Napoleon and the Book of Fate

Shows title page of Book of Fate with Hieroglyphics

Sutro Library’s copy of The book of fate, formerly in the possession of Napoleon … now first rendered into English from a German translation of an ancient Egyption manuscript, found in the year 1801.

“The Translator, in taking his leave of the British Public, has now merely to state that the BOOK of FATE, in its English dress, is adapted to all conditions of life: and persons of every rank and capacity will now have an opportunity of consulting it, and of regulating their future conduct according to its ORACULAR COUNSELS.”  

Herman Kirchenhoffer from English translation of the Book of Fate, 1822.

Colored portrait engraving Napoleon Bonaparte

The Book of Fate in Sutro Library’s rare book collection offers insights into Napoleon, the effects of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and colonialism.  In 1798 General Napoleon Bonaparte set sail on the Mediterranean with 35,000 soldiers and over 160 scientists and artists (the majority of whom were from the prestigious Commission des Sciences et des Artes) in order to lay siege to Egypt.  It was simultaneously a scientific, military, and economic mission. Under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was directly ruled by the Mamluks (ex-soldiers and formerly enslaved persons) who served to administer Arab interests. On his way to Egypt, Napoleon captured Malta, and proceeded to the port of Alexandria.  

Shows lists of scientists and artists who went to Egypt with Napoleon


Map of Mediterranean

In addition to this, Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition was a reaction to the concern by France’s legislature who feared that generals and soldiers entering into politics would return the country to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror – which from 1793-1794 saw 17,000 officially executed and 10,000 more who died while in prison. The brutality was firmly imbued in the minds of the leaders of the French Republic. And especially feared was Napoleon – a celebrated military hero and an extremely popular public figure in France. Revolutionary executive leader Paul Barras “admitted in his memoirs that the members of the Directory began to perceive “’all the dangers that the Republic ran ‘if Bonaparte were not sent on a mission abroad.’”[1] They decided that Egypt would be a worthy campaign to occupy troops. One legislator, Eschasseriaux, “concluded, ‘what finer enterprise for a nation which has already given liberty to Europe [and] freed America than to regenerate in every sense a country which was the first home to civilization…and to carry back to their ancient cradle industry, science, and the arts, to cast into the centuries the foundations of a new Thebes or of another Memphis.’”[2]

[1]  Juan Cole. Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East.Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007., 16.

[2]  Ibid.

Image of aqueduct off the Nile in Cairo

Another reason to invade Egypt was a response by France to the loss of the colony of Saint Domingo (modern-day Haiti) which became its own country after a 1790s uprising of former enslaved persons.  Taking Egypt would, Napoleon wrote, establish “’a French colony on the Nile, which would prosper without slaves, and serve France instead of the republic of Saint Domingo.’”[1] Within this context Egypt provided a new opportunity for crops like sugar and cotton.

[1] Juan Cole. Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East.Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Shows a caricature of Napoleon in Egypt

It was during the Egyptian campaign that soldiers uncovered the famous Rosetta Stone, and it was also during this time that the Book of Fate was found, written on a papyrus scroll attached to the breast of a mummified king found by French Naturalist Charles Sigisbert Sonnini (1751-1812).  While Napoleon’s military venture failed, the establishment of Egyptology as a science was born, as was the craze for all things Egyptian, known as Egyptomania. This excitement towards all things Egypt was the unintended outcome as monuments and relics were given away as gifts by the Egyptian government to British allies, or sold by grave robbers to foreigners, as were the books and published accounts that were written about the country.

Title page and portrait of Belzoni’s Narrative of Egypt and Nubia

The Egyptian campaign resulted in a series of books dating from 1809-1829 called Description de l’Egypte, written and illustrated by more than 164 scholars and engineers, mathematicians, astronomers, map-makers, artists, as well as numerous engravers. The work covers all aspects of society in ancient and modern Egypt, as well as descriptions and illustrations of monuments.  While initially intended for academic purposes, its appeal was widespread.

Shows interior of the temple Medinah Harou

Title page of the Book of Fate’s The Writing of Balaspis by command of Hermes Trismegistus

The Book of Fate was translated into English by Herman Kirchenhoffer in 1822 and begins by detailing how the original papyrus was discovered and how it was used by Napoleon.  It was found in Napoleon’s camp after his defeat at Leipzig in 1813. A Prussian soldier found the book and sold it to a French officer who recognized Napoleon’s coat of arms emblazoned on the front. Knowing that it was valued by Napoleon, he sent the book to the Empress Marie Louise (Napoleon’s second wife), who then ordered that an English translation be made. There is an introduction covering a brief history of temples and Oracles in the ancient world. The actual Book of Fate’s (i.e., the translation of the original papyrus titled, The writing of the Balaspis by command of Hermes Trismegistus, unto the priests of the great temple) comes after, with footnotes to clarify how to consult the Oracle, what directions can be dispensed with, etc.  For example, in one section Kirchenhoffer says that,

He has found that for all ordinary consultations the circle and signs may be omitted; and instead of a reed dipped in blood, he and his friends have invariably and without the least desonninitriment, used a pen dipped in common ink. As to gifts, sacrifices, and invocations, he considers them in a Christian land to be entirely superfluous.[1]

The Book of Fate was discovered by the head of the Commission des Sciences et des Artes, Charles-Nicolas-Sigisbert Sonnini. Sonnini found an interior chamber in a royal tomb in Mount Libyeus and found “attached by a peculiar kind of gum to the left breast, a long roll of papyrus, which, having unrolled, greatly excited his curiosity on account of the hieroglyphics which were beautifully painted on it.” Napoleon had it immediately translated into German, so as to keep it a secret, and if we are to believe contemporaries and news accounts, as well as those of Kirchenhoffer, Napoleon consulted it upon every important military campaign or life event. In fact, a handwritten list in Napoleon’s own hand was found in his personal copy with a list of questions, like the following:

Question 15 – What is the aspect of the Seasons, and what Political Changes are likely to take place.

Answer – (Hieroglyphic of the Fishes)  “A conqueror, of noble mind and mighty power, shall spring from low condition; he will break the chains of the oppressed, and will give liberty to the nations.”

Question 12 – Will my Name be immortalized, and will posterity applaud it?

Answer – (Hieroglyphic of the goat or Capricorn.) “Thy name will be handed down, with the memory of thy deeds, to the most distant posterity.”

[1] H. (Herman) Kirchenhoffer, M Sonnini, and Emperor of the French Napoleon I. The Book of Fate: Formerly In the Possession of Napoleon …. 12 ed. London: C.S. Arnold, 1826, xxx1.

Kirchenhoffer also tells us,

That all the Oracles, afterwards established in the states of Greece and elsewhere, owed their origin to books found in the Egyptian temples, which were pillaged and plundered upwards of 3000 years ago….No institution is more famous than the ancient Oracles of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They were said to be the will of the gods themselves, and they were consulted, not only upon every important matter, but even in the affairs of private life.[1]

[1] Ibid.,xv.

