The William Reese Company has published a catalogue of Offerings from the Dietrich American Foundation. The foundation was started by H. Richard Dietrich Jr., heir, businessman, and collector of American art, books, maps, and other Americana. Dietrich was only 25 years old and still in business school when his father died in 1962. He had to leave school to run the family business, the well-known Luden's Cough Drop Company. He had already been a collector for several years at the time, but he now found himself with more money. The following year he set up the Dietrich American Foundation. The reason for doing so, rather than just placing what he purchased in his own collection, was that he wanted to share what he had. He believed much could be learned about the country from its objects. Dietrich died in 2007, but his foundation lives on. It is known for lending its art and books to others to put on display. It is now selling a few of those items to raise funds to support the special collections of the library at his alma mater, Wesleyan University. It has chosen the William Reese Company to conduct the sale. Here are a few of these very special items.
We begin with what Reese describes as “a foundational work of Americana.” It is likely the most notable first-hand account of today's United States from the time before the Pilgrims arrived. The title is The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles: with the Names of the Adventurers, Planters, and Governours from Their First Beginning AN: 1584. To the Present 1626... published in 1632. The author was what has to be the most common name in America yet you will have no trouble identifying which one – John Smith. Smith accompanied the settlers who sailed to Virginia in 1606. He writes about his time in Virginia and Maryland and sailing the coast of New England in 1614. He also describes Bermuda, the “summer isles.” The book recounts Smith's dramatic rescue from certain death by the main chief's daughter and princess, Pocahontas. Historians have questioned the accuracy of the story, thinking Smith may have dramatized the event or perhaps misunderstood that the ritual was not meant to harm him, but it is a legend retold still today. Item 9. Priced at $185,000.
Next we are going back to America way before John Smith's time. This is a map of America, or at least parts thereof, as imagined in 1513. The map was actually first conceived half a dozen years earlier, putting it within a stone's throw of Columbus' first visit by a European to America (excluding any Vikings who might have stopped by earlier but left no images or literary observations). The creator was Martin Waldseemuller, and the title is Tabula Terre Nove (map of the new land), commonly known as “the Admiral's map”. It displays a large northeastern corner of South America and a much smaller southeastern corner of North America, connected by a wider isthmus than we know now (actually, the map ends without showing any water on its western side). The islands of Cuba and Hispaniola are clearly recognizable even if not properly sized. More surprising is it shows the Gulf of Mexico bounded to the east by a very clear Florida peninsula. No one had seen Florida at that time, leading to speculation that there is an unknown earlier voyage from which Waldseemuller was drawing, whose history has been lost. Reese describes this as “the earliest obtainable printed map focusing on the western hemisphere,” but Waldseemuller originally published it in 1507 (known only in one copy). A counterintuitive difference is that the earlier one labelled the land “America,” this later one “Terra Incognita” (land unknown). Shouldn't it be the other way around? The likely answer is that in 1507, Waldseemuller believed the land was discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, but that by 1513 he realized it was Columbus, whose name appears on the map. So he dumped Amerigo's name, but by then, it was too late. As such, Columbus would be the “Admiral,” though this is not certain since Amerigo was an admiral too. Item 2. $45,000.
The colonization of the New World was hardly what we would consider peaceful and humane. The conquerors came and they conquered, often with little regard for the people they were displacing and often abusing. In the midst of the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, who could be equally cruel, came a voice from a Bishop for whom his role meant something more than personal advancement. Almost unique in his time and place, Las Cases saw the Indians as equally human and equal before God. Bartolomé de Las Casas came to the New World in 1502, first to Cuba, later Mexico, and stayed for most of half a century. He was appalled by the conquerors treatment of the natives and chronicled the mistreatment he saw. He reported it back to Spanish authorities, earning the official title “Protector of the Indians.” Las Casas was politely received for his efforts, but ultimately was essentially ignored. Item 10 is An Account of the First Voyages and Discoveries Made by the Spaniards in America. Containing the Most Exact Relation Hitherto Publish'd, of Their Unparallel'd Cruelties on the Indians, in the Destruction of Above Forty Millions People. With Propositions Offer'd to the King of Spain, to Prevent the Further Ruin of the West Indies. This is a much later edition of a book first published in 1551, a fourth English from 1699. It was still timely then. Item 10. $4,000.
Here is a surprising survival. It is a letter written by Robert E. Lee with the manuscript map he made, still together. Lee was a loyal American soldier on October 28, 1847, serving in the army during the Mexican War. He writes about activities near Mexico City and expresses the sentiment that America hold on to the substantial territorial gains it has made so that “we can exercise a greater control & influence over this nation.” He also tells the recipient, a fellow soldier and friend, that he has included his hand-drawn map of Mexico City and surrounding areas. It is still present with this letter. Reese observes, “The fact that this map and letter have remained together for nearly 175 years is remarkable.” Item 28. $125,000.