Brock Collection Returns to Virginia
by Minor Weisiger
Eighty-odd years ago Virginia lost the largest private collection of Virginia manuscripts and printed material ever assembled. This occurred when the collection of Robert Alonzo Brock (1839-1914) of Richmond was sold to Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) and his wife Arabella Yarrington Huntington (1850-1924) of California. Much of this material has been unavailable to most researchers since that time. Fortunately for researchers of Virginia's past and people, this story does have a happy ending.
In August of 2002 the Library of Virginia and the Huntington Library of San Marino, California entered into a cooperative agreement to film the estimated 50,000 manuscripts and 800 manuscript volumes in the Brock Collection. As of this writing the project is underway, with completion expected well before Virginia's quincentennial in 2007. Funding for this endeavor is being provided by the Roller-Bottimore Foundation, the Robins Foundation, and the Library of Virginia, with monies expended for special project staff and camera equipment and supplies.
The story of the Brock Collection begins with the man who created it. Robert Alonzo Brock was born in Richmond in 1839. Brock himself received little formal education, leaving school at age 11 upon the death of his father to work in a family lumber business. He served throughout the Civil War in the Confederate Army, first in the infantry and then as a hospital steward at a Richmond hospital. After the war he resumed his business career.
Brock developed an early antiquarian interest in Virginia history and began collecting books and papers before the Civil War. At some point he met Thomas Hicks Wynne (1820-1875), a wealthy businessman and legislator who was also a collector. Wynne acquired and published several significant items of Virginiana, including William Byrd II's History of the Dividing Line. He was also secretary of the Virginia Historical Society. When Wynne died in 1875, he left Brock his manuscript collection which became the nucleus of the Brock Collection. Brock also purchased a number of rare books and pamphlets at the auction of Wynne's library. Additionally, he was chosen to replace Wynne as the secretary of the Virginia Historical Society.
As secretary of the Virginia Historical Society Brock was charged with the acquisition and cataloging of material. In addition to these duties he embarked on an ambitious program of publishing Virginia historical documents, completing eleven volumes during his tenure. These covered such topics as Huguenot emigration to Virginia, the Virginia Company, and letters of colonial Governors Alexander Spotswood and Robert Dinwiddie.
At this point Brock retired from business and devoted his considerable energies to historical research and collecting. He wrote a genealogical column in the Richmond Standard from 1879-1882, authored the first biographical dictionary of Virginians (Virginia and Virginians), and served as editor of a journal of Confederate history, the Southern Historical Papers, from 1887 until his death in 1914. Dissatisfied with his record-keeping, publications expenditures and outside work, he was deposed as secretary of the Virginia Historical Society by its trustees in 1892. From then until his death he continued to collect and correspond about Virginia history. Visitors to his home in downtown Richmond reported that all rooms, staircases and even bathrooms were piled high with boxes and printed matter of every type.
Upon Brock's death in 1914, there was immediate interest in what would become of his large collection. Henry R. McIlwaine (1870-1934), the State Librarian, advised Governor Henry C. Stuart that a wholesale purchase of the collection was unnecessary, as the Library had many duplicates of the books and it could be bought piecemeal at an expected auction. In fact no auction was held, and the collection was sold in toto to collectors Henry and Arabella Huntington in 1922.
Henry Huntington was the nephew of railroad magnate and philanthropist Collis P. Huntington, who made one of the great fortunes of the Gilded Age. Collis Huntington (1821-1900) had Virginia railroad interests, specifically the Chesapeake and Ohio, and he developed Newport News as a terminus for that railroad. Around 1870 he met Arabella Yarrington in Richmond, and in 1884 he married her and adopted her son Archer, who was possibly his. It is noted that Archer Huntington was the founder of the Mariner's Museum in Newport News.
Collis and Arabella devoted much of their married life to collecting works of art, furniture, printed material and manuscripts. At Collis's death in 1900 Arabella inherited a fortune of some twenty-five million dollars, making her one of the richest women in the world, and by 1910 its estimated value was fifty-five million. In 1913 she married Henry Huntington, who was her age and shared her interest in collecting. Together they amassed an even larger collection, and in 1919 established the Huntington Library in San Marino, California to showcase it.
