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December 19, 2013

Papers Stolen During Civil War Going Home To Virginia


The Berkshire Eagle

Worthington, MA (AP) The court document ordered tobacco farmer Robert Ashby Jr. to pay the local mercantile 3 pounds he owed, plus a fine of 79 pounds of tobacco.

It was dated 1753. And it was issued in Stafford, Virginia.

So how that document and another one dated some 20 years later ended up in an attic in South Worthington in 2005 was puzzling.

Dr. George Bresnick was digging through ``the proverbial old trunk in the attic’’ at a neighbor’s South Worthington home when he stumbled across the documents.

Dr. Bresnick (Courtesy photo)

``They had absolutely nothing to do with the other papers,’’ said Bresnick, an ophthalmologist who now resides in St. Paul, Minn. ``I was confused for a while.’’

After some research, Bresnick came up with the only reasonable explanation: They were stolen by Union forces from Western Massachusetts during the Civil War.

And now he plans to return them to where they belong.

It was November 1862 and Union forces, including the 37th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which had been mustered in Pittsfield earlier that year, were occupying the town of Stafford, Va., as part of the Fredericksburg campaign.

The area around Stafford was overrun by 130,000 Union troops and the once pristine woods were decimated by the force for housing, defensive fortifications and heating. Farmland was torn up, homes were looted, and fences ripped out.

The county courthouse in Stafford received similar maltreatment as the locals’ homes, two thirds of the county’s records, which likely dated back to the 1660s, were ``burned, stolen or scattered,’’ Bresnick said.

He believes the documents were taken as souvenirs by Pvt. John D. Smith, a West Chesterfield resident who had enlisted with the 37th and would later be killed during the Battle of The Wilderness in 1864. Bresnick surmises that Smith sent the papers home and they ended up in the trunk in the attic of an old Methodist Episcopal parsonage that had once belonged to a Smith descendent.

Back in 2005, Bresnick and his wife were living in the village of South Worthington, across the road from the old parsonage where an elderly woman resided. He helped go through the neighbor’s home after her death and that’s when he discovered the legal documents. They, along with everything else in the house, ended up with an antiques dealer. Bresnick later bought the documents, along with many others related to Chesterfield and Worthington, for $100.

One of the documents, dated 1776

Eventually, he came up with a plan to return the documents from whence they came, in order, he said, to ``right a wrong.’’

According to Bresnick, there are both ``practical effects’’ of the loss of Stafford’s courthouse records, the inability to verify a deed on a property before 1862, for instance , and the psychological effect that comes with the loss of written records that help tell the story of Stafford’s history.

Bresnick’s plan is two-fold. He was scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., last month to hand over the papers to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, who in a symbolic gesture planned to give the documents to Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.

``For documents that were clearly removed from their place of origin to be returning after more than a hundred years, it’s certainly symbolic,’’ Neal said. ``History has an interest in seeing these artifacts, and I think it speaks well (of Bresnick), who wants to really respect these documents by returning them to the people of Stafford, Va.’’

Neal, besides being a congressman, is a professor who lectures in history and journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He told The Eagle he was interested in seeing these documents returned ``in the context of their importance to history.’’

The congressman said that people contact his office on a regular basis ``looking to reconnect with things from the past. Sometimes it’s about a memorial, an event or a place. This is something different.’’

A day after Bresnick’s scheduled meeting with the two congressman he planned to present the documents to Barbara Decatur, the Stafford County clerk of court, at a ceremony at the courthouse in Stafford. The documents will then permanently grace the courthouse walls.

``I’m happy (the documents) are going back to their home,’’ Bresnick said.

The two legal documents that were found in an old trunk in South Worthington were believed stolen from the courthouse in Stafford, Va., by Union troops during the Fredricksburg campaign of the Civil War.

The first document, dated 1753, is a court order informing the sheriff of Stafford County to bring a tobacco farmer named Robert Ashby Jr. (c.1720-c.1780) to the courthouse for a hearing that May. Ashby owed the mercantile firm of Patrick and William Bogle a little more than 3 pounds, likely from a past due store account. The court ordered Ashby to cough up the 3 pounds along with a hefty court fine of 79 pounds of tobacco. If he didn’t pay, the court could then order Ashby’s personal property sold to pay the debt.

