Answer Man: George Washington mystery has ties to Belleville

News-DemocratFebruary 1, 2014 

In 1997, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story about a Belleville family that had come into possession of a snuff box originally given to George Washington. The last known owner had displayed it on Washington's Birthday in 1923 for the local chapter of the Daughters of American Revolution -- but it was never seen in public again. The story indicated that someone was going to make an all-out search to find it. I'm wondering if he had any luck. -- Mary Louise Butler, of Glen Carbon

Wow, could you imagine the boundless excitement it would generate if we could land that object for our big Belleville bicentennial exhibit this summer at the Schmidt Art Center?

We'd probably have to hire Brinks or Pinkerton to guard it, but I could see people flocking here from all over the world to view this priceless relic.

Alas, while it's a tantalizing dream, it doesn't look like it will happen at the moment. After grabbing front-page headlines in the Belleville Daily Advocate in 1923, the box still has never resurfaced although the hunt goes on.

From every indication, this has been a humongous loss for both historians and the art world. In its Feb. 22, 1923, story, the Advocate said experts called it the most valuable Washington relic in the world -- and with good reason.

The tale starts in 1791, when David Stewart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan in Scotland, wanted his own portrait done of George Washington, so he sent Archibald Robertson across the Atlantic to paint it. But realizing that the Father of Our Country had bigger fish to fry than posing for a painting, the good earl also sent along a gift to entice our first president.

But not just any gift. This was a wooden snuff box made from perhaps the most famous tree in Scottish history -- the oak that Sir William Wallace of Scotland had used as camouflage during the Battle of Falkirk.

Wallace, the subject of Mel Gibson's film "Braveheart," was the leader of the Scottish clans who in 1298 rose up against King Edward I of England. Although greatly outnumbered, the Scots tried to achieve some parity by hiding themselves behind trees that had been cut for the purpose.

Ultimately, the Scots were defeated, but someone reportedly saved the tree Wallace had used. Eventually the esteemed Goldsmith firm of woodworkers and jewelers in Edinburgh fashioned the snuff box from pieces of this relic.

Oval-shaped, the box was about 6 inches long, 4 inches wide and 2 inches deep with a place to hide important papers at the bottom. The lid opened on hinges, according to a description in the May 2001 Liberty Tree Newsletter from the Sons of Liberty chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. On top presumably is the earl's coat of arms in ornate silverwork.

"It is a respectable curiosity and I will flatter myself be a relic of long endurance in America, as a mark of that esteem," wrote the earl, who considered Washington to be the Wallace of the United States.

Upon his death, Washington had been asked by the earl to pass it on "to the man in my country who would appear to merit it best," according to Washington's will. But Washington decided to be magnanimous and give the box back to the earl.

It never made it across the pond. For reasons unclear, the box came into the possession of a Navy commander, who gave it to his fiance. But his fiance wound up marrying another man, named Williams. In turn, they produced Volney L. Williams, who came to Belleville in 1837 to open the Williams Carriage Factory.

The snuff box was then passed on to Volney's son, Henry, and eventually to grandson Henry J. Williams. Not surprisingly, Henry J. had Belleville buzzing when, under constant guard, he brought it out of the family's safe deposit box for a few hours in 1923 to show it to the DAR.

Its subsequent history, however, has gone cold. Williams, a bachelor, died in 1931 at age 57, and his obituary failed to mention the box. His only surviving family consisted of three sisters -- two of whom also remained single and a third, Nellie Smith. According to all accounts, neither a family survivor nor a copy of Henry's will now can be found.

As you saw in the article you saved, this hasn't stopped people from trying. Scotsman Jim Leggett, for example, now lives in North Carolina, but grew up near where Wallace fought.

Calling the rediscovery of the famous box "a passion," Leggett promised to continue the search, but when I contacted him last week, the International Press Service correspondent told me he had had no luck. My inquiries to the Smith Art Gallery in Stirling, Scotland, whose offers to purchase the box were continually rebuffed by the Williams family, went unreturned. (The museum is near the Falkirk battle site.)

So it appears that unless this article can smoke the box's current owner out of hiding, hopes of it being the star attraction in "Belleville: 200 Years, 200 Objects" have been snuffed out.

Today's trivia

What Super Bowl champ remains the only team to prevent its opposition from scoring a touchdown in the title game?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Chicago Bears not only boast the best all-time overall winning percentage (.573), but also the most regular season wins (730), most wins overall (743) and best regular-season winning percentage (.575).

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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