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Letters Shed New Light on 18th-Century Expedition

rothschild letters  

Robert Rothschild, Class of 1939, far left, looks on as, from left, Tom Horrocks, Leslie Morris and William Stoneman examine several letters Rothschild presented to Houghton Library.


June 7, 2010 – A handful of letters, written by a Harvard student, and detailing a 1780 expedition  that travelled behind British Army lines to observe a total solar eclipse were recently presented to Houghton Library by Robert Rothschild, ‘39, and his wife, Margaret Touborg Rothschild '65, EdM '84.

Written by John Davis, Class of 1781, the letters detail an expedition led by then-Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy Samuel Williams, a minister, astronomer, newspaper editor, surveyor, social historian, and philosopher, to Penobscot Bay, Maine to observe the eclipse.

The letters were purchased by Rothschild at auction in late 2009, after outbidding Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library. Rothschild, the author of “Two Brides for Apollo: The Life of Samuel Williams,” intended to use the letters as the basis for a scholarly paper, but later decided they were too slight to form the foundation of an entire article.

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Given the material’s connection to Harvard, Rothschild opted to present the material – which includes five letters and a receipt for Davis’ outfitting – to Houghton, where it will complement existing collections of Samuel Williams material.

Houghton has long held a collection of Williams papers, and in 2007, the library purchased a collection of Williams family papers, Morris said. The letters given to the library by Rothschild shed new light on Williams’ astronomical studies. A 1761 graduate of Harvard College, Williams received a named professorship in 1780. In addition to his expedition to observe the solar eclipse, he participated in an expedition to observe the 1761 transit of Venus; is credited with being the first to observe “Bailey’s beads,” a phenomenon related to solar eclipses; and participated in a survey of the boundary between New York and Massachusetts. Later in life Williams moved to Vermont, where he served as editor of the Rutland Herald and Rural Magazine. He also helped establish the University of Vermont in Burlington, and in 1795 helped survey the boundary between Vermont and Canada.