Alexandria family donates rare manuscript

Alexandria family donates rare manuscript
Members of the Davis and Boyle family stand with Dr. Philip Mead, the Museum of the American Revolution's chief historian (Courtesy photo)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

A family heirloom and a piece of history was lost for years in a linen closet.

It wasn’t until Kansas City resident Louise Davis was going through her mother’s belongings after moving her into a retirement home that she stumbled upon hidden treasure. There, in a box, was a well-worn book with a leather cover.

The book, by that point a century and a half old, was penned by ancestor Christopher Hawkins, who joined the crew of a privateer ship in the Revolutionary War era at the age of 13 in 1777. British prison ships would capture Hawkins two times in his career as a sailor, though he escaped from the first encounter.

More than two decades later, Davis and other family members donated the account to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia over Thanksgiving weekend. Daughter
Lynne Davis Boyle, who was in college when her mother rediscovered the manuscript and now lives in Beverley Hills, said it was her mother who started the process. The manuscript had been sitting in a safety deposit box at a local bank for 20 years and the family was looking for someone who could maintain the document properly.

“We knew it was such a rare document that we needed someone who was able to take care of it better,” Davis Boyle said.

The Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in Philadelphia last year on the anniversary of the Revolution’s first battle on April 19, stood out to Davis for a number of reasons.

“Given the fact that it was a new museum and solely dedicated to the American Revolution, she though it was a good place to donate the manuscript,” Davis Boyle said.

The manuscript itself dates back to 1834 when Hawkins was 70 years old. Hawkins wrote

A photo of the manuscript, which tells the story of Revolutionary War era privateer Christopher Hawkins (Courtesy Photo)

the account of his adventures on 8-by-11 parchment paper that has yellowed over the years. The manuscript is burned at the edges and, in some portions, Hawkins self-edited his work, with certain phrases crossed out.

The most fascinating parts of the story tell of Hawkins’ two captures by the British. During his first capture, he served as a raider for a British officer. During his second, he was an indentured servant.

“The story is essentially his experience being captured by the British and what it was like,” Davis Boyle said. “He was kind of bound to the ship and his experience.”

It’s not clear when the manuscript will be put on display or what exhibit it will eventually be part of, but the Museum of the American Revolution already has exhibits – which the family toured during their visit — on Revolution-era privateers. Visiting the exhibit, Davis Boyle said, gave her a glimpse into what her ancestor’s experiences must have been like.

“It’s a really special thing. I’ve come to appreciate it more. I visited one of their exhibits on what it’s like to be on a privateer ship and one of my ancestors went privateering,” Davis Boyle said. “The museum and the exhibit kind of gives a sense of what it was like.”

Lynne Davis Boyle and her daughter examine the manuscript at the Museum of the American Revolution (Courtesy Photo)

The family also met with the museum’s head of manuscripts, who expressed significant interest in the artifact.

“He was very enthusiastic and pleased because it is such a unique document as a primary eyewitness account,” she said. “He was thrilled. It was a special experience to do that.”

Though Davis Boyle said giving up a long-held manuscript is challenging, she’s excited to be able to share Hawkins’ experiences with others.

“To allow others to be able to share something like this is more meaningful,” Davis Boyle said. “We always want to hold on to things that are dear to us, but I think this is invaluable – to be able to share and let others study it.”