Shows Hieroglyphs and questions from the Book of Fate

Often priestesses would deliver the message from the gods while sitting upon a tripod in the sanctuary of the temple. “When in a state of inspiration, the eyes of the Priestess suddenly sparkled, her hair stood on end, and a shivering ran over all her body. In this convulsive state she spoke the oracles of the god, often with loud howlings and cries, and here articulations were taken down by the priest, and set in order.”

Wilkinson, John. A popular account of the Ancient Egyptians. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854, 66.
Article on the Book of Fate and Napoleon’s use of it

When Napoleon invaded Egypt, the French Revolution had created an entirely new nation and the Enlightenment was in full bloom.  It was a time of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. France had quashed both the monarchy and the Catholic Church. Napoleon was himself a mathematician and artillery specialist. In an age where Reason replaced God, it might seem counterintuitive that Napoleon used the ‘Book of Fate’, however, even today despite all of our advancements, people use fortune tellers and consult their horoscopes – even some of the most scientific and stoic of individuals.  If you’ve consulted the I Ching, a Tarot reader, or used a Ouija board, then you have consulted an oracle. Oracles date back to the beginnings of human civilization and have been used by individuals in times of crisis, and uncertainty.  It might just be in human nature that, “in sickness and in fear, in distress and despair, before important life decisions and puzzling quandaries, people seek answers that introspection alone cannot give.”[1]

[1] Richard Stoneman. The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak. London: Yale University Press, 2011,1.

The King’s Daughters: The Women Sent to New France

King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663 – 1673 by Peter J. Gagné

For Women’s History Month, we wanted to highlight one of Sutro Library’s most popular titles: King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663 – 1673 by Peter J. Gagné. The book provides information on the French women sent to populate New France known as Les Filles du Roi (The King’s Daughters). The Filles du Roi were 768 women sponsored by King Louis XIV of France in an attempt to boost the amount of filles à marier (marriageable girls) in the fledgling colony. Although the term Filles du Roi did not originate until 25 years after the program ended, the legacy of the decade-long program is still felt today: at least two-thirds of French Canadians can trace their ancestry to one of these women. This includes well-known American figures with French Canadian roots like Hillary Clinton, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie.

About new France and the Daughters

French colonists claimed land that belonged to the Inuit, Iroquois, and Algonquin peoples, initially forming New France along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, Newfoundland, and Acadia (Nova Scotia). By 1663, the population of the New France colony was only at 2,500 and there were up to 14 times as many marriageable men as there were women. Not to mention their English neighbors’ total population outnumbered the French 18 to 1. Many factors contributed to the low rate of females in the colony: cost of sea passage, harsh weather conditions, and limited infrastructure. Wishing to secure the colony’s continued growth, the King paid for the passage of nearly 800 marriageable women and girls to travel from France to the colony with the purpose of increasing the population through marriage and procreation. The influx of women would hopefully encourage men to stay in New France rather than leave once their three-year term of service expired. King Louis XIV was not the first to adopt this solution: the English sent women to Virginia, and Spain did the same with their colonies in the West Indies.

The choice to become a Fille du Roi was voluntary. Women went willingly and sought to better their lives through marriage. Many lacked familial connections in France, but not all Filles du Roi were orphans nor were they prostitutes, which is a common misconception. Women went through a screening process providing a birth certificate and recommendation from their parish priest or local magistrate confirming she was free to marry. Their passage was paid for by the King, and they were given a case which included clothing, needles, 2 livres of cash as well as a dowry from the Royal Treasury. It was about a two-month journey from France, and most departed from the port of Dieppe and arrived in Quebec City. Getting fever, dysentery and other illnesses during a voyage was not uncommon, and it’s estimated at least 60 would-be Filles du Roi perished on their way to New France.

The first 36 women arrived on September 22, 1663. Since they were still unmarried, the women lived in dormitory-style housing and learned practical skills like sewing, cooking, and washing. Dating for the Filles du Roi was slightly like our modern-day speed dating: the women went on supervised dates with potential candidates until the women determined who they would marry and when the marriage would take place. Many of the women would not have this type of agency or freedom had they stayed in France.

Dormitory recreated at Maison Saint-Gabriel. Photo from Peter J. Gagné’s volume 1.

After a match was made, a contract was drawn up. In many of the biographies, these initial matches were often annulled and new contracts created with new suitors. The ceremony usually followed a month later. The average age difference between husband and wife was 4.5 years, and the youngest Filles du Roi to marry was age 13. To encourage procreation, the French government provided monetary incentives to couples to have large families. Once a family reached 10 children they received a 300 livre annual pension. Even with this incentive, the average number of children was 6. And 47 Filles du Roi had twins. In fact, Anne Girard had two sets of twins back to back! There are even examples of Filles du Roi who adopted like Gabrielle Danneville.

The last ship carrying Filles du Roi arrived in September of 1673.The program lasted over 10 years ending after being deemed too costly. France declared war on the Dutch in 1672 so it’s likely they needed funds to be redirected to this effort. The population of New France had increased to 6,700, more than doubling after only a decade. To put it in context, this baby boom was much bigger than that of World War II. The last living Daughter, Anne Rabady died on September 4, 1747 at the age of 93.

A General View of Québec, from Point Lévy,1761 courtesy of Library and Archives of Canada, Wikimedia Commons
about the Book

Copies of Peter J. Gagné’s book in California are hard to find: only one other library in the Bay Area holds the title, and two more in Southern California. While most sources on this subject focus on social and demographic aspects, this 2-volume set presents comprehensive biographies as well as: photographs and reproductions of artwork relating to the Filles du Roi; biographies of the 36 women falsely identified as Filles du Roi; a table of all the King’s Daughters by year of arrival; an appendix with supporting documentation; a glossary; a thematic index; and an index of husbands. Gagné defines Filles du Roi as women who immigrated to Canada under the King’s expense even if the women ended up returning to France. He does not consider those who arrived before or after the program or those who were married in France.

What’s remarkable about the set is the different ways to view the data. And one of those ways is a “Complete Table of Filles du Roi by Year of Arrival.” The last column on this table displays the number of descendants each Filles du Roi had by 1729. The women with the most descendants at this point were (not including those who had husbands with children from previous marriages):

  • Nicole Philippeau who had 17 children leading to 185 descendants;
  • Catherine Pillat who had 12 children in her 2nd marriage leading to 254 descendants;
  • And Anne Lemaître who had 306 descendants due to her son from her first marriage who came to Canada before she did.
First page of “Complete Table of Filles du Roi by Year of Arrival” located in Volume 2.
A selection of Stories

Only a few first-hand accounts exist on life as a Filles du Roi so the book’s biographical dictionary may be the closest researchers have to learning more about these women. The majority of the entries include information on the women’s parents, her estimated year of birth and arrival; amount of the dowry; names of annulled matches; husband’s name, birth year, and location and his parents’ names; children’s birth year, baptismal date; and date of death of the women, and also date of death of children or husband if they died before she did. If she died before her husband, information is also given if the husband remarried. Quite often they married another Fille du Roi.

