The Connecticut Historical Society, buoyed by an outpouring of community support, has won a bidding war for a trove of 19th century letters relating to the Amistad incident.
The $66,000 purchase guarantees that researchers and the public will have access to the 94 letters, written by the daughter of an abolitionist family in Farmington, for generations to come.
"We're still kind of stunned,' said Richard Malley, head of research and collections for the society. "This is unprecedented in our experience.'
Last week, Swann Auction Galleries in New York City offered up an assortment of Amistad items, including a rare, first edition pamphlet about the celebrated Amistad case and an engraving of the Amistad captives' leader, Sengbe Pieh, also was known as Cinque.
Most prized of all was a cache of letters written by Charlotte Cowles of Farmington, whose family took in one of the Africans and who mentioned them in several of her letters.
"We've had people calling since the day of the auction, saying, ' OK, when might we be able to look at this material.' It clearly resonates,' Malley said. "This collection is so rich in giving us a sense of what was going on in a small town in Connecticut in the 1830s and '40s.'
The Amistad case has long been cited as a key development in U.S. civil rights history.
In 1839, off the coast of Cuba, a group of African prisoners staged a revolt aboard the ship, La Amistad. They demanded to be taken to Africa, but instead were seized near Long Island and jailed in New Haven.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in the Africans' favor, giving them their freedom, but they remained in Connecticut for an extended period while trying to raise the money to travel back to Africa.
Malley said the historical society's winning bid for the letters was actually a collaboration. The bid included pledges gathered by the Farmington Historical Society, a donation by a former CHS trustee and a donation from Farmington Bank.
"The sense of pride in local history, on short notice, was remarkable,' Malley said.
The pre-auction appraisal of the letters valued them at $30,000 to $40,000. Malley said at least two other parties were bidding on the Cowles letters. Malley was bidding via phone.
"There was a very vigorous back and forth, even before I got a bid in,' Malley said.
He could not give a date for when the letters would be available for researchers to examine. However, he stressed the process would be as swift as possible.
"We know there are lots of people very interested in seeing this material,' Malley said.