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Historical treasures from the Roosevelts

Elizabeth Roosevelt looks over letters, artifacts and documents

Elizabeth Roosevelt looks over letters, artifacts and documents relating to her branch of the Roosevelt family who are descendants of James Roosevelt. The items were found in the attic of her home, where they had been for 100 years. (Jan. 10, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Oyster Bay Historical Society was hoping just to borrow a few Theodore Roosevelt artifacts to flesh out an exhibit of contemporary paintings. What it got instead was a donated treasure trove of Roosevelt family documents, including two letters written by the 26th president.

Last fall the society's executive director, Philip Blocklyn, called Elizabeth Roosevelt, 80, of Cove Neck, a society board member and the last member of Long Island's most famous family to live in the Oyster Bay area. (She's Theodore Roosevelt's third cousin twice removed.)

He was in search of items that could be displayed at the opening of the society's new archive and exhibition building next weekend. Roosevelt responded by taking several posters of the president to the society's headquarters for consideration.

 

An amazing gift

"And then she invited us over to look at some other things that had been stored in her attic for 100 years," curator Yvonne Noonan-Cifarelli said.

Roosevelt brought down two boxes full of papers, a compilation of Roosevelt-related documents, letters and photographs - much of it from the Civil War - with great financial and historical value.

"We're finding a letter from Gen. [William T.] Sherman in Savannah right before his march into the Carolinas, calling cards from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, evergreen sprigs from Abraham Lincoln's casket and all these amazing documents," Noonan-Cifarelli said.

Already awestruck, Blocklyn and Noonan-Cifarelli were flabbergasted by what Roosevelt did next. "She just turned to us and said, 'You can have it. You'll know what to do with it,' " the curator recalled.

The 500 items connected to several Roosevelt generations are valuable because "it is a private collection that hasn't been seen for three generations," Blocklyn said.

The collection contains primarily items with connections to New York and Oyster Bay. Donating it to the society "seemed like the thing to do, especially since I'm on the board," said Roosevelt, who taught history for 32 years, primarily at Friends Academy near Locust Valley and at Syosset High School. She kept only one item: a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to her father.

"Nobody in my family is up for keeping it because they now live in the West," Roosevelt said.

 

Focus on family

With the documents in hand, the society shifted the focus of the inaugural exhibit for its new 3,700-square-foot Angela P. Koenig Research and Collection Center, named in honor of a late longtime board member and funded by a matching grant from the Dolan Family Foundation.

Now it will focus on Elizabeth Roosevelt's branch of the Roosevelt family in Oyster Bay and how important it was locally and beyond.

"It's about the importance of her family line that really gets overshadowed" by Theodore Roosevelt and his family, Noonan-Cifarelli said.

The exhibit is now named "The Roosevelts Next Door . . . Portraits of Devotion" and will include a display of portraits of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln by Sands Point artist Dan Christoffel.

After an opening reception Saturday evening, it will open Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and then close until mid-March, when the building is expected to be completed. (For more information, see oysterbayhistorical.org.)

Elizabeth Roosevelt said the collection dates to James Alfred Roosevelt - TR's uncle and her great-grandfather - "because all of the stuff was stored in the attic at Yellowbanks," the Cove Neck home he built in 1881, Elizabeth said. "When we sold the house in 1972, it [the collection] got transferred to me and it's been sitting around for a long time."

Much of the donated collection relates to the Western Sanitary Commission, one of several volunteer organizations created during the Civil War to care for injured Union soldiers.

"It's just a treasure trove of historical documents about the Sanitary Commission, which was the precursor to the Red Cross, and how James Roosevelt and his family was so instrumental in it," Noonan-Cifarelli said.

James Roosevelt was a principal in Roosevelt & Sons, a major banking firm on Wall Street and a major organizer and donor of the commission.

 

General Sherman's plan

Among the highlights of the collection is a letter Sherman wrote to the commission president, J.E. Yeatman, in St. Louis on Jan. 15, 1865. Yeatman apparently had urged Sherman to destroy Charleston, S.C., but Sherman wrote: "you must not be surprised if you hear I give it the go by for the present to accomplish a "major" assault. . . . I will soon be on the war path again." Sherman captured the South Carolina capital of Columbia instead.

With the Sherman letter is a signed Matthew Brady photograph signed "William T. Sherman, general."

Among the TR items are two letters he wrote to Elizabeth Roosevelt's father, John. One, on White House stationery and dated April 11, 1904, relates that TR's sons "Ted and Kermit are down with the mumps at Groton, and as you can see by the enclosed letters are sending me agonized appeals to get them home. This I cannot do at present, but their mother has gone up to them, which will console them a good deal. . . . I am reading Ivanhoe to [sons] Archie and Quentin - relieving the strain on their mental faculties by subsequent pillow fights."

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