The Hungerford Deed, 1787, Accession 19-150, Smithsonian Institution Archives. Courtesy of Michael Barnes.

Introducing: A Tale of Two Sisters: The Hungerford Deed and James Smithson’s Legacy

To commemorate the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary on August 10, 2021, the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives is launching a web exhibit that sheds new light on English chemist James Smithson’s gift to found the Smithsonian.

Why did an English chemist donate his fortune to the United States, a nation he had never even visited? It’s a question familiar to the Smithsonian Institution Archives. And while we don’t necessarily have the answer, the Hungerford Deed, an eighteenth-century real estate contract, sheds new light on Smithson’s motivations. 

In A Tale of Two Sisters: The Hungerford Deed and James Smithson’s Legacy, launching today, explore the conflict between Smithson’s mother, Elizabeth Macie, and his aunt, Henrietta Maria Walker, over the division of family lands inherited from their ancestors, the Hungerfords. 

The exhibit centers around Macie and Walker as they passionately fought to claim their family’s legacy. The sisters took up their pursuits when their brother, Lumley Hungerford Keate, died unexpectedly in 1766, when James Smithson was only an infant. This means that for 20 years of Smithson’s life until the case was settled in 1786, his mother was in and out of the courtroom with neighbors and relatives, including her sister, in disputes over these ancestral family lands. 

It’s no wonder that Smithson had legacy in mind when he bequeathed his fortune to the U.S. for “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men” under the name “Smithsonian Institution.” 

A Tale of Two Sisters curator William Bennett argues that the Deed helps us reimagine the Smithson bequest—not as the final whim of an English eccentric, but as the legacy of a scientist devoted to enriching the world through knowledge. He explains, “The Deed gives us real insight and appreciation into the milieu, the day-to-day world, of Smithson and his family, and brings us that much closer to understanding who these people were, their lived experiences, and their outlook on the world.” 

GIF of someone clicking through the Hungerford Deed interactive in the web exhibit. The user pulls u

On the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, we invite you to come turn the pages of Smithsonian history with us. Zoom in and click around the Hungerford Deed to dive into the lives of Elizabeth Macie and Henrietta Maria Walker and the people, places, and institutions that shaped their world and influenced our history.

Curious to learn even more about the Deed? Bennett will share some of the sensational stories and fascinating history that emerged from his research on Thursday, August 12 at 5 pm ET. Register for the program here

Graphic for the program, featuring Elizabeth Macie's seal.

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