Anne Couture’s entry shows a standard example of the information a reader will find in this 2-volume set.

Depending on what records exist, some entries have even more information and stories about these women which led to longer entries. If the woman came to Canada and returned to France (married or not) their entries will be significantly shorter than those who stayed in Canada. The longest entry is for Marie Rivière, and this is due to her husband Jean Ratier dit Dubuisson who was sentenced to execution after a quarrel he was involved in left a woman dead. The executioner died before carrying out Jean’s sentence so Jean was given a choice: to wait until an executioner was picked or become the next executioner. He chose the latter. In another interesting turn of events, years later his wife, Marie, was imprisoned for stealing. Jean had to deal out the punishment and placed his wife in the stocks. Later, their son was imprisoned for stealing tools. Like his father before him, he was given the choice to leave jail if he took up the office of executioner, and he did.

Another story of note is that of Marie-Claude Chamois, the youngest child of the secretary to the King and herald of the arms of France. After being rejected by her mother, she left for New France at the age of 14 to start a new life. A few years later, she married François Frigon dit L’Espagnol. When her brother died, she was left the sole heir of her father’s fortune. With the blessing of her husband, she returned to France to claim her inheritance leaving her 7 children behind with François. Her mother still refused to recognize Marie-Claude as her daughter. The court would take 8 years to reach a judgement, and Marie-Claude did not return to Canada and her family until a decision was made.

The last story I want to share is that of a woman of color. Espérance Durosaire was born in Brazil but may have been brought up by a French family. She and her husband did not stay long in the colony after their marriage. Considering that she was referred to as La Moresque (The Moor) and the notary wrote in her marriage contract that she was “a savage woman of the Brazilian nation of Gaul,” I wonder if the reason she returned to France so soon was due to ill-treatment in the colony.

While she is the only Fille du Roi who is identified as a person of color in Gagné’s books, other Filles du Roi had descendants of color, and this was due to their sons marrying indigenous women referred to in the book as “Amerindians.”  One example is Marie Gravois whose sons, Joseph and Michel became engagés Ouest (fur traders) settling in Kaskaskia (the land commonly called Illinois). They both married indigenous women: Joseph married Marie Maouensaoua and Michel married Marie Ouacanteoua. They are just two examples mentioned in the book of Filles du Roi sons who became engagés Ouest and married native women.

Filles du Roi mural painted by Annie Hamel on a wall of the Saint-Gabriel school in Pointe-St-Charles, Montréal. Photo courtesy of The French-Canadian Genealogist.

The remarkable stories of these strong women told in this invaluable resource is available only on-site in our Reading Room. At our Library you will also find other resources related to French Canadian research, including our robust collection of one-of-kind family histories. While the Sutro Library still remains closed to the public, if you’d like us to perform a look-up from this work, please email us at and your query will be added to our queue. Once staff are able to return to the Library, we will begin fulfilling reference requests.

Today’s post was written by Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.

Source citation

Gagné Peter J. King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers : the Filles Du Roi, 1663-1673 . 2nd ed. Pawtucket, R.I: Quintin Publications, 2001. Print.

For Further filles du roi research (list compiled by Andie Guanci)

Other Books

  1. The King’s Daughters by Joy Reisinger & Elmer Courtreau (in English; not at Sutro Library)
  2. Les Filles du Roi en Nouvelle-France by Silvio Dumas (in French; not at Sutro Library)
  3. Les Filles du roi au XVIIe siècle by Yves Landry (in French; not at Sutro Library)
  4. Before the King’s Daughters : the Filles à Marier, 1634-1662 by Peter Gagné (in English; located at Sutro Library)


  1. La Société des Filles du roi et soldats du Carignan (The Society of the King’s Daughters and the Carignan Soldiers)  —
  2. American French-Canadian Genealogical Society —
  3. —’accueil.htm (Free)
  4. — Généalogie des Francais d’Amerique du Nord – Filles du roi — (Free)
  5. Fichier Origine —

The Great Refusal

Libraries filled the grandest dreams of the United States’ richest, most powerful capitalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Adolph Sutro stands out in part because his dream expired with him in 1898, leaving only unfinished plans for establishing in San Francisco a public library with his vast private collection of rare books and manuscripts as its core. This vision was partially revived by his heir and daughter Emma Sutro Merritt who, in 1913, donated Sutro’s collections—what remained of them after the 1906 fires—to the state of California. This gift came with the stipulation that it would remain in the city of San Francisco. It also came only one year after San Franciscans voted on whether or not another extremely wealthy individual would be allowed to develop San Francisco’s libraries. 

In 1901, Andrew Carnegie promised $750,000 to renovate San Francisco’s existing public library system and build new branches. “Carnegie libraries,” which can be found in cities across the United States, were a significant part of a philanthropic scheme through which Carnegie claimed to enable working and industrial classes to participate in civic, intellectual, and cultural life. These library buildings remain rich symbols of the U.S. myths of self-reliance and auto-didacticism. Carnegie felt that libraries were legitimate means of personal and community improvement, but many critics saw Carnegie himself as a compromised individual; he represented an unconscionable gap between the captains of industry and the working classes. In the eyes of San Francisco’s labor leaders, Carnegie’s money was tainted and least of all was there desire to be, in any way, indebted to him. 
That sentiment is felt strongly in a policy statement that was put to a vote during San Francisco’s November 1912 elections. The policy’s authors did not mince words: they sought “the rejection of, or the refusal to accept or use, any gift or donation from Andrew Carnegie for library or other public purpose.”

Officials felt these monies would give the industrialist leverage on City Hall, and ultimately favor the interests of an individual over the people. The text’s pro-union, pro-labor movement sympathies extends to the flyer’s production. The emblem in the upper right-hand corner is a “union bug.” It signals that a unionized workplace printed this document.  

Politics clearly work in and through libraries. Even the architecture itself—the façade, the floorplan, the shelves—can be a site of struggle as Scott Young argues in an essay on how Carnegie’s financial power shaped libraries “according to his own capitalist view of labor and learning.” Libraries were especially convenient as means of imposing these views because it is so hard to argue against them, as city labor leaders learned when the public firmly rejected their attempted refusal. The measure failed by a significant margin. In only two voting districts was their a majority in favor.

Jose Guerrero is a Cataloging & Metadata Librarian at Sutro Library.

