Last summer the NHS was given a remarkable artifact. A silver-hilted French gentleman’s sword made in Paris about 1765. This lovely object is a pleasure to look it, but it is not its beauty that made the gift exceptional. It, along with a pair of French silver spurs, were, perhaps, given to Newport’s Daniel Lyman by the Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolution. When, why, and in what context was this gift given? And was this story even true?
The Lafayette gift will require several lines of inquiry to be properly documented. We have the objects, a somewhat contradictory but very tantalizing family history, and both Lyman and Lafayette to explore. In mid-May we gathered a team to begin this process: material culture specialists, historians, public humanities practitioners, and a film crew. Working with a documentary maker who understands and supports history, we intend to develop a film presentation of the Lyman and Lafayette story. The film will also, necessarily, capture the process by which a collecting institution studies and interprets history.
Lyman, Connecticut born and Yale educated, played an apparently important but somewhat enigmatic role in the American Revolution. Lafayette, as is well known, came to America to fight with George Washington and became an important link between the General and French support. Did the two men serve together? Were they friends? Did Lafayette in fact make this gift, or is it just family myth? And what else can we learn about the time period, and the people in it, while we seek to document these artifacts?
We have begun the work to assemble historical data about Lyman in Connecticut before the Revolution, his service during the war, and his life in Rhode Island afterwards with his wife Polly Wanton and her family. We will also be examining the sword and spurs themselves – when they were made, by whom, and whether we can discover who purchased them. Finally, we will be looking at the context and surrounding circumstances of all of our cast of characters – what was going on in Newport before and during the Revolution that will help us to construct our story?
This work is not a stand-alone initiative. It is connected to our work on the Revolution House Project – which seeks to present Newport’s role in the American Revolution through a reinterpretation of the home in which Daniel and Polly Lyman lived in Newport, and to the Spectacle of Toleration, which seeks to offer the public a sense of the lived experience of the past in Newport. A single gift has become the pivot point for a large exploration and a substantial result for the NHS.
We will be blogging the project discoveries here over the next few months. By watching this space, you can join us – and Dr. Taylor Stoermer of Harvard Public History who is directing the research – and follow along as we explore our topic.
BTW, we have already discovered that Lyman was very fond of tea, cigars, and the ladies.
Video produced for the Newport Historical Society by Tree of Life Productions, LLC .