Spanish Letter

Opening an Old & Forgotten Spanish Letter

Associate Curator Castle McLaughlin recently uncovered an old Spanish letter that had been donated to the Peabody Museum by Alice Fletcher in 1882 as part of a group of items entitled “Yankton medicine bag and contents” (PM 82-45-10/27609–27610). The letter was written in old Spanish by Lt. Colonel Carlos Deshault De Lassus, the last Spanish governor of Upper Louisiana, as a “good conduct certificate” (parole) commending the services of an “Indian of the Sioux Nation named Sticomviankey.” De Lassus (1767–1843) was the last Spanish governor of St. Louis de Illinois (Upper Louisiana) and was responsible for transferring that territory to the Americans in 1804.

Spanish letter unopened Spanish letter after opening

The letter as it arrived in the lab.

After opening the letter.

On June 12, Castle came to the conservation lab and we opened the letter. Inside was a typed translation of the letter, the envelope torn into three pieces, and the folded letter. 

making paper by hand

The letter is hand-written in iron gall ink* on handmade laid paper. Iron gall ink typically oxidizes from black to brown over time and was commonly used for writing during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
* Ferrous sulfate and gall extracts in an aqueous solution of gum arabic.

Making paper by hand.

Although yellowed, the paper remains flexible, suggesting it was manufactured from high-quality materials, such as cotton fibers. Examination of the fibers under polarized light microscopy confirmed that it is indeed cotton.

Deciphering Watermarks

Watermark with coat of arms 7998 watermark

Watermark depicting an English coat or arms.

Watermark dated 1798.

There are two watermarks located in the center of both sides of the folded page. One watermark reads “1798” and the other is of an English coat of arms. Watermarks were made by wires which were formed into a design and then attached to the paper mold. Also visible are the chain lines from the paper mold.

The coat of arms watermark with the crown, harp, three fleur-de-lis, and lions is almost identical to another one found on a manuscript at the Winterthur Museum dating to 1789 (A Catalogue of Foreign Watermarks Found in Paper Used in America, 1700-1835/Thomas L. Gravell). The English arms watermark may have been a fairly common symbol used by paper manufacturers during this period. Paper manufacturers often used the same molds for many years without changing the watermark, so it is difficult to accurately date paper from a watermark. In this case, the letter is dated on the front to 1800, so it makes sense that the paper would have been manufactured close to the “1798” watermark date.

Treating the Cover

Treatment has begun with the cleaning of “fly specks” from the surface of the raw hide covers using a small scalpel blade.

fly specks on leather before treatment fly specks on leather after treatment

Rawhide cover before treatment.

Rawhide cover after reduction of "fly specks."

Treating the Letter

Cleaning the Spanish letter
Cleaning the letter.

The surface of the paper was cleaned with vulcanized rubber sponges and “magic rub” erasers to remove some of the soiling and loose dirt.

Paper stuck to wax seal before treatment Wax seal on Spanish letter Paper stuck to seal after treatment

Paper stuck to wax seal before treatment.

Red vermillion wax seal.

Paper stuck to wax seal after treatment.

The treatment of the letter also included removing paper stuck to red vermilion wax seal and placing it in the correct location. During this time period wax seals were usually made from bee’s or lac wax with pigments such as vermilion, red lead, vertigris and lamp black. Some paper that had become stuck to the wax seal. This was carefully removed and re-adhered to the correct location. Tears and losses throughout the letter and envelope were repaired with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

After Treatment

After treatment and rehousing in a new container

After treatment and rehousing in a new container.