The Floating World of Edo Japan

When exploring the Sutro Library’s rare collections, one notices that Japan’s Edo Period is well represented amongst the stacks. Hundreds of ukiyo-e (a genre of woodblock prints and paintings) images join travel narratives and thousands of photographs to tell the story of Japanese art and culture from 1603 through 1868 known as the Edo or Tokagawa Period. This historic period was known as the “floating world” (ukiyo-e in Japanese): a time of movement and travel, art and culture. The pleasure quarters were the main arbiters of taste at this time, and many of the prints focus on Geishas, Kabuki, tea houses, Sumo wrestling, brothels, and courtesans.

Politically, the Edo Period saw Japan governed by a feudal system, with the people existing under isolationist policies called Sakoku – laws forbidding and limiting interactions with the outside world. Japanese citizens were prohibited to leave Japan on pain of death.  It was ruled by the Tokogawa Shogunate whose capital was Edo – now the modern day capital of Tokyo. The Tokogawa emerged from a period of extended internal strife, and constant civil wars – bloodshed that had left the Japanese people traumatized and ready for change. Under Tokogawa rule, stability, peace, prosperity, arts, and culture blossomed.

Social structure

A person’s vocation was determined at birth and every citizen knew his or her place within the social order. And upon closer inspection, the images in the Sutro Library collection provide insight into this strictly regulated society. The Emperor (with almost no power), and the shōgun and daimyō were at the top of Society and controlled every aspect of Japanese society, including what types of clothing could be worn based on status. Underneath that, there were four classes of citizens ranking in the following order: samurai, peasants, craftsmen, and at the bottom, merchants. Because merchants didn’t produce anything, per se, they were the lowest on the social ladder. Each class of citizen had very elaborate rules of conduct. For example, merchants were not allowed to wear silk kimonos.

Yoshiwara and the Pleasure Quarters

The pleasure quarters were legally sanctioned and licensed by the Tokogawa Shogunate. These districts were alive with activity, vibrant and colorful, full of tea houses, music, and food vendors and luxury clothing shops, Kabuki theaters, Geisha, and brothels. The actors, Geisha, and courtesans were the celebrities of their day, influencing fashion, style, manners, and culture throughout Japan. The Tokogawa understood early on that these districts could curtail unrest in the merchant class, as well as provide entertainment to the many Samurai who guarded the cities, who were in fact required to live in half the year, away from their home towns.

These red light districts were usually walled-in, with a heavily guarded gate, and often moated.  No one could enter or leave without the proper documents or permission, and Geisha were never allowed to leave after 6pm. The largest pleasure quarter was in Edo called the Yoshiwara. It was a city within a city spanning 20 acres. And here were the places where the least powerful in society were able to exert some autonomy and agency. For example, Geisha were listed on the Yoshiwara registers as professional entertainers: musicians, singers, and dancers. The Tayu was the most elite courtesan of her day, and was highly educated, skilled in conversation and highly sought after. They had agency in that they could and often did reject clients, and they were trained to think that their social standing was often better than their clients. They were sometimes booked six months in advance so that the client could prepare for the honor. These districts were places where an increasingly wealthy merchant class could rise above their station and socialize with those higher up in ranking. For example, Haiku and Literary clubs formed where men from different walks of life met and interacted. It is noteworthy that 80 percent of the population of Edo was literate, and books stores were also a part of the Yoshiwara.

Travel and Identity

Another aspect of Edo Japan was travel as recreation. It was a time not only of increased urbanization, but consumerism which fostered a new travel culture. As time wore on people felt safe to travel to monuments, temples, and landmarks.  They were also motivated by curiosity, venturing out of the circumscribed worlds of their small village or farms. The major roads were well maintained, and a cottage industry of rest stops and tea houses along the Tōkaidō, the major artery from Kyoto to Edo, was born. The Tōkaidō originally had 53 stations (rest areas) along the road.  The gorgeous ukiyo-e prints in the Sutro collection reflect this travel culture, and served as souvenirs and mementos.

Religion and Philosophy

The underlying foundation of Edo society was neo-Confucianism focusing on ethical humanism and rationalism, a more secular view of the world than had hitherto been embraced by the Japanese. That said, Buddhism and Shinto were still extremely important, albeit less so politically. As previously explained, travel was a popular recreation for all walks of life, with more and more citizens leaving their closed enclaves to take to the open road. Economics would overcome many restrictions in Edo Japan allowing women to flex the boundaries previously attached to certain prohibitions. For example, women were able to obtain limited access to Temple spaces after making a “donation” or be allowed to purchase “an amulet against menstrual defilement while on the premises.”

Opening up Japan to the West

Sutro Library holds a first edition of Engelbert Kaempfer’s 1727 work, The history of Japan, giving an account of the ancient and present state and government of that empire; which for a long time remained the only source of information about Japan that Westerners had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1848 United States Navy Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay with three warships forcing Japan to open up trade to the West. While the West praised Japan’s highly developed culture, Japan, for their part, viewed Westerners with suspicion and saw them as barbarians. Until 1848 Japan did not engage in any trade outside the country, with the exception of the Dutch. When a foreigner was granted entry, it was only for a short time, and every step tightly regulated. Even Western books were forbidden from being translated – with few exceptions. So when Perry arrived forcing a trade agreement, Japan entered into the modern world for good or ill.

The End of Edo

The images found within the Sutro collection reflect the “floating world” and the rich culture of Edo Japan. The photographs are part of ten volume set that was created to provide westerners with souvenirs, but also to provide western audiences, who were fascinated by Japanese culture, with a look into a culture blanketed in secrecy for over two hundred years. The images tell stories of a Japan which was rapidly disappearing; an iconic culture that was quickly replaced by the modernizing that took hold after Commodore Perry entered Edo’s harbor.  

Sir Joseph Banks 200th Anniversary

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Sir Joseph Banks. The event is being commemorated throughout the world and a website hosted by the Sir Joseph Banks Society has links to the various institutions involved.[1] The California State Library – Sutro Library holds one of the world’s largest collections of Sir Joseph Banks’ letters, original maps, and ephemera. While the name Captain Cook is widely known, that of Joseph Banks is not, even though his contributions to science and exploration are legendary.  Banks was the longest-running president of the Royal Society, facilitated the exchange of science and information between experts all over the world, and was the leading founder of the African Association.

[1] 2020: 200th Anniversary. Sir Joseph Banks Society, retrieved 18 May 2020 from

The Royal Society plays a central role in Banks’ story. It is the United Kingdom’s scientific academy, its scientific arm. It describes itself as a fellowship of eminent scientists from around the globe with its motto “’nullius in verba’ taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of the Royal Society Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.  The society’s origins lie in the 1660s when several natural philosophers and physicians met establishing the first “learned society” following a lecture by Sir Christopher Wren.

In the beginning the society oversaw advancements in science. One member published the first issue of Philosophical Transactions in 1665, which set out to establish the concepts of scientific priority and peer review. This journal is now the oldest continuously published science journal in the world. And just to give some idea of its endeavors, the Royal Society published Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment documentation demonstrating the electrical nature of lightning, and funded Captain Cook’s journey to Tahiti. It was on this journey that Cook was to observe the Transit of Venus and explore and map regions in the South Seas.

