Unveiling the deed to the Hungerfords. Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 11 June 2019.

A Tale of Three Contracts

An exciting new accession sheds light on James Smithson’s family history and fortune.

Picture this. It’s early June of this year. Having just received an incredible new collection item, the Hungerford Deed, I was hard at work making my final preparations before the Hungerford family came to visit. I had photographed every page, or membrane, of the parchment deed and zoomed in at high resolution on my computer screen to better scrutinize the eighteenth-century clerkly script. It became clear that what we assumed was a long, but cut-and-dried document, which established the division of family property between Elizabeth Macie, James Smithson’s mother, and her sister, Henrietta Maria Walker, was, in actuality, an account of eighteen years’ worth of family drama and tortured legal proceedings. Each unpunctuated line brought further revelations of juicy history, which I gleefully divulged to colleagues. I couldn’t wait to share these tidbits with the Hungerfords and make this deed breathe again with the vibrancy of their ancestors’ lives.

A thick, folded package of layers of yellowed parchment sits atop white archival tissue. Handwritten

What is the Hungerford Deed, exactly?

Flash back a couple of weeks. When Interim Director and Chief Archivist Tammy Peters brought the deed to our conservation lab, it had been folded in half and then into thirds, forming a tight package that resisted opening. We carefully and slowly unfolded the deed, gently weighting the document so that we could better see what we were looking at.

A parchment document, folded in half horizontally, rests atop white cotton blotters, and is prevente

As historian Pam Henson has already shared, the deed is an indenture tripartite, or three-way contract establishing legal property ownership. Written on sixteen pieces of parchment, made from chemically treated and stretch-dried animal skins, the deed is bound together with ribbons laced through the bottom edges of the parchments. One of the ribbons has a red wax seal, and each parchment sheet has a blue tax stamp affixed to the upper left side. Perhaps most excitingly for us at the Smithsonian, Smithson’s signature appears on the back of the document, where he appended his birth name, James Louis Macie, as a witness to the legal execution of the deed.

: A rectangular window cut from one edge of a white cotton blotter reveals a blue embossed tax stamp

What did we do to get the deed ready for viewing and study?

Before I could get to the juicy details I teased above, I had to help the deed relax. Parchment was an ideal writing surface because of the qualities developed in the making process: drying it under tension created a stiff, smooth, sturdy, and optically white material. A less desirable characteristic, however, is its intense sensitivity to moisture. Parchment, like many organic materials, is hygroscopic, meaning that it expands and contracts in the presence of moisture, but if thoroughly wetted, parchment can lose its properties and become a limp skin once more.

This meant I could use moisture to help the deed relax, but that I needed to be careful and conservative in how I applied it to the parchment. An additional wrinkle was that I couldn’t take the deed apart to relax and flatten the individual membranes—the bound ensemble is too important to undo, and would be impossible to restore, setting aside the fact that taking it apart would destroy the already damaged wax seal. What I chose to do was gently humidify each sheet in turn, starting from the first, using a gently humidified sheet of 100% cotton blotter to transmit moisture through Gore-Tex, which allowed a high degree of control and gentle application of water. Each membrane was isolated with polypropylene sheeting from the remainder of the document and strongly weighted during the drying process to control any potential distortions of the parchment. I also cut a small window in the blotters we used to humidify and dry the sheets to prevent moisture or pressure from affecting the blue tax seals.

The final result was a visibly flatter and more relaxed item. Instead of requiring two people to gently but firmly wrestle the document open to peer between the parchments, one person could safely page through the deed.

A parchment document lays flat against a black background. Red rules define the edges of the writing

So what does the Hungerford Deed actually say?

I knew that after this initial and basic treatment was done, I wanted to be able to share more with the Hungerfords about the indenture’s contents, as well as satisfy my own curiosity. To my surprise, the sixteen membranes contained more family history than legal jargon (though there was plenty of that too, in the distinctive legal French descended from the Norman conquest of England). The Hungerford Deed is, it turns out, the third in a series of contracts between the Hungerford sisters divvying up family lands, and caps off a saga that would be at home in a period drama.

