[COLONIAL AMERICA - MANUSCRIPT] The Present State of the British Colonies in America, also known as The Hillsborough Colonial Returns.
A circa 1773-75 manuscript of approximately 500 pp., being a fair copy in the hands of various clerks of responses to a circular letter sent by Lord Dartmouth to the governors of British colonies in America on 5 July 1773. The current manuscript contains the "returns" addressed to the "Heads of Enquiry" for twenty-two colonies in North America (Massachusetts-Bay, New Hampshire with a decorative copy of a cover letter by Governor John Wentworth, Connecticut, New York with a decorative copy of a cover letter by Governor William Tryon, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and West Florida); the Caribbean (Jamaica, Barbados, the Leeward Islands & Virgin Islands, Grenada, Curacao, Tobago, Dominica, St. Vincent, Bermuda, and Bahamas); and Canada (Nova Scotia, St. John-now Prince Edward Island). Contemporary vellum, the covers with a tooled border in gilt, the spine with gilt rules and a contemporary green morocco label reading "Present State of the British Colonies in America." 14 5/8 x 9 1/2 inches (37.5 x 24.5 cm). Many leaves watermarked, including a "Strasburg fleur-de-lis over the characters VDL," "VL" and others, these likely the Dutch firm Van der Ley. Contains several charts, several hand-ruled in red; a note in a contemporary hand on the front blank reports there were no returns from Quebec, Rhode Island, North & South Carolina, East Florida, and that of West Florida is incomplete. Most leaves with three vertical folds (once folded into quarters), some dust soiling in the Jamaica section suggesting other circulation, minor soiling and wear to the binding, internally quite clean, an extremely well preserved compilation of documents.
Provenance: Wills Hill (1718-93), the Earl of Hillsborough and 1st Marquess of Downshire, First Lord of Trade (1763-72) and Secretary of State to the Colonies (1768-72); offered as part the Trumbull Papers (Sotheby's London, 14 December 1989) and sold by private treaty; shortly thereafter acquired by the current consignor.
THERE IS LIKELY NO GREATER MANUSCRIPT IN PRIVATE OWNERSHIP PROVIDING AS DETAILED AN ACCOUNT OF THE ENGLISH COLONIAL GOVERNORS PERSPECTIVE OF THEIR COLONIES ON THE EVE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. The circular issued by Lord Dartmouth to the governors took the form of a questionnaire of about twenty inquiries pertaining to the history, geography and population of each colony with a particular focus on navigable rivers, sources of revenue, illegal trade, relations with Indians, quantities of slaves, the extent of militias, and each colonies individual form of government, charter, and constitution. The result is a highly readable (in terms of being both legibly written and entertaining) journey through the history, present state, and cultural attitudes of these colonial entities as they saw themselves around 1775. For instance, in Governor Tryon's return for New York (at nearly 50 pages) there are fine descriptions of the Hudson River, border disputes with neighboring colonies, a history of the English takeover from the Dutch, and insight to the English perspective on the rights of Indians to sell their own land: "Purchases from the Indian Natives, as of their aboriginal right, have never been held to be a legal title in this Province, the maxim obtaining here as in England that the King is the fountain of all real property, and that from this source all titles are to be derived." The New York return also contains a copy of the 1726 document Surrender by the Five Nations of their Beaver hunting Country replete with the copied marks of the representatives of the Five Nations (pictured here).
Given the presence of the English, French, Spanish, and Native Americans in America in the mid-18th century, it is no surprise that a large scale conflict had already erupted on the territorial fringes of the North American colonies, and in the Hillsborough Colonial Returns there is much contemporary account of lands gained, shifted borders, and civil issues resulting from the recently terminated French and Indian War. For instance, New Jersey Governor William Franklin (son of Benjamin), comments on this western expansion: "The inhabitants I suppose to have increased upwards of 20,000 in the last ten years, though a great number have quitted the Colony and have migrated to Virginia, North Carolina, the Ohio, Mississippi, etc. The principal reason of their increase is there being plenty of land to be had, at a moderate price, by which they can easily procure a subsistence for a family, and consequently are encouraged to marry early in life."
Also surprisingly, and soon to be to the advantage of the Americans, most colonies report the disappearance of defensive forts and standing militias, as in Pennsylvania: "Since the conclusion of the last war no forts or places of defense have been kept up within the Government, but there is at present a stone fortification in an island in the River Delaware, called Mud Island, about 10 miles below the city of Philadelphia, intended for the security & protection of the city ... But this fort is left unfinished for want of a sufficient fund." This fort became Fort Mifflin and was completed and possessed by the Americans in 1776. To Dartmouth, the American colonists likely seemed a peaceable and easily conquered people without any home-grown military strength.
LORD DARTMOUTH, PREOCCUPIED WITH EARNING POTENTIAL, POPULATION AND GEOGRAPHICAL DETAILS PAYS LITTLE ATTENTION TO THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF THE COLONISTS - A COSTLY IGNORANCE. As the manuscript returns to his circular were beginning to arrive in late 1773, Dartmouth would learn of the Boston Tea Party, a monumental event in terms of the agitation of Americans over economic issues. Dartmouth usually sought conciliatory actions with the colonies but by 1774 he endorsed the Coercive Acts to suppress the rebellion and, unable to support all-out war against the colonies, Dartmouth resigned his post by the end of 1775. Lord Hillsborough had preceded Dartmouth in his role as First Lord of Trade and remained a close advisor. Given his ties to the administration, it is likely that this copy was executed for his advice and future use, and it is conceivable that Hillsborough was considered one of the "Heads of Enquiry" to whom the returns are addressed. The manuscript was found amongst the state papers held for generations by each succeeding Marquess of Downshire at their Easthampstead estate until the papers were dispersed in 1989 in a major auction in London. Compiled and bound as such, this manuscript is surely one of very few official copies of these returns produced (we locate one other copy, that made for Henry Strachey and now in the Clements Library). A compilation of colonial manuscripts of this nature prepared for government use is rare in commerce, particularly with distinguished provenance and in such a well preserved state. Clearly worthy of institutional research, the description here barely touches the complete contents of this massive work.
Please see Doyle.com for additional images and an expanded essay on this manuscript, including its content regarding slavery and descriptions of Georgia, West Florida, and more.
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