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Gilcrease copy of Declaration of Independence moved to new research center
America’s birth certificate: new home for rare piece of history

Gilcrease copy of Declaration of Independence moved to new research center

Gilcrease Museum moves document to room at its new research center

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Moving a few pieces of paper from one secluded place to another usually doesn’t require the presence of armed guards.

But when the pages in question happen to be the only certified copy of the “birth certificate” of the United States of America known to exist, extra care is taken.

On Thursday, Gilcrease Museum transferred its certified copy of the Declaration of Independence, signed by Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Charles Thompson, from the documents area of the museum, along the Groenendyke Corridor — which is lined with paintings by George Catlin, past Gilcrease Rendezvous artists and memorabilia from the 101 Ranch — to its new home in the most secure section of Gilcrease’s recently opened Helmerich Center for American Research.

Gilcrease has been transferring the more than 100,000 items that make up its archival collection — books, maps, historical manuscripts and documents — to the Helmerich Center since the new facility opened in September.

“The majority of the materials have already been moved,” said Gilcrease librarian Renee Harvey, standing amid stacks of document boxes and walls of filing cabinets in the anteroom to the Helmerich Center’s Hardesty Archival Center, where the declaration will now permanently reside in a sealed room with state-of-the-art temperature and humidity controls as well as fire and disaster protection.

“We knew that the declaration and similar documents would be among the last items we would move,” she said.

Thomas Gilcrease purchased the declaration, along with other colonial American documents, such as a copy of the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to the U.S. Constitution, in 1950.

It is believed to be the only certified copy of the Declaration in existence.

Duane King, executive director of the Helmerich Center for American Research, said the Gilcrease copy was likely written in 1776 and that it probably predates the “Dunlap Broadside,” the first printed version of the declaration that was published on July 4, 1776.

“There is Thomas Jefferson’s original draft, which is in the Library of Congress,” King said. “We know that John Adams sent a copy in a letter to his wife, Abigail, and Jefferson sent a copy in a letter to the Lee family.”

The handwritten version of the Declaration of Independence that is on display in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., was written in late July and early August 1776.

The Gilcrease copy was taken to Europe in 1777, where Franklin and Deane were trying to generate support for the American cause from European heads of state. The Gilcrease copy was presented to Frederick the Great of Prussia in February 1777, King said.

For a document that is almost 240 years old, the Gilcrease copy of the declaration is in remarkably good shape, Harvey said.

“The first page does show a bit more fading because of it being on display in the past,” she said. “But the rest of the document is in quite good condition.”

Gilcrease rarely puts the original document on display, and when it does, it is usually for only a brief time.

Melani Hamilton, Gilcrease communications manager, said the original document was displayed for the first two days of the 2010 exhibit “America: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of a Nation,” and then was replaced with a digital facsimile.

“We will probably put the original on display for a day or two around July 4,” she said.

Earlier this year, Fenella France, chief of the Preservation Research and Testing Division of the Library of Congress, came to Gilcrease to study the museum’s colonial-era documents. France has been examining a number of historic documents with hyperspectral imaging.

A spectral imaging crew from the Library of Congress will come to Tulsa in February to make the images, which will be part of France’s presentation as part of the Helmerich Center for American Research’s inaugural symposium, “The Gilcrease Archives: Unlocking the History of the Americas,” March 27-28.

One thing France’s preliminary examinations turned up was the presence of a fingerprint on one of the pages in the same ink used to write the document.

While it might never be determined whose fingerprint is on the Gilcrease copy of the Declaration of Independence, a cursory glance does reveal a fascinating tidbit: While the ink used for the main text and the two other signatures have faded to sepia brown, Benjamin Franklin’s signature remains after all these years vivid and dark, almost black.

“That’s one of those strange things,” Harvey said. “Our copy of the Articles of Confederation is like that — the ink is still very dark.”

James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478

james.watts@tulsaworld.com

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