First contract: the 1769 marriage settlement of Henrietta Maria

When Lumley Hungerford Keate died without a will in 1766, his claims to family lands passed on to his sisters, Elizabeth and Henrietta Maria. On the strength of this property inheritance, Henrietta Maria was wooed by George Walker, who accepted her fifty-percent stake in the Hungerford properties as her dowry. This is particularly interesting because at this time, the sisters didn’t hold legal title to any of these lands; they were embroiled in off-and-on lawsuits to get possession of them.

Second contract: the 1773 indenture of intent to partition

Having successfully litigated their way to land ownership, Elizabeth, the Walkers, and the trustees agreed to entrust the partitioning of the land to a property expert and enshrined that agreement in another indenture. This expert would divide the lands into equally valuable parcels, and they agreed to accept his work as binding. Unfortunately, he was unable to make an equal division for unspecified reasons, and so it was agreed that the sisters would draw lots for their properties. Whichever sister drew the more valuable lands would then owe her sister a fixed sum to equalize the shares. Elizabeth drew the proverbial short straw.

However (and here’s where it gets dramatic), Henrietta Maria refused to execute the necessary legal documents to accomplish the partition. The deed is silent on her motivations, only recording her refusal.

Remarkably, Elizabeth is seemingly content to let this go for a time, but eventually she loses patience. In 1782, Elizabeth takes her sister to court and sues for the enforcement of the 1773 partition. And this isn’t some small claims court. Elizabeth brings her case to the Chancery Court, England’s highest civil law authority, which was notorious for long, drawn-out inheritance cases, some stretching on for hundreds of years. [Check out Dickens’ Bleak House for a satirical—but not overly exaggerated, shockingly—look at Chancery.] Despite regular summons, Henrietta Maria refused to appear in court and was held in contempt, and the case was escalated up to the Master of the Rolls, the senior Chancery judge. Henrietta Maria again failed to appear, and the Master of the Rolls ruled in Elizabeth’s favor; he then ordered his clerks to begin drawing up the legal documents of partition, of which the Hungerford Deed is a principal example. Henrietta Maria was also ordered to pay the money she owed her sister and was obliged to assume all court costs associated with the case.

Third contract: the Hungerford Deed

And so we arrive about halfway through the deed before we get to the legal kernel at the center of this family drama nut, where the flowery yet dry prose rears its head. Despite another nine parchment sheets of legalese, featuring endless repetitions of the sisters assenting to the terms of the partition and assuring each other that they renounce all claims on each other’s lands, there is a lot to unpack and probe further into.

First, Henrietta Maria proves herself as enigmatic a figure as I have ever encountered in a legal document. No justification or even explanation of her actions is offered, and I have a hard time imagining a rational reason for her dogged refusal to sign the needed documents to get her properties.

The deed also throws some interesting light on the state of women’s property rights at this time. Elizabeth was a thoroughly litigious woman (famously, she was the last person to successfully argue a suit of “jactitation” against her second, wastrel husband, meaning that he was legally prevented from declaring himself her spouse in public) and Henrietta Maria also appears to be no stranger to bold action. Throughout the deed, the rights of the sisters to hold their properties without reference to any man is repeatedly stressed, which goes against my preconceived notions of women’s property rights during this period.

A group of men and women surround a table in a glass-walled room, listening to a man in a blue shirt

Why is the deed so exciting to the Archives and to the wider Smithsonian?

Aside from James Smithson’s signature on the reverse, itself a valuable addition to our collections, the most exciting piece of the Smithson puzzle that this provides is a detailed look at the seeds of James Smithson’s wealth, which ultimately would engender the Smithsonian itself as we know it today. While Smithson was a self-made man in many respects, his money had its origins in his family inheritance. We know his mother spent much of her inherited fortune, and Heather Ewing, Smithson’s biographer, estimates that a very small percentage of the land wealth represented in this deed made it to Smithson. But he parlayed that into a fortune ten times larger than what he started with through his own initiative.

The Hungerford Deed is a fascinating object and offers a window into a time and its mores and practices that are now lost or foreign to our modern eyes and minds. But its link to the Smithsonian’s founding is even more significant and gives us a glimpse of both the tangible and interpersonal inheritance that James Smithson received from his mother. From the seeds of wealth planted by this indenture has sprung a profusion of culture and knowledge that enriches the lives of people across the globe.

Related Collections

Related Resources

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.