Photo Credit Jan Garrison
Culver's signatures collections
February 25, 2020

Why would Queen Victoria write a letter of condolence to the family of William Smith of Aberdeen, Scotland, after his death on Dec. 22, 1891? And why would Culver Academies be in possession of that document?

It is mysteries like this that will be unlocked by the 19 students taking Scott Sweet-Christian’s AP European History and Literature class.

The answer to the first question is Queen Victoria wrote the letter of condolence to Smith’s family because he was the architect who supervised the construction of Balmoral Castle in Aberdeen in 1852. Balmoral is still used today as a retreat for the royal family.

The answer to the second question is the letter is part of the signatures collections that have been donated to Culver by alumni over the years. The most extensive collection, which includes signatures dating back to the 1500s through pre-World War I, came from the Burpee family, as in the Burpee Seed Company. Two brothers, David and W. Atlee Burpee Jr., graduated in 1913.

Bob Nowalk, the curator of the Culver Collection, said the Burpee signatures collection includes approximately 200 pieces signed by Victoria, James I, Charles I and other historical figures. From official documents to smaller, personal letters written by various members of the royal family, the students are researching the stories behind some of the pieces and the lives of those people involved.

Instructor Scott Sweet-Christian shows off the Queen Victoria order.

The students’ background work includes details on an official handwritten document signed by Victoria that appoints Keppel Robert Edward Foote the governor of Boa Vista in the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. He was replacing Charles Pettigal, who had died. The document also calls for the end of slavery on the islands.

The James Wilbur ’42 collection includes the Dec. 30, 1941, demotion order of Lt. Gen. Theodor Groppe signed by Fuhrer Adolph Hitler and Wilhelm Keitel, the German field marshal who served as the chief of the Armed Forces High Command. A devout Catholic, Groppe was being demoted because he refused to carry out many of the High Command’s orders, especially those targeting Jews. The order is written in German but includes an English translation.

Groppe was later arrested and imprisoned, but escaped with help from a priest. Two of his superiors, who protected him before his arrest, were executed. Keitel was one of the Nazi officers later found guilty and sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials. Groppe testified at the trials.

Sweet-Christian selected pieces for the students to view and study. Those documents were enclosed in plastic to protect them while the students studied them. After spending a week researching the history behind the pieces, the students presented their findings with Humanities instructors Raegan Russsell, John Rogers, Gary Christlieb, Lou Canelli, and Maxwell Johnson asking follow-up questions.

The students will take the instructors’ comments and revise their reports. The reports will then be stored with the signed documents to provide historical and biographical background information.

Nowalk said this is the first time since he has been at Culver the signatures collections have been used for display or educational purposes.

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