For Joseph Banks, it was joining Captain Cook on this first voyage of discovery that his life’s journey also began. In 1768, the 26-year-old Banks, having secured a position as Royal Botanist on the HMS Endeavour voyage, set sail. The voyage took the HMS Endeavor to Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia. From 1768 through 1771, the crew managed to find over 3,000 plants, observe the transit of Venus, and map the coastline of Australia.

Following his voyage with Captain Cook in 1771, Banks soon became president of the Royal Society and so began his lifelong involvement in exploration, science, and discovery. Not only was he involved in the formation of economic policies for Australia, but also India, and the West Indies. He believed in the possibilities of exploration and overseas trade to improve British markets. He did so in many ways, not the least by leading projects in experimenting with crops and botanicals from across the world. To that end, Banks established several botanical gardens including Kew, in London, which cultivated plants that were thought to provide valuable income to England’s economy.

Sir Joseph Banks was also involved in other activities, like the search for Timbuktu (“the lost city of gold”) through the African Association. The African Association, or the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, was formed in London on June 9th, 1788 by Banks. The creation of this group, which included many prominent explorers, was the beginning of what has been called “the age of African exploration” for Europeans, since the interior of Africa remained almost completely uncharted. And while some members of the African Association were abolitionists, Banks’ interest in sending individuals to explore the interior of Africa was motivated by the desire for scientific, commercial, and strategic gain, not the abolition of the slave trade. Many explorers who were sent by Banks never returned home, dying from starvation, disease, or from conflicts with indigenous populations.[1]

[1] Boahen, A. (1961). THE AFRICAN ASSOCIATION, 1788-1805. Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, 5(1), 43-64. Retrieved May 28, 2020, from

Banks’ had his hands in many trades including coffee, tea, – an important and lucrative industry—and wine. London would have not have been so famous for their tea parties if it wasn’t for Banks believing that transferring tea plants and acquiring the skills of growing and drying tea would give Britain economic gain through trade.[1] In late 1819, the London Genuine Tea Company produced, with Banks help, an illustrated account of tea cultivation in China and on the tea crops of Southern France and Corsica. How we drink tea today would not have happened without the efforts that Sir Joseph Banks took in establishing the tea trade, and its cultivation, and preparation.

[1] Baldwin, R. C. D. 1993. “2. Sir Joseph Banks and the Cultivation of Tea.” RSA Journal 141 (5444): 813–17.


Joseph Banks, like many other historical figures, made decisions based on biases and expediency. His interest in the colonization of Australia as well as other areas of the world very often ignored indigenous peoples’ claims to land. Additionally, relationships with native peoples were often highly exploitative. It’s important to acknowledge that history is complicated, and through the contents of the Sir Joseph Banks papers we see this historic tension played out. Aside from Banks deep interest in Botany and Natural History, there is entitlement, and political gain, as well as a belief by a Colonial power that they could ]make the world a better place through science and technology.

[This blog post was written by Dylainie Nathlich, Graduate student in the SFSU Museum Studies program, Spring 2020.]

Christmas Dreaming

Since December is closely associated with many treasured winter holidays, I thought I would highlight two different acquisitions we received that focus on the secular side of Christmas. When considered together, they tell a complex story of economic struggle and representation for the African American community.

The first acquisition features a full page ad in the New York Times paid for by Ebony magazine entitled, “We’re dreaming of a black Christmas” and dated November 30, 1967.

Full page ad placed by Ebony Magazine in the New York Times dated November 30,1967

This title might be a nod to the first line of Bing Crosby’s best-selling secular Christmas song, “White Christmas,” which he first sang on the radio on December 25, 1941, just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Or the title might be a nod to Martin Luther King Jr.’s soaring “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, invoking an image of what the American promise could be if all Americans, Black and white, were “…able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”[i]

Unlike the song lyrics’ wistful longing for Christmases past, this Santa’s longing is more aligned with Martin Luther King Jr.’s yet-to-be-realized vision of a truly equal America. According to the ad, he dreams of a time when society recognizes  the important role African Americans play in the American economy and for representation.

More specifically, the ad is a call for advertisers to realize the economic buying power that exists in the African American community. According to the ad’s text, in 1967, African Americans comprised 28% of the population in key cities and “…that 95% of the country’s 23 million Negroes live where 2/3 of all retail sales are made.” The ad states that African Americans were earning $30 billion a year in 1967, with much of their money going towards food, home furnishings, and personal-care items.

Close up of the Ebony ad’s text.

The ad also claimed that advertising in Ebony magazine was the best way to reach this potential market. According to Ebony, the majority of their readers—a reported 2,500,000 households every month—did not subscribe to the popular magazines of the time (like Ladies Home Journal and Look) so if companies were advertising only in these publications, they were missing the African American demographic.

This ad is part of the historic continuum surrounding post-World War II Black consumerism. In the 1960s, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and other community leaders worked arduously on promoting Operation Breadbasket: an initiative that sought to improve the economic status of African Americans by fostering economic empowerment and political equality. Jesse Jackson’s Black Christmas Campaign in November 1968 came a year after this ad was printed and exists as one example of the type of programs created by Operation Breadbasket.  The Christmas Campaign urged African Americans to shop at Black-owned businesses during the holiday season and featured the first-ever Black Christmas parade in Chicago:

“Instead of watching Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus cavort in faraway New York, Blacks in Chicago would put on their own parade, with their own floats, their own bands, their own beauty queens, their own jovial advertisements.”[ii]

At the center of the Chicago parade was a more representative Christmas figure:

“For instead of Santa Claus—who according to [Jesse] Jackson was too old, fat, and white—Jackson featured at Black Christmas a new character known as “Black Soul Saint,” who came from the South Pole rather than the North Pole and lingered along the equator sufficiently to turn up wearing a dashiki of black, with yellow, red, and green trimmings, the colors of the flag of Ghana. Henceforth, the Soul Saint would preside over the season of Christmas, a Black figure whose gifts were not toys or sugarplums but “love, justice, peace, and power.”[iii]

The Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity (CCUO)’s float in Chicago at the Black Christmas Parade. Chicago Defender Newspaper, December 9, 1968. (Image courtesy of Google Arts & Culture)

The idea of ‘Black Soul Saint’ calls attention to another critical message found in the Ebony ad: the importance of representation.  According to the ad’s text, African Americans wished to see themselves represented in advertisements; that they wished to see ads specifically geared towards their community, “…that the Negro responds to advertising in which he can see himself…” And that meant seeing themselves in Christmas too. By using a Black Santa in the ad, Ebony reminded the masses of the fluid nature of Christmas; that it was not an event solely featuring a Santa Claus figure frozen in time as an elderly white man.  

