The most tedious part of the effort to catalog all of the duPont Library’s manuscript collection on computer has been the four letter books used by William Lee to keep records of his mercantile correspondence. William, born 1739 in Westmoreland County, was the next to youngest son of Thomas Lee, builder of Stratford. He learned accounting skills while serving as clerk for his older brother Philip Ludwell Lee at Stratford and eventually established himself as a London merchant in 1768. William sent ships to Virginia and Maryland to collect tobacco on consignment, arranged for its sale in London and elsewhere, and sent back to the colonies goods ordered and charged against the anticipated proceeds of the crop.
The earlier letter books, spanning the years from 1769 to 1775, document the political and financial turmoil that existed between England and the colonies just prior to the American Revolution. They also detail some of the financial dealings between mercantile houses, planters, insurers, lawyers, ship captains and ship owners. William’s correspondence makes it very clear that the process by which most planters purchased goods from England was essentially a creative juggling act–on paper and using credit, with very little actual money exchanging hands. Thanks to these books, we know about all sorts of troubles that plagued the tobacco trade, including shipworm infestations, pirates, crooked inspectors, and gusts [hurricanes].
The books contain over 700 pages of William Lee’s letters, copied by office clerks with varying degrees of spelling and handwriting skills and, later, by his own hand. With help of dedicated volunteer Maurice Capone, who transcribed many of the letters prior to their cataloging, the project has proceeded steadily and will soon reach completion. We are currently working on the last letter book that ended four days prior to William Lee’s death on June 27, 1795.