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Adventure of a Lifetime?

Most museums have grappled with identity in the past few years as they started looking inwards and exploring more of their own history through research into their archives. Agecroft Hall is no exception. When we strive to find out more about the families who lived in the house when it was on either side of the Atlantic, sometimes we come across something a bit more light-hearted that gives us a different take on the family and the varying personalities of its members. Case in point: the documents from the Williams family around the world trip in 1888. T.C. Williams, Jr. was the eldest son of T.C, Sr., and Ella Peatross Williams. In 1888 he turned 24 and was left in charge of the family tobacco business while his mother, father, and sister, Mary, circumnavigated the globe. We are lucky to have a large collection of letters and journals written by the family while on the trip. While the hard work of transcribing these documents has just begun (its impressive how much handwriting has changed in the intervening century!), it’s relatively easy to piece together the path of their travels. The letters and journals offer wonderful insights into the reactions and feelings of those on the trip, which were, generally, not favorable. A researcher glancing through the letters remarked ‘this trip caused someone’s demise.’

The five month adventure was long and included all known means of transportation, leaving from Richmond in June of 1888 and heading west, through Denver, boarding a ship in California, with ports of call in Hawaii, New Zealand, and finally, Australia. Getting to Australia was the entire purpose of this trip—Williams Co. tobacco was featured at the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne. Instead of returning the same way they arrived, the group headed out across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, and on to Italy, France, and England, before heading back to the United States in the late fall of 1888. This was an incredibly long trip, and probably taxing on the family members. Thankfully, we have this correspondence to illuminate this time in the Williams family lives.

An important side note: T.C. Williams, Sr., died in April of 1889, just a few short months after his return to Richmond. Was his death a direct result of this arduous journey? Probably not, but one cannot imagine that the journey helped his health. One of the first letters in this collection is a letter from a medical professional, Mr. C. S. May, giving tips and tidbits to help make the journey more comfortable. It seems Williams, Sr., was having significant bowel troubles and Mr. May gave tips on foods to avoid, compresses to apply to his abdomen, as well as medicines he could take in order to help with the trouble and then counteract the trouble caused by the medication taken to help his bowels. Mr. May also gives helpful tips for others in the traveling party, including what to take for seasickness.

Over the next few months, we will be spending more time with this letter collection, transcribing the documents to get a fuller picture of this around the world trip and the Williams family members themselves. Look for more stories from the trip in a future blog posts.

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