While Santa Claus has loose ties to St. Nicholas, the Medieval bishop of Myra, secular Santa Claus is imaginary and has changed over time. Thanks to the drawings of German American cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harpers Magazine[iv] and the decades-long marketing efforts of the Coca-Cola Company[v], the image of the jolly, elderly, white male Santa dressed in red is so far removed from the historic Catholic bishop that expanding the idea that Santa Claus can be any ethnicity, or gender for that matter, is not really a stretch at all.

Thomas Nast’s 1881 Santa Claus known as “Merry Old Santa Claus.” (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The push for African Americans to be represented in all aspects of American life—including the Christmas holiday—is needed to advance our society. For many Californians, we might find this assertion self-evident, but it may not be so for other Americans. This brings us to our second acquisition: a 1971 press photo showing the damage to Charles Harris’ front windows when someone shot at his suburban St. Louis, Missouri home.  

Photograph of Charles Harris pointing out damage to the front of his St. Louis, Missouri home.

The incident captured in the photograph was the second time someone had shot at Mr. Harris’ home. The first incident happened just weeks before when he had placed a black Santa figure on top of his roof. The photograph’s caption reads:

“St. Louis: a black grocery owner who moved to suburban Spanish Lake because he no longer felt safe in his city residence arrived home 12/31 to find the front of his house damaged by at least 25 gunshots. Charles Harris, 35, pointing out some of the bullet holds in door said, ‘The hardest thing will be to explain it to my five kids.’ Harris, a widower said, ‘I’m trying to rear them properly without racial hatred.” The shooting was the second incident within two weeks at the Harris home. A black Santa Claus Harris placed on the roof was damaged by gunshots and a front window was broken 12/19. Before the black Santa was put pu [up], Harris said, he had no trouble as the only black resident in the area.”

Studying these pieces together reminds followers of the Christmas holiday of how important it is to bring forth the holiday’s promise: that goodwill towards humankind must be extended to everyone, regardless of age, color, race, and gender. The Christmas spirit transcends all of these differences and unites humans under the umbrella of love for our communities and for the world.

Happy Holidays!

We would like to thank the California State Library Foundation for making these acquisitions possible.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.



[ii] Enrico Beltramini. “SCLC Operation Breadbasket: From Economic Civil Rights to Black Economic Power.” Fire!!!, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 5–47. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

[iii] Ibid.


[v] ]


Adolph Sutro’s original vision of a public research library in the city of San Francisco can be seen on his bookplate, whose design he personally approved and is used to this day. One gets the feeling that his vision was ill-fated from the start. The first copies struck revealed the plate contained a typo—“vincit” (Latin for conquer) was spelled “vincet.” Sutro and his librarian balked at the error. A bookplate is like a tattoo for books: it’s meant to be permanent. Not a place for typos!

There are other, less conventional marks of ownership. Remembered for the marks he left on the early United States, Thomas Jefferson was also an avid reader and book collector who left a distinct mark in his books. He did not use bookplates, but rather initialed his books by combining a printed letter with his handwritten one.

While revisiting some books in our Mexicana collection, I came across Sebastian Caesar Meneses’s Sugillatio Ingratitudinis. The Sutro copy lacks the title page, so I set about checking to see if the rest of the text was complete. I noticed a mark at the foot of a page:

Then another:

And another: 

All seemingly…

            …in the same position.

Taken individually these may seem like stray marks at first, but I tried reading them together to see if anything coherent emerged:


Sure enough, the letters identify the book’s former owner, Bernardo de Arratia, a Franciscan friar who in 1745 was elected to one of the Order’s highest offices in colonial Mexico. Like Jefferson, Arratia’s ownership mark uses the area of a printed page known as the direction line, whose signature marks and catchwords helped guide the printer and binder in the proper manufacture and assembly of a book. The direction line is read today to learn about a book’s structure, and in this copy also directs readers to one of the book’s previous owners.

A later page is conspicuously autographed, which begs the question: what purpose did the more cryptic version serve?

The Sutro copy is in fact missing a few leaves, as was revealed when compared to digitized copies from the University of Toronto’s Fisher Rare Book Library and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma. But the playful nature of Arratia’s mark of ownership adds to this copy something unique.

Virtual Makeover: Sutro Library’s Genealogy Webpage

Since mid-March of this year, the Sutro Library staff continue to work from home and over the past six months, I have been asked a few times “What can a librarian do from home?” While I miss working in the stacks, helping researchers, and collaborating with my colleagues, the short answer is that there are plenty of projects that can be done off-site and from our homes. One of these projects has been to improve the Sutro Library’s webpages.

Almost three years ago, the California State Library gave it’s webpages a more modern and accessible makeover. Some of you may recall, that the previous design was static and outdated, especially when compared to other library websites.

In “What makes a good library website?” by Sabrina Unrein, a then graduate student of the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, fifty state library websites were surveyed to answer that eponymous question. The author often highlighted aspects of the California State Library’s new website, and even praised it for its modern web design. In addition to design, a couple of other factors to take into consideration for a great website are accessibility (e.g. contrasting colors and meaningful link text) and security (e.g. data is encrypted)–all of which the California State Library’s websites achieve.

While Sutro Library did benefit from the redesign, our pages had aspects that did not match the modernity of the rest of the new website. Just like the physical genealogy collection, webpages need ongoing maintenance in order to continue to meet users’ needs. And now more than ever, our website acts as a virtual front door to our Library, and so it’s imperative that the site accurately reflect the richness and diversity of our collections. With all of this in mind, we went to work on the Sutro Library’s Genealogy webpage!

Navigating the Wayback

Before we explore these new changes, let’s first take a look at how the Sutro’s genealogy page has evolved over the years. We are able to do this with the help of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Screenshot of the Wayback Machine’s homepage located at

This site allows us to travel through time seeing the website as it appeared on specific dates in the past. These archived pages are referred to as “captures” and allow users similar functionality as if that version of the site were still live today. Keep in mind, the capturing technology isn’t able to archive everything displayed on a page. For example, sometimes photos aren’t captured, but the capture still provides a great way to track a website’s changes. This is also a great site you can use if you receive an error message when clicking on a link.

To use the Wayback Machine, all you have to do is visit the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine database is located at the top of the page. Type in the URL of interest. After clicking enter, then choose a year. Hover over a date of interest and choose a capture. Sometimes days had multiple captures throughout the day, but more often than not, there will be only one capture. The database will then take you to the archived view of that website. (See gallery below for visual instructions)

The Evolution of the Genealogy Page

Following these same instructions from above, we can track how the Sutro Library pages, specifically the Genealogy page, have changed over the past few years:

For years prior to today’s current version, the content of the genealogy page focused heavily on the collection itself, missing the opportunity to highlight other aspects of the Library such as our wonderful programming or highlighting genealogy-specific blog posts from The Sutronian. In the last screenshot above, you’ll see we kept much of the original description and added information on the services we provide such as look-ups and InterLibrary Loan.

