EAST HARLEM — When farmers discovered mammoth fossils while trying to dig up fertilizer at an overgrown swamp in upstate New York during the 1800s, President Thomas Jefferson called dibs on the head and the feet.
“If they are to be bought, I will gladly pay for them,” Jefferson wrote in a Dec. 14, 1801 letter to Robert Livingston, who was serving as the Chancellor of the State of New York at the time. “The bones I am most anxious to obtain are those of the head and the feet.”
While the historical record doesn't show whether the founding father ever got his wish, his letter — and many others that offer a glimpse into the political issues of the day — are part of a new exhibit on display the Museum of the City of New York.
One of the most interesting letters is one in which the president reveals his system for exchanging secret messages with his diplomats, according to Museum of the City of New York curatorial fellow Brett Palfreyman.
“They had to show a lot of discretion,” Palfreyman said. “Jefferson needed a system for sending secret messages but he didn’t have an NSA. He came up with his own system.”
In all, the museum has 20 letters exchanged between Jefferson and Livingston, who also served as the American diplomat to Napoleon Bonaparte’s France.
The letters, which went on display Thursday and will be at the Museum of the City of New York until Dec. 5., offer a firsthand look into such subjects as the Louisiana Purchase, the Napoleonic Wars and debates over the Constitution.
“They are hugely historically important,” Palfreyman said of the letters. “Not only were they political correspondents but they were also just friends, they exchange all types or reports. The letters show the behind the scenes.”
The 20 letters were donated to the City Museum by Goodhue Livingston, a descendant of Livingston, in 1947. They were among 331 personal family documents that included wills and real estate records, Palfreyman said.