The Huntington

Week 5: #52 Ancestors – At the Library

By Eilene Lyon

Before she died, my great-grandmother, Clara Ransom Davis, made a priceless (at least to me) donation to the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Why she chose the Huntington — not the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley, the California Historical Society, or the California State Library — she never explained.

I suspect it was because she appreciated the exclusivity of the Huntington. Not just anyone can blithely access the 7 million manuscripts and 430 thousand rare books housed there.

To get into the Huntington requires an application and two letters of reference – and that’s no guarantee you’ll be admitted into the rarified air. It helps if you have academic or significant publishing credentials, particularly as a historian.

Henry E. Huntington (Wikimedia Commons)

Henry E. Huntington (1850 – 1927) was a railroad magnate and Los Angeles-area real estate developer. He was also an art collector. His lavish estate in San Marino has become not only a library and art museum, but also includes a 120-acre botanical garden with 15,000 plant varieties.

The most famous painting in the Huntington collection is “The Blue Boy,” a 1770 Dutch-master-style portrait by British painter Thomas Gainsborough.

The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough (Wikimedia Commons)

About four years ago, I contacted the Huntington regarding Clara’s donation: the Jenkins family gold rush letters. It took several email exchanges to ascertain that the collection was there and intact, but it clearly had never been processed or been through any preservation work.

Interestingly, Clara passed a transcript of the letters and diary to family members, but she didn’t include a copy with the originals. When the Huntington finally sent me scans of some of the letters, which took me about two years to get, I sent them my revised transcript as thanks (they did not charge me for the scans). The scans include letters by Henry Jenkins, Abigail Bedford Jenkins, and Ann W. Zane Jenkins.

One of Henry Jenkins’s letters serves as a backdrop for my blog. I actually have two of Henry’s original letters: one to his son William in California from 1855, and one written to his daughter, Emma, about her mother’s death in 1882. Henry died later that same year. The 1855 letter is special, because Henry’s wife, Abby, also wrote part of it.

Two letters written by Henry Z. Jenkins (collection of the author)

The remainder of the surviving family correspondence, to my knowledge, resides at the Huntington. At least eight additional letters were transcribed by Prof. C. J. Brosnan at the University of Idaho (Clara’s alma mater), but the fate of the originals is a mystery.

I recently made a request to see the Jenkins collection, and some other items, at the Huntington. They’ve granted my request and I have an appointment for 9 a.m. on Monday, April 8. (See, I told you they were strict!)

Partly, I want to review the documents to ensure my transcript is accurate, because I know from the scans they sent that Clara made some “corrections” for spelling, punctuation, and such.

Partly, I just want to behold these precious heirlooms from my family history. I’m grateful for their preservation, thanks to Clara’s foresight.

Feature Image: The Huntington Library (Wikimedia Commons)

Sources: (includes a scandal!)


26 thoughts on “The Huntington

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  1. What a treasure trove of historical information your great-grandmother bequested. Although, it sounds as if you have been made to jump through quite a few hoops just for the opportunity to view your own family’s records.

    I look forward to hearing your findings! Good luck at your appointment!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Blue Boy was one of my mother’s favorites! How wonderful your Aunt Calara donated the letters; how frustrating the library seems to have ignored them till you asked questions, but how exciting you will get to see them in person! I hope we hear about your visit!

    Liked by 1 person

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