Screenshot of the middle portion of the Sutro Library Genealogy webpage comprised of six tiles with the following headings: Events at the Library; Bay Area Genealogy Calendar; Getting Social; Books on Display in Reading Room; Physical Collections; and Online Resources.

On the new genealogy webpage, you’ll find six central tiles providing information on events at the Library, the Bay Area Genealogy Calendar, the Library’s social media presence, books on display in the Reading Room (currently on hold due to the Library’s temporary  closure), the physical collections, and online resources. With this revised content and new layout, we feel it will be easier for users to find the information they are looking for or maybe even find information they weren’t expecting to find in the first place. Below these six tiles, we also provide information on visiting us, borrowing, remote access, and look-up and scan requests.

Because the Sutro Library prides itself on having one of the largest genealogy collections West of Salt Lake City, we couldn’t just devote one tile to the Physical Collections – we had to have an entire page! Once you click on the heading of the tile you’ll be taken to this new page of the same name. You’ll be met by a view of the Reading Room along with a brief description on the collection and tips for searching the catalog. Scrolling down you’ll find highlights of the resources in the genealogy collection. No longer are they listed as bullet points, instead they have a dedicated tile with an image and a detailed description.

Upcoming Virtual Makeovers

The Library staff are currently reviewing other pages for revision, including the Rare Collections and Exhibits’ pages. The next page for your Genealogy Librarian to work on will be a programming webpage where users can find information on past events including descriptions, flyers, photos, and links to recordings when available. Look for these changes in the next few months.

Now that I have provided an overview of our newly-redesigned genealogy webpages, it’s time for you to explore the Sutro Genealogy webpage and the Sutro Genealogy Physical Collections webpage! Make sure to check out the “Getting Social” tile to sign up for our new monthly e-newsletter, which is just one more way that we are maintaining contact with our dedicated Sutronians during this time!

We welcome any feedback you may have so please reach out to us at

We’d like to thank Karina Robinson, the former Special Assistant to the State Librarian, without whom we would not have had a web page to improve to begin with!

Today’s blog post was written by the Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.


Unrein, Sabrina. (2019). “What Makes a Good Library Website?” Syracuse, NY: iSchool Public Libraries Initiative at Syracuse University.

Links to web archived pages:

January 16, 2018

January 30, 2018

February 2, 2018

September 23, 2018

Stephen Austin and the colonization of Texas

One of the things that you learn working in the field of archives and special collections is how powerful artifacts and historical resources are in illuminating the past in new and dynamic ways. Beginning a journey with a primary source helps position us to understand the context of past culture and societies in ways we might not have otherwise done. Written by the so called “Father of Texas,” Stephen Austin, and printed in November of 1829, the Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization : from January, 1821, up to this time, in virtue of which Col. Stephen F. Austin has introduced and settled foreign emigrants in Texas, with an explanatory introduction., is an 85 page monograph (which is a fancy term for a specialized piece of writing on a single subject), that provides insight into the development of Texas, both in terms of its economic growth as well as its social structures.

Figure 1. From the first Congress of the newly independent Mexico, 1821.

Austin’s ‘Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization’’ is one of many sources for Mexican history at the Sutro Library, that help tell the story of Mexico’s development under Spanish rule, the Empire that followed, and finally the Republic that was born.  The Mexican collection contains manuscripts, maps, over 30,000 pamphlets and broadsides, some of which don’t exist elsewhere, and monographs. The Sutro also has an extensive collection of British and American pamphlets, Civil War source material, and parliamentary debates on slavery.

Figure 2. Broadside 1821 with summary of Indulgences with official seals.

Colonization of Texas 1821-1829

Stephen Austin wrote the ‘Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization’ to provide information to potential settlers on the legality of Austin’s colonization project. Prior to 1821, Texas, then on the northeastern borderland of New Spain, was an unstable and sparsely populated frontier.  There was little, if any, support from Mexico City, and the perils faced by Tejanos (cultural descendants of Spain) who lived in the area in what was called Tejas now Texas were many: lack of infrastructure, starvation, floods, droughts, and settlers intruding onto lands owned by Native Americans. Most Tejanos lived in abject property. To underscore how dire their situation was, in San Antonio in 1810 most settlers didn’t even have shoes.

Tejanos sought to improve the economy and were thus eager to support colonization from the United States. In 1821 Moses Austin (Stephen Austin’s father) was officially granted a contract by the government in Mexico City to settle in Texas.  He, along with his son Stephen Austin were to recruit 300 families to relocate to Texas and be given land to cultivate. However, Moses Austin passed away that same year and so the contract was given solely to Stephen Austin. Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization is part of this history.

Figure 3. “Austin’s Settlement,” Daily National Journal, August 10, 1829.

Historians sometimes talk about immigration in terms of push and pull. What events ‘push’ people to leave their homes to go to a different country, and what is the ‘pull’ of the country to which they are emigrating to. And what motivated Anglo Americans to leave and become Mexican citizens in the early 1820s was a recession followed by a market that prevented most from buying land. The pull was the fertile grounds near and close to the cotton trade center of New Orleans, as well as a global explosion in the demand for cotton. Stephen Austin used newspapers and advertising to entice Americans and had others attest to the opportunities to be had.  He wanted to show he had legal sanction to settle colonists, United States citizens, with huge tracts of land for plantations that were near several rivers, and adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico’s Atlantic trade centers.

Figure 4. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.

Cotton Markets

“The primary product that will elevate us from poverty is Cotton and we cannot do this without the help of slaves” – Stephen Austin, 1824

Along with sugar and tobacco, cotton was one of the first luxury commodities.  Austin knew the land in Texas would be fruitful for growing cotton, and along with its close proximity to trading ports along the Gulf Coast, made it highly enticing.  The phrase “Cotton is King” was one that communicated cotton’s growth as a global industry, becoming the first mass consumer product.   The importance of cotton in the early part of the Industrial Revolution was twofold:  its comfort and its affordability. These factors created high demand for the textiles that were being produced from Great Britain.  “English mill owners, as a result, began buying as much of the fiber as they could (British imports soared from 56 million in 1800 to more than 660 million by 1850) as the plant became one of the most valuable commodities in the entire Atlantic world.” 

However, as leading scholar Andrew Torget noted,

“at precisely the same moment the cotton revolution made slave labor more profitable than ever, the rising power of global antislavery forces put that labor system under sustained  political attack for the first time in human history.  That remarkable confluence, in turn, produced a series of escalating battles between pro- and antislavery forces that polarized politics within the United States and drove an ever-widening divide between the northern and southern halves of the country.” 

Figure 5. Circa 1824
Figure 6. Broadside Sutro Mexican collection. Santa Anna was a key figure in Mexico’s revolutions and political upheavals.

