Mitchell’s Missing Papers

When Congress de-funded the Emigration Office in 1864, James Mitchell packed up his belongings including almost three years of files from his work as Lincoln’s colonization commissioner. These records reportedly filled several trunks and included Mitchell’s correspondence with the President, members of the cabinet, and untold hundreds of other individuals who had been involved in colonization. Mitchell described them at length at several points in his career, including a letter to President Grant in 1871.

Mitchell carried his colonization papers with him for the rest of his life, and eventually settled into a role as the headmaster of a Methodist seminary in Mt. Zion, Georgia. When he died in 1903, a local newspaper reporter inspected the trunk and immediately recognized its historical value. Inside were letters spanning Mitchell’s long career in government, including some in the pen of Abraham Lincoln.

Mitchell knew the value of his papers too, and incorporated a clause into his will directing his heirs to eventually publish their contents for historical purposes. His request was unfortunately forgotten, and his trunk of Emigration Office papers was last seen in 1904. Lost with it were untold records of historical value, including papers by Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward, Charles Sumner, and numerous other leading figures of the Civil War era.


Last Will of James Mitchell, Deceased. Filed in Office March 3rd 1903

Section Sixth

I will that my books be equally divided between James Robert and Anna Mitchell, requiring Robert to take first Selection, but before this division is made, I wish any African and Colonization books and State Papers to pass into the hands of Robert, as a trusted individual, in hopes that Sooner or later a personal memoir will be compiled therefrom.

SOURCE: Judge of Probate Records, Carroll County Courthouse, Carrollton, Georgia.

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