University of Virginia Library Acquires Rare Colonial Newspapers

November 08, 2007
Nov. 8, 2007 — Alumnus and philanthropist Albert H. Small has helped the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library acquire 133 Revolutionary War-era issues of the Virginia Gazette, which, on July 19, 1776, printed the first press report in Virginia about the Declaration of Independence.

One week later, the Williamsburg-based newspaper published the complete text of the Declaration. Both issues are in the new collection, which spans the years 1776 and 1777.

The Virginia Gazette issues will complement the large number of newspaper printings in the Albert H. Small Declaration of Independence collection, which includes the July 6, 1776 edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, the first newspaper in the nascent nation to carry the text of the Declaration of Independence. The Small collection also includes one of 25 known copies of the "Dunlap broadside," the first printing of the Declaration of Independence itself. Small built the collection over several decades before donating it to U.Va.

"In two years of newspapers, you really get a history of what goes on in a place," Small said, noting that these papers are the only records of some events. "If we don't document the past, we won't know where we came from."

The tabloid-sized newspapers span Jan. 5, 1776, to Dec. 19, 1777, and will join 68 issues of the Virginia Gazette, most published later, already in Special Collections. There are few overlaps in the two collections, according to Edward Gaynor, associate director of the Small Special Collections library.

The Gazette of the 1770s reads a little differently than a modern newspaper. Besides having no sports, crosswords and comics, there are no illustrations, nor do the stories have headlines.

"It is not the reporting we are used to today," Gaynor said. "It was a digest of news, a summation of speeches and not a lot of editorials, though there were opinion pieces."

Gaynor noted a change in the paper's masthead on May 17, 1776, switching from an image of the Royal Coat of Arms to a box that read "Thirteen United Colonies."

There were actually three Gazettes operating simultaneously in and around Williamsburg by 1775. All were vying for business, since the House of Burgesses and the General Assembly specified that official proclamations and resolutions be published in the Virginia Gazette. To the British, a gazette was an official journal. The issues obtained by the library were published by Alexander Purdie, a supporter of the Revolutionary cause.

Aside from the Declaration of Independence material, Gaynor said the papers are a treasure trove of information on the times, with accounts of various Revolutionary War battles (including Virginia's first accounts of the battle of Trenton), essays by Thomas Paine, advertisements for runaway slaves, listings of ships' cargo and notices of land sales.

"This collection contains unique issues that only survive in single copies," said Christian Dupont, director of the Special Collections Library. "We're excited to share these rare documents with students and faculty and we will be looking into having these issues digitized."

Founded in 1736, the Virginia Gazette is still in business today, billing itself as the country's oldest non-daily newspaper. Once a weekly, the Gazette is now published on Wednesday and Saturdays.

"Any time copies of the 18th-century Gazette are found, I get a great sense of satisfaction being a part of history for the past 270 years," said Rusty Carter, the Gazette's current editor. "It is a paper that carries so much history and, as a native of Virginia, it is an honor to guide it."

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