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After 110 years, the Wadsworth Atheneum returns letter written by George Washington to Middletown

George Washington letter from Wadsworth Atheneum.
Wadsworth Atheneum
George Washington letter from Wadsworth Atheneum.

The Wadsworth Atheneum has turned over a letter handwritten by George Washington to the Middlesex County Historical Society in Middletown. Why and how it came into the possession of the Wadsworth in the first place is unclear, and may be lost to history.

The letter was written in 1782. Washington, who was the Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army at the time, wrote to Middletown resident, Revolutionary War Captain William Van Deursen. Van Deursen was a prominent West Indies merchant who also engaged in the slave trade. In the letter, Washington expressed his gratitude to Van Deursen for loaning him a book while the two were in St. Croix.

The letter stayed in the Van Deursen family for two generations. Margaret Van Deurson, William’s granddaughter, stipulated in her will that after her death the letter should either go to the local historical society or to a more prominent museum, until a local historical society could be established. But the Middlesex County Historical Society was founded 12 years before Margaret’s death.

Wadsworth Atheneum

“For some reason, some mix-up, when she died in 1913, it went to the Wadsworth Atheneum anyway, so it’s officially been on loan for 110 years,” said Dr. Jesse Nasta, Executive Director of the Middlesex County Historical Society and a professor of African American Studies at Wesleyan University.

In fact, Nasta said Margaret herself donated some of her grandfather’s belongings to the Middlesex County Historical Society before her death.

Nasta said the letter became known to them in 2019, thanks to the efforts of the Wadsworth's registrar Edd Russo. Russo started working closely with MCHS board member Jackes Bolles to get the letter back to Middletown. The transition was complicated by the pandemic, and the death of Edd Russo, but last week in a ceremony, The Wadsworth Atheneum gave the letter back to the Middlesex County Historical Society.

Nasta said he’s grateful the letter has been reunited with other artifacts that belonged to William Van Deursen. He said the letter will be on display with other Van Deursen artifacts in the exhibit “A Vanished Port: Middletown & the Caribbean, 1750-1824” by mid-May.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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