It was at this time that the Brock collection came to their notice. The Commonwealth was unable to muster the funds to purchase it, and Earl Gregg Swem (1870-1965), librarian at the College of William & Mary, inventoried the collection for the Brocks. It is interesting to note that Swem had just left the Virginia State Library after a dispute with the State Librarian, Henry McIlwaine. The collection was purchased by the Huntingtons in 1922 for some $35,000, and in fact they acquired 47 collections of books and manuscripts between 1920 and 1924.
Richmond editor Douglas S. Freeman (1880-1953) of the Richmond News Leader lamented the loss of the valuable collection, suggesting that a revolving fund be established for the acquiring of Virginiana. This did not occur. In fact the purchase of the entire collection saved it from being sold off piecemeal, never to be re-assembled.
While a few items from the Brock collection have made it into print in the last eight decades, most have not, and many researchers into Virginia's history, government and culture will be getting their first look at the manuscripts assembled by Brock. What they will see is a wide array of Virginia documents, both personal and public, and touching upon many aspects of Virginia's history, government, society, culture and economy from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The collection of some 50,000 manuscripts is filed in 389 boxes, and they are arranged into 132 sub-collections of papers of families, individuals, business firms, government, fraternal, private and political organizations, correspondence of R. A. Brock and the Virginia Historical Society, literary manuscripts, and miscellaneous manuscripts.
These sub-collections touch upon many topics and families. A partial listing includes papers related to Freemasons, clergymen, newspapers & periodicals, railroads, banks, U.S. courts, Virginia courts, the Fairfax Proprietary, the Virginia General Assembly and the Mutual Assurance Society. Families with multiple boxes include the Randolph-Tucker, Pleasants, -Lyons and Brown-Burton. Papers of individuals include Lewis Webb, Robert H. Maury, Edward S. Willis (Civil War letters), and Thomas H. Wynne.
Brock himself was a prolific correspondent, and his personal papers are arranged alphabetically by correspondent. They are likely to shed light on his collecting and the many publications with which he was involved, as well as the publishing efforts of others.
A portion of the collection is filed under the heading "Miscellaneous," and these are single or multiple documents arranged chronologically. There are letters, receipts, circulars, legal and governmental documents of all sorts. Two examples would be a 1777 company payroll of the 2nd Virginia Regiment, and April 10, 1865 passes for some prisoners paroled at Appomattox.
Yet another group from the collection is some 800 bound manuscript volumes. These include account books, diaries, letter books, memo books, minute books, orderly books and other volumes of businesses, organizations, churches, military units and individuals. Examples here are a 1774-1781 account book kept by William Waddy of Louisa County and an 1875-1876 diary and journal kept by an elocution teacher, to name but two. These date primarily from the late 18th to mid-19th centuries.
As each sub-collection of records is filmed the Library of Virginia will provide detailed notes, subject headings and finding aids in its online catalog (www.lva.lib.va.us), as well as information about the Brock collection as a whole. Researchers will be able to access the estimated 500 reels of microfilm, and an interlibrary loan set will be available as well. Filming has begun and it is expected that the first reels will be available at the Library this year. They will continue to be added as they are received. The Library of Virginia is most appreciative of the willingness of the Huntington Library to undertake this exciting project and of the donors who have made it possible. The story of Virginia will be enlivened and enriched by this treasure trove of documents, the images of which will be stored not so many blocks from where Mr. Brock and his remarkable collection resided three generations ago.
For those wishing to read about the Brock Collection, Beverly Fleet's Huntington Library Data, 1607-1850, more recently published as part of Virginia Colonial Abstracts, Volume 3 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988), contains an interesting history of the collection, and a lengthy list of items contained in it.
Minor Weisiger is Archives Research Coordinator at the Library of Virginia and can be reached at MWeisiger@lva.lib.va.us.