Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyThe Amazing Donaldson Dumpster Archive

  • Sun, 13 Jan 2013 09:28:44    Permalink
    A colleague sent me a box of papers the other day. He said they contained documents having to do with a ship named the Olive Branch. But it was clear to me at first glance that for the past few decades, at least, theyd had more to do with the dumpster. That was certainly where theyd come from, and probably where they were bound.

    But after I removed the material that was literally falling apart, I began to see some continuity. Most of the paper had to do with a man named Joseph Donaldson, apparently a ship captain and a diplomat. A few hours of preliminary examination yielded several piles one having something to do with a French Spoliation claim; one pertaining to the estate of a man named Nicholson; one having, indeed, to do with a Philadelphia merchant ship named the Olive Branch, circa 1805-1805;

    and, most intriguingly, a pile of paper relating somehow to Algeria.

    Intense concentration ensued. The room around me vanished and I was transported back to the years just after the American Revolution. With the British Navy no longer protecting them, our ships were vulnerable to attacks by Barbary pirates. In order to keep commerce flowing, we established treaties with Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis. That is, we called them treaties. Actually they were bribes to get the pesky pirates off our backs.

    David Humphreys, one of the Hartford Wits and a friend of George Washingtons, was given authority to make the treaties. He in turn assigned fellow wit Joel Barlow and Joseph Donaldson to broker the deal in Algiers.

    Most of these Algiers papers are accounts of expenses from Donaldsons stay there. But three of the documents distinguish themselves from the rest. The first is a four page list of Barlows expenses in Paris, on the U.S. Account, purchasing bling to present to the Dey of Algiers. The total came to $92,635

    only a small part of the total paid by the U.S. Second is the bribe list, docketed An estimate of OBriens. Captain Richard OBrien transported the goods to Algiers, and this document is an itemized list of who got how much in bribes. Highly detailed, 1 pages long.

    And finally, as a result of Donaldsons diplomatic efforts, a sort of sub-treaty. A manuscript document on the part of Algerian officials acknowledging that a treaty had been made, and agreeing not to molest American shipping. Written by an American but given under my hand by order of Hassan Bashaw Dey of Algier and signed by Hadgi Ally Nizil or Charge de Affairs & Agent for the Regency of Algiers at Tunis. Exciting!

    And what about that pile of papers relating to Mister Nicholson. Why would this archive contain two printed documents and five letters regarding the settlement of an estate? A quick visit to the Dictionary of American Biography cleared the matter up.

    Come to find out that Nicholson, a crooked politician, had gotten deeply involved in land speculation with none other than Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. Things went south with the land deal and, Morris was arrested for debt in 1798, but Nicholson struggled on till 1800 when he joined his partner in debtors prison, dying shortly thereafter. According to the PA state archives he left a vicious financial tangle behind him, including more than four million dollars in debts. The attempt to settle his estate resulted in the creation of a series of special state commissions, the sequestering of his private and business papers, and the creation in 1843 of a special Nicholson Court of Pleas. Donaldson was one of Nicholsons creditors and these documents, including an early list of Bills of Exchange owed to Donaldson, document his financial interest in this case.

    Similarly, there is the printed bill - H.R. 745, before the 48th Congress in 1884, to provide for the ascertainment of claims of American citizens for spoliations committed by the French prior to the thirty-first day of July, eighteen hundred and one. Apparently, a Donaldson owned schooner, the Bethia, was captured by French privateers during the Quasi-War. The latest document in this pile is 1895, indicating a futile chase by Donaldson heirs. They were not alone. Claims remained unsettled as late as the 1920s.

    Thats only the beginning of the story of the Amazing Donaldson Dumpster Archive. There are several other paper trails, leading to the West Indies, North Carolina, European ports and, oh yes Philadelphia, home port of the Olive Branch.

    Weeks or months of study could be spent here, teasing the strands of this archive apart. They weave their ways through space and time, but in the end they all return to the same place - the life and career of Joseph Donaldson and the role he played in a fascinating bit of American maritime History.

    A raggedy heap of papers, rescued in the nick of time from the bottom of some trunk or trash can

    I love this job!

    Archive of Joseph Donaldson, 1790 - 1895. Approximately one hundred items (several hundred pages of printed and manuscript material), pertaining in particular to the Tripoli treaty, The John Nicholson affair, French spoliation claims, and the merchant ship Olive Branch of Philadelphia. $2000

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