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981 Huguenot Trail
Midlothian, Virginia 23113

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Virginia records to come home

Robert Alonzo Brock

What you should know about him is that by the time of his death in 1914, he had
assembled what is believed to be the deepest and most valuable collection of
documents and manuscripts related to Virginia history ever held in private hands.

 

The next thing you probably should know is the entire collection was sold, packed up
and crated to California 81 years ago.


Douglas Southall Freeman, the legendary, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The
Richmond News Leader, railed against the sale of the priceless slice of history.
"Virginia has only herself to blame," he said.


He suggested Virginia's history was hemorrhaging away, for failure of the General
Assembly to provide sufficient funds to acquire historic materials when they came to
market.


Over the decades, those who had an interest in the collection - along with the time,
money and research credentials - have journeyed to the Huntington Library in San
Marino, Calif., to view and record the collection's contents.


But distance, access and the care involved in dealing with fragile documents has
meant only a portion of the sprawling Brock Collection, involving hundreds of
thousands of items, has been thoroughly researched.


All that is about to change.


Soon microfilming will begin on the Brock Collection. By 2007, the 400th
anniversary of Virginia's founding, a record of the collection will be on the shelves of
the Library of Virginia.


"This is going to be one of the two or three most important retrievals of information
about Virginia's history. It likely will rival the Colonial records project, when
materials were retrieved from England and elsewhere," Brent Tarter said.


Tarter is assistant director of publications and educational affairs at the Library of
Virginia. He also has researched Brock extensively.


He notes, in a biography of Brock, the collection was trailed by controversy.


"The collection . . . included a substantial quantity of official Virginia documents that
should never have been in private hands, as well as books and other materials that
had clearly belonged to the Virginia Historical Society," Tarter writes.


He said most of the controversy has since died down, although Tarter recalls that
many have lamented that a Virginia institution could not have acquired the
collection. It was up for sale from 1914 until 1922.


That's when Henry Edwards Huntington, a railroad and real estate developer who
was intent on developing a world-class library, stepped forward.


Huntington Library officials would not say what its founder paid for the collection,
but they did disclose it had been offered to the commonwealth of Virginia for $1,500
at some point during the period when it was for sale.


Edward D.C. Campbell Jr., director of collection-management services with the state
library, said Huntington's intervention probably saved the Brock Collection for
posterity.


Otherwise, he said, it would have been sold piecemeal and scattered to the winds.


Campbell has been the library's point person with the Huntington Library on the
$250,000 microfilming project.


About $150,000 has been raised through private gifts from the Library of Virginia
Foundation, as well as the Roller-Bottimore and Robins foundations, both of
Richmond.


It is envisioned that by the project's completion, the record of the most historically
valuable part of the collection, encompassing upward of 500,000 manuscript pages,
will require 500 reels of microfilm.


The project also will permit the Huntington to catalog the collection and repair any
historical documents that need special attention.


Although Brock is largely unknown today, in his time he was renowned as a scholar
of history and, perhaps more importantly, a collector of historical documents without
peer.


To say his passion for collecting approached the eccentric would not be much of a
stretch.


During his lifetime, scholars and historians flocked to his Richmond home, because
that is where he kept his collection. Books, maps, surveys, letters and official
government records filled every room and flowed up the stairway.


At one time, Brock was the corresponding secretary for both the Virginia Historical
Society and the Southern Historical Society, giving him unparalleled access to
historical sources and research.


He collected everything, using money derived from his family's prosperous lumber
business, which he finally quit to make collecting and writing about history a fulltime
occupation.


"The collection ranges from the Colonial period through the end of the 19th century,
with the bulk of the materials dating to the middle years of the 1800s," Campbell
said.


Important papers from the Colonial and Revolutionary War periods include the
records of the Virginia Land Office; correspondence between Gov. Thomas Jefferson
and the Virginia Boards of Trade and War; and the legal records of the Virginia
General Court, the High Court of Chancery and the Court of Admiralty.


Documents from the Civil War era are even more extensive and include "secret
sessions" of the Virginia General Assembly and legal records of the Confederate
States of America District Court for Eastern Virginia.


Also included is correspondence from major figures in the war, as well as the postwar
records of the United Confederate Veterans (1875-1909) and the Lee Camp
Confederate Soldiers' Home (1885-1894).


Documents on the history of Quakers in Virginia and William Byrd's notebook (1697-
1702) are also are in the collection.


"We had no idea how immense the collection was until we actually saw it," Campbell
said. "This is an exquisite treasure for Virginia history."


Campbell said the collection also will reveal a lot about everyday life in Virginia -
"how people lived and worked" - with records of small businesses and churches that
are available nowhere else.


Library of Virginia scholars say the collection might lead to the reinterpretation of
whole sections of Virginia history.


But John Rhodehamel, curator of American historical manuscripts at the Huntington
Library, said the Brock Collection will not answer all the questions people have about
Virginia history.


For example, he said there is an erroneous belief among some genealogists and
others that the Brock Collection has duplicates of the county records lost when
Confederate troops set fires as they evacuated Richmond in April 1865.


Rhodehamel said there has been "some tension" over the years as people have called
the Huntington Library with questions the library's staff has no resources to
research.


It is expected that when the microfilming on the Brock Collection is complete - and
perhaps well before then - the microfilm carrels at the Library of Virginia will be
humming.


Amateur sleuths of history, along with a parade of professional scholars, will be
trying to get an early peek at historic records and documents that have never had so
much attention since Robert Alonzo Brock first began piling them up in stacks in the
19th century.


"I don't know what they are going to be," Campbell said, "but there are going to be
incredible surprises."


Written by Gary Roberts, Times Dispatch Writer
Contact at grobertson@timesdispatch.com


See R. A. Brock, Documents, Chiefly Unpublished, Relating to the Huguenot Emigration to
Virginia and to the Settlement at Manakin Town, with an Appendix of Genealogies, Presenting
Data of the Fontaine, Maury, Dupuy, Trabue, Marye, Chastain, Cocke, and Other Families:
Edited and Compiled for the Virginia Historical Society
.