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Item of the Week: Thomas Jefferson’s Plants and Wine

Wed, 01/25/2023 - 16:24

From the East Hampton Library’s Long Island Collection

David Gelston (1744-1828), a member of the Continental Congress from New York, was born in Bridgehampton to Maltby and Mary Gelston. His family reads like a who’s who of New York Revolutionary-era politics: The militia leader Col. Josiah Smith and Gov. DeWitt Clinton were his uncles by marriage, and his daughter, Phoebe Gelston, married Nicoll Floyd, the son of William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Those connections give context to the patronage post Gelston received in 1801 from President Thomas Jefferson, who appointed him collector of customs for New York, a role he held until 1820.

As a port official, the customs collector often played middleman for ships arriving with freight and for the people who had bought goods. In this letter, dated Jan. 20, 1816, Jefferson wrote Gelston from Monticello, his home in Virginia, asking for help with international deliveries arriving in New York.

First, Jefferson addresses “a box of garden & flower seeds from Mr. Baker of Tarragona” in Spain that was to go to “the Botanical Garden of New York.”

Confusingly, the modern New York Botanical Garden wasn’t established until 1891. However, New York’s first botanical garden was created by Dr. David Hosack of Columbia College in 1801, and it was known by several names, including the Elgin Garden, Columbian Garden, and Botanical Garden of the State of New York. At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Hosack approached then-President Jefferson to ask that plants from the West be donated.

Clearly, Hosack left an impression, since Jefferson’s letter to Gelston expresses a desire to support the garden and cover any shipping charges or taxes for the seeds.

Next, Jefferson tells Gelston that, because of the “return of peace” after the War of 1812, he has ordered many wines from Marseilles, France. He also informs Gelston that he told the shipper to send the wine in care of the collector of customs in any American port city a ship could reach.

Jefferson closes by referring to their “friendship” and asking Gelston to forward any of the wine and related fees that arrive in New York.

Andrea Meyer, a librarian and archivist, is the head of collection for the East Hampton Library’s Long Island Collection.


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