Russell Hooper is a history enthusiast and collector who has amassed the largest known private collection of Fontaine-Maury family papers, which he calls “The Pathfinder Papers.” He lives in Spring Hill, Tennessee, where he has served on the Boards of the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall, The Battle of Franklin Trust, and the Maury County Historical Society. Hooper received the 2018-2019 SCRC Research Travel Grant, and reflects on his research experience in this report.
“For many years the firm of Maury Brothers was the leading firm of exporters of American cotton from this country, with headquarters in New York, so that the Maury family has been in the cotton business since the days of George Washington, a record believed to be excelled by no other American firm.”
- Samuel T. Hubbard, President of the New York Cotton Exchange ("Brokers Honor J.F. Maury,” The New York Times, January 9, 1927)
When I arrived at the Special Collections Research Center this past July 29th for my first day of research into William & Mary’s collection of Maury Family Papers, I felt in my bones that I was in store for a fascinating week of discovery. My hunch proved true.
As the owner, editor, and primary researcher of my own extensive collection of Maury family papers, The Pathfinder Papers, I know a fair bit about this extraordinary family’s history. I named my collection for Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury who’s known in history as “The Pathfinder of the Seas” and the “Father of Oceanography.” He’s also the namesake of Maury Hall (recently renamed York River Hall) at William & Mary’s VIMS campus.
During my week of research, I discovered a great deal of information about Commander Maury’s complex and controversial life, from his years as first Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory to his controversial years as a Chief Agent in the Confederate Secret Service in England and France during the American Civil War.
I also learned more about Commander Maury’s great-granduncle, John Fontaine, who first arrived in Williamsburg on June 5, 1715. In 1716, John Fontaine, whose journal was published in Ann Maury’s 1853 Memoirs of a Huguenot Family, chronicled the exploits of Royal Governor Alexander Spotswood and the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe Expedition.
The late William Reese, from whom I acquired a portion of The Pathfinder Papers, once said, “The object can sit for 200 years, and nobody can know why it’s needed, no scholar can put it in context, until that moment when that piece of paper tells a story, provides a connection” (Andy Newman, The New York Times, June 15, 2018).
During the last day of my research trip, I found just such a piece of paper as described by Mr. Reese. It was in the last box (Box 9). It was about an hour before Special Collections closed and I was a bit tired but felt the need to press on. The box ended up being a hodgepodge of scraps that Ann Maury had saved.
I was making my way through Box 9 when I noticed the following scrap:
It was about the size of an index card and I could have easily missed it. But the words ‘memorandum’ and ‘Cotton’ immediately caught my eye. I remembered reading some years ago the following:
“The first American cotton was shipped [to Liverpool] in wooden boxes. A memorandum by Consul [James] Maury, of these first imports was as follows: In 1785, 5 in 3 vessels, in 1786, 6 in 2 vessels, in 1787, 108 bales in 5 vessels, and so on” ("Sketch of Matthew Maury of Maury Brothers Wall Street," Portrait Gallery of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York Catalogue and Biographical Sketches (1890), compiled by George Wilson).
The above scrap was unmarked in the box, but I firmly believe this scrap is Consul James Maury’s memorandum noting the first bales of American cotton imported into Liverpool. It is priceless.
By the time of the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, a mere 76 years later, cotton poured into Liverpool by the millions of bales. Cotton had fueled the institution of slavery in the southern United States and the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. This scrap marks the beginning.
I cherish my memories of my research trip to William & Mary and, to be honest, I feel as if I barely scraped the surface of the Maury Family Papers in the Special Collections Research Center. Once COVID-19 hopefully passes into history, I would love nothing more than to return and continue exploring the collection.