Picture an evening in the late 18th century. A man sits alone at a desk lit only by the soft glow of a candle. The room is quiet but for the light scratching of pen on paper. The man pauses to ponder a thought and then resumes writing the manuscript that would become the crowning achievement of his life’s work.

The man is Rev. Samuel Kirkland, missionary to the Oneida Indians. The document he is drafting will become his 15-page “Plan of Education for the Indians.” The desk is quite possibly the one recently refurbished and put on permanent display in Hamilton’s renovated Burke Library.

But first, let’s return back 230 years. In 1793, Kirkland traveled from his Central New York home to Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, to present his plan to President George Washington, who “expressed approbation,” and to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who consented to be a trustee of the new school and lend it his name. The Hamilton-Oneida Academy was chartered in 1793 to educate Oneida children alongside those of the white settlers streaming into the region. Nineteen years later, in 1812, the academy became Hamilton College.

Like the College itself, Kirkland’s desk has an interesting history. Records show that sometime after his death in 1808, it was gifted to Edwin C. Dennison, a college janitor who lived at the foot of College Hill on a farm with his wife, Weltha. They were free African Americans originally from Connecticut.

The couple passed the desk on to their nephew, Charles W. Robinson, a barber in nearby Waterville, N.Y. Active in the Colored Movement and the Republican Party, Robinson was known for his dramatic and sympathetic speeches. Described in the Western Echo as “a man of culture and refinement whose reputation extends throughout the state,” he addressed the Colored Mans Convention of the State of NY in 1880. He and his son-in-law were also active members of the “base ball nine,” a Black baseball team from the area.

Robinson often spoke at the Waterville Lyceum, where he may have come to know H.P. Bigelow, Class of 1861, who was a member there. A local community leader and businessman, Bigelow purchased the desk from Robinson in 1876 and gifted it to Hamilton College.

Although the desk is believed to have been held for a time in the Historical Room, little is known about where it was stored, used, or displayed on campus throughout the ensuing decades. In fact, at some point no one may have been aware that the desk had once belonged to the College’s founder.

In 2019, the desk was discovered in storage in the basement of Bristol Center. Director and Curator of Special Collections and Archives Christian Goodwillie uncovered an inscription scrawled in pencil on the underside of the bottom left drawer that offered clues to its provenance. With its historical significance confirmed, the desk underwent careful inspection by an art conservator. According to the report, “the desk has been restored and refinished at least twice in the past fifty years. Examination using long wave ultraviolet light reveals a relatively recent clear synthetic coating applied over an earlier shellac coating that may be less than fifty years old. A number of repairs have been noted. For the most part, these appear to be less than one hundred years old and must date to the time that the desk had been returned to the college.”

Restoration ensued on the desk, constructed of cherry, tulip poplar, and white pine. Work including replacing original missing hardware and hinges, repairing split beaded molding, ren10ving existing coatings, and refinishing.

With the renovation of the Burke Library’s first floor this summer, a display case was installed to serve as a permanent home for the desk and other artifacts, including Kirkland’s Windsor writing armchair.

Hamilton magazine thanks the Burke Library staff, especially Jeremy Katz in College Archives and Christian Goodwillie in Special Collections for sharing background for this story.

Published in Fall 2023 Hamilton Magazine

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