The second document was a promissory note dated Feb. 24, 1776, obligating Joel Reddish (c. 1748-1826), to pay 11 pounds, four shillings, six pence, half-penny on a loan from James Ritchie & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland. According to Bresnick, Ritchie was one of the ``Tobacco Lords’’ of Glasgow who imported tobacco from the colonies and sold it in Europe. The company was also in the business of loaning money to farmers in order to get their tobacco crop into the ground. Reddish was a Virginia tobacco farmer who had taken a loan out with the company.

New Vero Beach Dig: Ice Age Humans In North American?


The Palm Beach Post

Vero Beach, FL (AP) For 100 years there has been a large, troubling asterisk next to Vero Beach in archaeological literature.

The sleepy oceanside town best known for its oranges and former spring training camp of the Los Angeles Dodgers is also believed by some archaeologists to be the only site in North America where human bones have been found with extinct Ice Age animals—proof that humans were in North America at least 13,000 years ago.

No one knows exactly how long humans have lived in North America. Tools and artifacts found at other sites indicate that humans may have been in North America that long ago, but the bones of what has come to be known as Vero Man could finally prove it.

``It needs to be done,’’ said Barbara Purdy, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Florida who has long argued that the Vero Man site should be excavated again. Purdy, 86, jokingly calls the site the Old Girl site rather than the Vero Man site because the first bones found belonged to a woman.

The original dig site, in 1916

Although she ``won’t be going down and getting in the pit,’’ she received credit for her advocacy recently during a news conference announcing a partnership between Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., and the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee, an Indian River County nonprofit, that will begin digging at the site in January. ``They’ve got the whole world watching.’’

The dig is as much about proving whether Vero Man lived during the Ice Age as it is about settling a century-old tiff between Dr. Elias Howard Sellards, Florida’s state geologist from 1907-1918, and Arles Hrdlicka, curator of the Physical Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History from 1910-1940.

Sellards, who examined the site and the bones himself, determined that because the bones were found in the same stratum, or layer, of Earth as animals that went extinct in the late Ice Age—including mammoths, mastodons, giant saber-tooth tigers and bear-sized sloths—the human remains must be at least that old. However, Hrdlicka disputed Sellards’ findings, saying the fossilized human bones were only a few thousand years old and were found in the same layer as the extinct animals because humans buried their dead.

Today, that question could be easily answered by testing the amount of elements in the bones, such as carbon. But carbon testing would not be discovered for another 35 years after the bones were found in 1913. Why not test the bones now? Because some were lost, misplaced or damaged by techniques used at the time to preserve them, such as soaking the bones in parafin or painting them with varnish, said C. Andrew Hemmings, a professor at Mercyhurst.

Hemmings, the director of archaeology for the dig, said the riff between Sellards and Hrdlicka has created a split among archaeologists, which is why Vero Man ``gets a big asterisk’’ in archaeological literature.

``The bottom line is, as of today—a century later—nobody knows,’’ Hemmings said. ``Whatever the answer is, our goal is to get to the right answer.’’

Besides settling that debate, bones that may be found in the upcoming dig could also help answer another vexing question: How did we get here? Sometime between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago, the glacial ice that covered North America began to melt and humans found their way to North America. Their route is still not known.

Some believe hunters travelled across the Bering land bridge from Siberia to Alaska and then made their way south. Another theory is that migrants from Asia may have worked their way down the American Pacific coast by boat. Another controversial model suggests that the first Americans may have arrived from Europe. Pointing to similarities between some North American and 20,000-year-old European tools, proponents suggest migrants may have crossed the frozen north Atlantic via Greenland and then travelled down the east coast.

If bones are found, sophisticated testing could also identify where the humans came from, Henning said. Additional tests could also reveal information about how early humans dealt with rising sea levels and climate change and the impact those had on Florida’s aquifers, Hemmings added.

``There are aspects of this that really reflect on the world today,’’ he said. ``It’s not just some esoteric thing to prove that this guy was wrong 100 years ago.’’



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