Personal Collection to Rare Book Room: The Travels of Rufus King’s Library

Rufus King, 1755-1827

Rufus King, 1755-1827

I think it’s very important that we understand the provenance of the collections we use in libraries and archives.  Robert Darnton has said that when we consider the difficulties that any author faces as they work to get a book published, it is surprising that any book gets published at all.  The same sort of thinking can be brought to bear on libraries and archives.  The caprice involved in getting any collection preserved in a library or archive makes the survival of our historical record an astounding thing.  The same goes for Rufus King’s library.  It took luck and the foresight and generosity of a number of individuals to make it happen.  The people and institutions of the past deserve recognition for such efforts.

Rufus encountered books from an early age.  His father, Richard, was a wealthy transatlantic lumber merchant who also ran a dry goods store in Scarborough, the District of Maine.  Richard was also a pettifogging lawyer who had literary proclivities and had a library of 35 books at his death in 1775.  These included “7 Volumes of the Spectator,” “Bayley’s Dictionary and Salmon’s Geography,” and “2 Volume of Lock[e] on Human Understanding” (RK Papers, Box 24, Folder 4, New-York Historical Society [hereafter N-YHS]).

Rufus received his first books at the age of 11 from his father.  The earliest known book in his collection at N-YHS is An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a two-volume London edition from 1768.  Rufus signed the book several times, but on the front flyleaf wrote, “Ex Lib:s. R: King 1774.”  After graduating from Harvard, King studied law and was given permission to practice before the bar in 1780.  In the early 1780s, he told his family that he could not help pay for his sister’s schooling because he had, “been collecting what spare money I could com[m]and for the purpose of making a purchase of some amount in Books.”  Many of those books, some of rarest and most valuable in his collection, came from the collection of the Revolutionary lawyer James Otis Jr.  Rufus bought at least one book from Otis while he was alive, and seems to have bought at least 16 more after the patriot’s death in 1783.


Rufus King’s bookplate. Motto is “Recte et Suaviter” [Justly and Mildly]. Engraved by Peter R. Maverick.

King moved permanently to New York after 1786 and continued buying books.  Soon thereafter he commissioned a bookplate and used it up to his 1796, when he moved to London to serve as the American Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James.  While abroad, King bought what would be the majority of his book collection.  We can get a sense of its size because the Jefferson administration denied him the use of a government ship to bring back his personal property.  King was forced to rent a ship in New York through his agent and reported, “[i]t is impossible for me to conjecture with any degree of accuracy the measurement of my baggage: it will consist of my Library of between two and three Thousand volumes, the furniture of [a] moderate sized House, a Coach and Charriot.”  If we take the median of that estimate, that means King purchased nearly a volume a day for the seven years he was in Europe.  King continued to buy books after his return to New York in 1803, but never to the extent he did in London.  Over time, it also seems that King was less concerned with binding the volumes he purchased in any fine way.  Many of the books I examined from the early 1820s were found in paper wrappers or with simple pasteboard covers.

Frederick Gore King, 1802-1829

Frederick Gore King, 1802-1829

King knew the books were important and seemed to worry about what would happen to them as he neared death.   He recorded in his journal on October 26, 1826 that, “To day I expect Frederic [Gore King, his youngest son] & wife to look over the Library – with what success they may proceed, we must wait to be informed – perhaps it might have been preferable to employ a person of more experience, for example such a one as [James] Eastburn – with his Experience it might have been done; without such Acquaintance, it will be difficult.”  King recorded the next day that, “Frederic and wife came last Evening to engage in looking over the Library. employed today; and made progress” (Erving-King Papers, Box 24, Folder K54).  It was clear that King needed some help with his books — enough so that he thought a luminary like the learned bookseller James Eastburn, whose was known for his “literary rooms,” was needed.

Ultimately, Frederic seems to have been up to the job.  After his father’s death on April 29, 1827, Frederic managed the creation of a manuscript inventory of the books and noted it was worth, “$5,530.23 Total Estimted by G. H. Carvill and F.G. King Octr 13th 1827.”   (RK Papers, Vol. 74, N-YHS).  This inventory is over 100 pages in length and provides a short-title listing of the books in alphabetical order.  Books in early republic were usually shelved by format (folios with folios, octavos with octavos, etc.), so Frederic and Carvill probably wrote down the book titles and later alphabetized them for the final inventory.

John Alsop King - first Republican governor of NY, 1788-1867.

John Alsop King – first Republican governor of NY, 1788-1867.

Their estimate was very low.  Perhaps this was done to keep the books together?  In the end, John Alsop King, Rufus’s oldest son, bought out the shares of his four other brothers and kept the books in Rufus’s house.  In a letter written by Rufus’s son James Gore King to brother William King in Ohio, it was said that

“Against the cash part of your share, vizt $1996 84/100 – I propose taking John A King’s bond $2000 @ 6% interest – from 1 August next – which he will give in part payment for the Library – and for my cash part or $1496 84/100 I shall take his bond for $1500 – I mean Chalres should do so for 999 83/100 viz $1000 – which will leave for John himself $1500 in his own bond: thus making up the sum of $6000 cost of Library” (James King to William King, 12 July 1828, Sarah Worthington King Peter Papers, Ross County [Ohio] Historical Society).

