Every day at the museum brings new surprises, but when it comes to research questions, photos, and artifacts, there are a few things I can count on dealing with annually.
Every year we receive several visits from people searching for their Vaughan and McGarrah family ancestors. For a while folks were repeatedly asking about Jacob Yoes and Peter Mankins, but not much these days. One thing these early settlers had in common—they produced a bunch of kids who produced a bunch of kids of their own. Like salmon swimming to their birthplace, their descendants eventually find their way to the museum.
A favorite research topic is the Butterfield Overland Mail, a short-lived mail and stagecoach line. There’s a romance about the Butterfield, held by many but not by me. I like what Waterman Ormsby, correspondent for the New York Herald, said when he reviewed his 1858 trip: “I now know what Hell is like. I’ve just had 24 days of it.” The stone barn for one of the route’s many stops—Fitzgerald Station–still stands in Springdale.
Several times a year we’ll get a request for what may be the one and only photo of Civil War troops in Northwest Arkansas. I say “may be” because we don’t know who has the original and the image contains no recognizable building or landmark. While there is some uncertainty about this picture, it’s still the most popular image in the collection and has been featured in numerous books and textbooks, films, newspapers, and magazines.
Back when I had more to do with collection acquisition, I came to expect frequent phone calls about the possible donation of pianos, organs, National Geographic magazines, and newspapers with headlines about the moon landing and President Kennedy’s assassination. Seems like everyone and their dog saved these treasures and they thought a museum ought to have them.
For nearly 25 years I’ve gotten at least one phone call annually regarding the authentication of a copy of the Declaration of Independence. These relics are often discovered tucked away in books (usually Bibles) or behind framed pictures. They’re the kind of souvenir you’d pick up in a gift shop at a Revolutionary War historic site. I had one as a kid. Bought if for a buck from a vendor during our town’s Bicentennial parade.
So far all the Declarations I’ve seen have been modern facsimiles, printed within the last few decades on old-timey fake parchment paper. Most people believe me when I tell them their heirloom isn’t the real deal but a few don’t. Once I tried to convince someone by showing them a nearly identical copy, but their faith was too strong. Their copy was OLD.
So you might say I expected it when I got a phone call recently from a woman who found a Declaration hidden inside a world atlas. I suggested she bring it by the museum and let me take a peek at it. Not that I’m an expert, but I’ve handled enough historic documents to get a feel for what’s old and what isn’t.
As expected, it was a modern facsimile. Very brown, a little the worse for wear. I’m sure the lady was a bit disappointed when I broke the news, but she took it graciously. As we got to talking I learned that she is a great, great granddaughter of George Washington Vaughan and wanted to know more about him. What a hoot! The Declaration of Independence AND a Vaughan descendant, all in one visit.
Was it any surprise that she’s the third Vaughan relative I’ve met in the last two months? Not to me.