I first became interested in Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont in the fall of 1979, when I learned that a small collection of his papers was located in the archives of Friedsam Memorial Library at St. Bonaventure University. At that time the documents were stored in an old cardboard box, tucked away and nearly forgotten in a dark corner.
I could not recall ever having heard of Leray de Chaumont. As I looked through the box, however, I was immediately struck by the names of his correspondents and the other persons mentioned in the papers. These included Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, the marquis de Lafayette, the comte de Vergennes ( French foreign minister, 1774- 1787), Gabriel de Sartine ( French naval minister, 1774- 1780), and the maréchal de Castries ( Sartine's successor, 1780- 1787). A few of the letters date from the early nineteenth century; they consist of social pleasantries exchanged between Lafayette and the son of Leray de Chaumont. All of the other letters, however, date from the late 1770s and the 1780s. They deal with large quantities of supplies needed in the Franco-American fight against Great Britain.
As I looked through the letters, two questions intrigued me. First, how did these papers arrive at the library of a small university in western New York State? Nowhere in the box itself or the files was there a record of a donation or purchase. Second, had Leray de Chaumont's connection with the American Revolution received the attention it deserved?
Discovering the provenance of the collection proved difficult. Some parts of the story still remain a mystery. In the 1930s one line of Chaumont's descendants lent the papers to a friend, who was proposing to write a history of the family. That person came to the United States in the late 1930s and remained there through the Second World War. The trip was for the purpose of research on some members of the family who lived in the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before returning to France, the friend sold the papers to a third party -- despite