Mexico Empire to Republic

Political instability marked 1820s Mexico. After Mexican Independence from Spain was achieved in 1821, Mexico became an empire ruled by Don Agustin de Iturbide. This constitutional monarchy was dissolved in 1823, and the First Mexican Republic was established, lasting until 1835. The first republic was set up as autonomous states governed by a constitution.  Mexico was transformed again under General Santa Ana, and became the Centralist Republic of Mexico.  During this pivotal moment in Mexico’s history, the project of colonization was being undertaken by Stephen Austin, and he had to lobby leaders in Mexico City to allow him to continue his settlement of Americans in Texas, and to also be able to have these settlers bring their slaves. Tejanos fought to allow slavery into their constitution in order to improve the economy and establish trade with the United States, but to no avail.

Figure 7. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.
John Bull is the British version of what Uncle Sam means in the United States. They represent the personification of the government and the country.  The Civil War crippled the English textile industry and these images reflect the fear of Northerners that Britain might support the Confederacy.
Figure 8. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.

Debates over Slavery, 1824-1830 

In 1827 Article 13 of Mexico’s Constitution dealt the final blow to Austin, his Anglo colonists, sympathetic legislators, and Tejanas, who wanted a system of slavery in the settling of northeastern Texas. It stated that black children born on Texas plantations would be free citizens at birth, making Stephen Austin’s goal to settle more families and increase his own wealth almost impossible.

Figure 9. Article 30. from the Colonization Law of 1823 printed in Stephen’s Austin’s ‘Translation of the laws, orders, and contracts on colonization.”

This monograph provides insight into Mexico’s turbulent 1820s as itstruggled to define what it was that made them a free republic. Debates on centered in Mexico’s political arena were solidly anti-slavery and the Enlightenment’s ideals of liberty and freedom were counter to allowing slavery to exist in Mexico. Stephen Austin introduced slavery into Mexico at a unique moment in the history of cotton and labor.  His ‘Translation’  gives us a unique opportunity to discuss the intersection of culture, cotton, international trade, slavery, and American westward expansion.

Figure 10. From Sutro pamphlet collection.
Figure 11. From Sutro pamphlet collection.

The Wonderful World of Indentures!

[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Jack Prunty, who volunteered for the Sutro Library before he graduated in May. He supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

Most of you are probably wondering what an “indenture” is. It sounds whimsical enough, and it is, to some level of degree! For those who do not know, an indenture is a legal form or agreement between parties, with some agreements involving up to two or three separate parties alone. While researching the Sutro Library’s collection of indentures, I was on the lookout for any document that might be related to “servitude,” specifically, anything relating to the early forms of labor in the United States. In the last three months, I reviewed thirty documents in this previously uncatalogued collection and described each indenture—many having not seen the light of day in quite some time.

When opening the map carrier that held the documents, I released a wave of historical background that has gone untouched for quite a long time.

Map carrier case used to transport historic indentures to the reading room.

Many of these documents are hand-written on “vellum” (which is animal skin and was a common way to hold deeds of business between parties). Many of these legal documents contained extremely valuable information about how transactions worked. For example, to whom would “witness” said transactions between parties.

Example of witness signatures from one of the Sutro Library’s many indentures.

Many of these documents would also contain “stamps” such as an “embossed” and or a “wax” stamp or seal, and these would be the “official” ways to record the indentures credibility.

An example of a wax seal found on one of the Sutro Library’s indentures.

Also, to note, many were signed by those who were recording said documents, such as stewards or legal court representatives. Unfortunately, I did not find any indentured servant records, as many of the said transactions were about land deeds, and many occurred in Great Britain and at various times (mostly 1700’s and 1800’s).

There were exactly two documents that I found extremely noteworthy of interest that I believe people should hear about, because personally, both are not only fascinating, but also worth attention to analyze and looking at for their information.

The first, is from Washington D.C. and is dated in the mid-1800’s. This caught my attention immediately because of the D.C. mailing stamp with first President George Washington on the cover and seeing the name “George H. Williams”[1] on the cover, was indeed quite fascinating:

Close up of George Williams’ indenture.

Going even a step further, it is important to note that Williams was paying off a specific branch of a bank known as the “Freedmen’s Savings Bank”[2]  (which at the time was a part of the Reconstruction Era, helping freed slaves have a banking system). And this raised more questions than answers for me: Why was Williams (a white politician from Oregon) paying off a loan he himself received from the Freedmen’s Savings Bank? Much of the research is easy to find about Williams  and will detail his political support for Reconstruction and the rights of now freed slaves, but the question is still raised: why would a privileged white man in Reconstruction society have taken a loan from a bank that only works for the benefit of those that actually need the funds? I myself still question, why was he paying off the Freedmen’s Bank?

The second indenture that I wish students would come to see doesn’t look like an indenture at all, rather a piece of art sent from Heaven itself:

A large handwritten and illuminated indenture made of vellum.

The historical background behind it is little known (due to all the text being in Latin) and the names described–at least to me–were difficult to distinguish between vast importance or on the lower chart of society. A hand-drawn illustration of Jesus Christ on the Cross with his followers looking up, and behind Jesus, was almost a man surrounded by clouds with a white beard (this is not Santa Claus but rather an interpretation of what God is supposed to look like):

A close up of the indenture’s cartouche featuring Jesus Christ on the cross surrounded by his followers.

On the sides of the indenture were drawings and sketches of objects (one being an actual grape and vines):

 It’s not even so forth put on a piece of “vellum” or “paper” but rather looks like a brown canvas that an artist would use, not something of legality for an indenture, and has more artistry than just a legal formality.

I myself gathered that it was vellum, due to the distinguishable signs between the two examples. From the evidence that I gathered, it was both “legality” with “religion”, which shockingly, most indentures are of that time period. But this, feels different, you feel holiness behind it. You forget that it had at one point been a legal document. This evidence suggests to me that it was from Spain or from other Latin-speaking country that could fluently write about the indenture itself. I myself couldn’t even find or trace the date on this legal document, but overall a great piece to ask questions such as how was religion and law blended so effortlessly in the past? What does that tell us about indentures generally going forward and what similar themes are present throughout all the indentures at the Sutro Library?

I found this work extremely fascinating for several reasons. One, I learned about how legalities were performed in Europe in the 1700’s and the United States in the 1800’s, and these indentures are exemplary of this kind of knowledge. I also learned about the different ways that legalities were carried out, such as how documents were filled out, to what kinds of printing materials—either vellum or paper–they would use. Furthermore, I found it truly unique how stamps were used as proofs of legality— just as much as “witnesses” were–to really prove that these documents were in fact, real and not forged. Personally, I was pretty happy with the knowledge I have learned, and hope many get to come visit the indentures at Sutro Library as soon as possible!

[1]   For more information on George H. Williams, reference Wikipedia article,

[2]   For more detailed information on the Freedmen’s Savings Bank, reference Wikipedia article,