SCHENECTADY — India Spartz is always stumbling upon little treasures inside the vast collection of Union College’s Schaffer Library. The latest find, however, is really special.
As head of special collections and archives at Union, Spartz and her staff at the library came across a rare lock of hair in December that they say belonged to George Washington. The few strands were discovered in a long-forgotten leather-bound book, “Gaines Universal Register for the year 1793.”
“The hair was found inside the book in an envelope with a small notation on it that said, ‘Washington’s hair,'” said Spartz, who has worked at Schaffer Library since 2014. “It had been slid inside the book, and we knew right away it was pretty important. It was obvious.”
Spartz credited Daniel Michelson, a historical records project archivist, as the individual who found the book and realized it might be valuable. Then, Union College catalogue and metadata librarian John Myers uncovered the yellow envelope tucked inside, with the several strands of gray or whitening hair.
“This was part of the survey we were doing with our collection,” Spartz said. “I come across little treasures like this all the time, but not with the national significance of this one. We can’t document how we got it, but we know it’s very old, and it’s not unusual to find something like this when you’re going through collections at a college that’s more than 200 years old.”
Also inside the envelope was a letter dated 1804 to James Alexander Hamilton, the third son of Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler and the grandson of Philip Schuyler. Alexander Hamilton served closely with Washington during the American Revolution and was selected by President Washington to become the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. Another inscription on the envelope states, “James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, Aug. 10, 1871.”
Spartz has had a number of ephemera experts look at the artifacts, and while no one has suggested the items aren’t genuine, it’s impossible to confirm their authenticity.
But, at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, where Philip Schuyler lived throughout the second half of the 18th century, historian Michelle Migliavento said it wouldn’t at all be surprising if the items are real.
“I don’t know the provenance, and only the basic facts, so I can’t say too much about it,” she said. “But George and Martha Washington were godparents to the Schuylers’ youngest daughter, and obviously Washington and Hamilton were quite friendly. We have our own lock of George Washington’s hair right here at the Schuyler Mansion. So, I can’t comment on the authenticity of what they found at Union, but certainly locks of hair were given as remembrances during that time period.”
Spartz is making sure that Washington’s hair, the letter and the envelope are properly preserved.
“We’re going to make sure they’re taken care of, and then we hope to have them on exhibit,” she said. “We’ll put them in some exhibit cases so people will be able to get a good look at them, hopefully right here in the library.”
According to most historians, Washington made three trips to upstate New York. He is reported to have visited Albany in 1781 for Catherine’s baptism, and in 1782 and 1783 the record is fairly clear that he did travel to Schenectady and further west into the Mohawk Valley.