s conservation practices and how everyone can better preserve and protect their own documents and items. Access to this collection requires the permission of the curator.

Shelby Edwards, Assistant Curator of Manuscripts

{1} J. Ward Ruckman. “Ramsay Crooks and the fur trade of the Northwest.” Minnesota History Vol. 7, no. 1 (Mar. 1926).

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