John kept the books together, and added to them, until his death in 1867.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to say much about his use of the books or his purchases since the archival collections of his papers are small.  But the library did receive the accolades of the famous bibliophile Henry Stevens during John’s ownership.  Stevens noted that

“There are above one hundred [volumes] printed before 1700, and as you will see, the greater part of them are in the English language – After yours & Mr. [John Carter] Browns collection Mr Kings is probably the best private collection in the country.  The books are generally in excellent preservation – The two greatest gems in the collection I consider the Jacques Cartier & P. Pierre Biard 1616 – Of both of them I believe no other copies are known in this country – In books printed subsequently to the year 1700 Mr Kings library is very rich –” (Henry Stevens to James Lenox, 25 September 1848.  MSS Copy made by Victor H. Paltsits in Misc. Mss. Stevens, Henry, N-YHS).
Charles Ray King, 1813-1901. Note the holes made by children throwing darts at the painting.

Charles Ray King, 1813-1901. Note the holes made by children throwing darts at the painting.

After 1867, the books went to John’s wife Mary Ray King and they remained in the King house until her death in 1873.  At this point, their son Dr. Charles Ray King of Andalusia, Pennsylvania inherited the books.  The books remained in Jamaica while Charles Ray King built a new library wing in his Pennsylvania home.  The books were then moved to Andalusia in 1874.  Unfortunately, this house burned in 1980 and no known photographs of the library exist, although from a manuscript inventory created by Charles Ray King around 1874, it is clear that he kept the doubling shelving system referenced in my previous post. (RK Papers, Vol. 74A, N-YHS).

The books were added to his collection of Rufus King manuscripts, which Charles Ray King inherited from his uncle Charles King (the second son of Rufus King) in 1867.  The manuscripts were divided up though, with some going to James Gore King (the third son of Rufus King).  Charles Ray King’s collection of Rufus King manuscripts were donated to N-YHS in 1902, after his death in 1901.  He had used those papers to edited the six-volume Life and

My copy of the 1971 Da Capo reprint of 1894-1900 originals.   The 6th volume is around here somewhere.

My copy of the 1971 Da Capo reprint of 1894-1900 originals. The 6th volume is around here somewhere.

Correspondence of Rufus King (1894-1900).  The papers in James Gore King’s possession remained in his family until James Gore King V donated them to N-YHS in 1979.  They are now known as the Erving-King Papers.

After 1901, the books remained in Pennsylvania in possession of Charles Ray King’s wife Nancy W. King.  She made arrangements to preserve the library with the help of her niece Mary Rhinelander King.  When Nancy died in 1905, she left $25,000 to buy out the shares of other family members and Mary Rhinelander King also gave $25,000.  The $50,000 was enough to satisfy the demands of the family and the books were then offered for donation to the New-York Historical Society.

Arrangements between Mary Rhinelander King’s lawyer, Edmund L. Baylies and the president of the historical society, Samuel V. Hoffmann, were quickly arranged:

“As attorney for Miss Mary Rhinelander King, daughter of the late Hon. John A. King [Jr.], I write to ask what arrangements are to made in respect to the library of Rufus King.  This library which was owned by the late Charles R. King, passed at the latter’s death to his widow, for life.  This widow, Mrs. Nancy W. King, and Miss Mary R. King arranged jointly to present this library to the New York Historical Society, having agreed with the executors of the late Charles R. King for its purchase.  Mrs. Nancy W. King has recently died, but made suitable provision in her will to enable her executor to carry out this arrangement.  I am notified that the executors of the late Charles R. King are anxious to have the matter closed up, and I, therefore, write to ask you what arrangements can be made for delivering this library to your Society now.  I am informed that the matter has hitherto been considered by your Society, and that the gift is an acceptable one.  What I wish now especially to know is when the books, which are now at Andalusia, Pennsylvania, and which must be boxed up and sent to this City, are to be delivered, should they be sent to No. 170 Second Avenue, or do you desire them sent elsewhere, and would it be convenient for you to accept delivery of these books some time early in January 1906?” (N-YHS Institutional Archive, December 13-18, 1905 Folder, Edmund L. Baylies to Samuel V. Hoffman, 14 December 1905).
Random page from the Kelby inventory of 1906.

Random page from the Kelby inventory of 1906.

The historical society’s librarian, Robert H. Kelby, completed the arrangements.  He appears to have traveled to Andalusia and created another inventory.  Kelby arranged to have the books shipped in fifty crates by train to the society’s headquarters at 170 Second Avenue on January 30, 1906.  Three separate crates were shipped by express, which means they might have been particularly valuable volumes.   The society’s Register of Additions for 1904-1907 notes that “The late Mrs. Charles Ray King and Miss Mary Rhinelander King (Great Grand Daughter of Rufus King)” donated “the Library of Rufus King with additions by his grandson Dr. Charles Ray King.  A rare and valuable American and Miscellaneous Collection consisting of 5,247 volumes.”  Only 3,715 of those volumes belonged to Rufus King. It is unclear exactly how many volumes John Alsop King and Charles Ray King contributed toward the remaining 1,800 volumes, although there is an inventory of Charles Ray King’s medical books at N-YHS that comes in at 670 titles.

Today the books are available for use at the library of N-YHS.  The historical society is currently working on completing the cataloging of the library, although most books can be found through their OPAC.

This entry was posted in American History, Book History, Early American Republic, Print Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s