J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Second Deborah Champion Letter

As I wrote yesterday, a 1912 book and a 1926 newspaper published the text of a letter in which young Deborah Champion described carrying dispatches to Gen. George Washington during the siege of Boston. Sam Forman invited a team of us to investigate that account.

In addition to the published texts, we also discovered that a typewritten transcript of Deborah Champion’s letter is part of the manuscripts collection of the Library of Congress. Derek W. Beck recruited a couple of Washington-based friends, Kevin Peel and Will Brooks, to visit the library on the last day before this fall’s government shutdown and see what that document looks like.

As I said, it’s a typewritten transcript, not an original from the eighteenth century. It was therefore created in the late 1800s or later, in the period when Champion family descendants were spreading Deborah’s story through the Daughters of the American Revolution. We found no clue about when that transcript came to the library.

The first page begins:
Copy of letter by Deborah Champion, daughter of Commissary-General Henry Champion of the Continental Army, telling of her ride to Boston to carry despatches to General Washington—an historic fact. The original letter still in possession of the Champion family.
Neither that typescript nor the library’s catalogue offer a further clue about where the “original letter” might be.

Sam Forman has now shared both texts on his website: the letter published in 1912 and 1926 in nearly identical forms, and the transcript in the Library of Congress. Comparing the two texts reveals some interesting features:
  • Both texts tell the same story with many of the same phrases and details, indicating that they both derive from a documentary source. The overlaps and similarities are too numerous for the texts to be independent manifestations of the same family tradition.
  • At the same time, there are significant differences between the 1912/1926 text and the undated copy in the Library of Congress—differences larger than could be created by simple transcription errors.
Our conclusion is that someone edited the earliest text to produce the later version(s). Nevertheless, both available texts were presented as accurate copies of a historic original.

And next we turn to the internal evidence of the letter.

TOMORROW: Deborah Champion’s tale.

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