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Home » About » Blog » U-M Clements Library announces online access to popular Revolutionary War manuscript collection

The University of Michigan William L. Clements Library has made available volumes 1-11 of the English Series of the Thomas Gage Papers. Thomas Gage was a famed British commander-in-chief in the decade leading up to the American Revolution and also the governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay from 1774 to 1775.

The papers are being digitized through a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize over 23,000 items from one of the Clements Library’s largest and most utilized collections.

“Multiplying modes of access to our collections is one of our primary goals,” said Paul Erickson, the Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library. “We will always remain committed to welcoming the many scholars who travel to Ann Arbor from around the world to do research in the Clements Library, but we are also committed to making it possible for people anywhere in the world to study landmark collections like the Gage papers.”

A premier destination for the study of 18th and 19th century American history, the Clements Library’s archive is particularly strong in their papers and artifacts related to the American Revolution.

Curators and staff Lloyd Brown, Howard Peckham, and Margaret Webber with four trunks of Thomas Gage papers as they arrived at the William L. Clements Library in 1937.

Cheney Schopieray, curator of manuscripts at the Clements Library, points to Thomas Gage’s original draft of his order to seize military stores at the town of Concord, west of Boston, April 18, 1775. This expedition resulted in gunfire at Lexington and Concord—the hostilities that began the fighting war of the American Revolutionary War. Photograph taken at the William L. Clements Library, November 15, 2018.

“The Gage papers, which are one of the crown jewels of the Clements Library, have been studied by generation after generation of historians,” said Cheney Schopieray, curator of manuscripts at the Clements and project director. “They contain extraordinary documentation of colonial America through the paperwork of the highest echelons of British administration in the colonies during the tumultuous years leading up to the Revolutionary War.”

According to Schopieray, though there are materials related to the French and Indian War, the majority of the collection focuses on the years between 1763 and 1775. It includes handwritten letters, documents, journals, financial records, military orders and more.

Rachel Revere’s note to her husband Paul Revere, reassuring him of the safety of their family following his famous ‘midnight ride,’ undated [April 1775]. Thomas Gage Papers, University of Michigan William L. Clements Library.

“Thos. Gage,” a portrait print of Thomas Gage from the 19th century. Available in the University of Michigan William L. Clements Library image bank.

One of the original pine trunks that once held the Thomas Gage papers is displayed in the Clements Library’s Avenir Foundation Reading Room. The trunk is painted “Spanish brown” with a matching painted canvas lid cover, wrought iron handles, hinges, and a lock. Spelled out in tacks on the top of the lid is “Secty Offs. / N 7 / 1770.”—shorthand believed to represent “Secretary Office(s) / [trunk number] / [year of Gage’s command].”

The interior of the roughly 32 x 21 x 12-inch box is of unfinished pine enclosing two levels of pigeonholes. Fourteen slots on each level provide 28 in total. The top tray is removable, and most of the pigeonholes retain paper tags identifying the military post to which the particular correspondence pertained. The trunk was designed to be portable. Gage’s papers moved with him in America and made two Atlantic crossings before coming to the Library in 1937.

The Clements Library is pleased to reveal this hitherto unrecorded 2¼” oval miniature portrait of Thomas Gage. He wears the uniform of the 11th Light Dragoons, the regimental coat indicating his colonelcy (held between 1785 and his death in 1787). Almost certainly Gage’s last portrait, his wife Margaret Gage may have worn it at least in the early period after her husband’s death. Painted by artist Jeremiah Meyer (1735–1789) on ivory, rose gold rim, pin back, necklace chain holes, cobalt blue backing, ca. 1785–1787. Discovered by Christopher Bryant and acquired by the Clements Library, 2022, thanks to the generosity of Benjamin and Bonnie Upton, and Margaret Trumbull.

“When you think of the flashpoints leading up to the American Revolution and independence—it’s all here,” he said. “There are materials on British-Native American relations, responses to the 1765 Stamp Act and nonimportation agreements, eyewitness accounts of the Boston Massacre, draft orders by Thomas Gage for the Concord Expedition—which led to the opening shots of the war—and an abundance of military and administrative activities. One very important and exciting aspect of the collection, however, is its documentation of everyday lives in colonial America. Gage’s papers contain evidence of women’s experiences and challenges; enslaved men, women, and children of African descent; local labor; and other aspects of life in 1760s-early 1770s America.”

In addition to the Gage manuscripts, the Clements Library is also home to papers of other high ranking British officials of that era, including Prime Minister William Petty 2nd Earl of Shelburne, General Henry Clinton, Secretary of State George Germain, Undersecretary William Knox, as well as patriots such as one of George Washington’s most effective officers, Nathanael Greene, among others. 

The library’s project was one of 225 awarded nationwide in 2021 to support the preservation of historic collections, humanities exhibitions and documentaries, scholarly research and curriculum projects through the NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access.

Audiences can expect that additions will continue to be added to the archival collection site and the complete collection is expected to be available by May 2024, with support from the U-M Library’s Digital Content and Collections service. The public will be invited to assist in transcribing the papers in a remote crowd-sourcing project, making the papers fully searchable once complete.

Archival boxes containing some of the Gage papers queued up outside of the digitization office.

NEH Project Digitization Technician, Tulin Babbitt, digitizes, color-corrects, and creates metadata for a manuscript.

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