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General James Wolfe’s historic letters acquired by U of T Libraries

"My Antagonist has wisely shut himself up, in inaccessible entrenchments, so that I can't get at him, without spilling a torrent of blood & that perhaps to little purpose. The Marquis de Montcalm is at the head of a great number of bad soldiers & I am at the head of a small number of good ones, that wish for nothing so much as to fight him – but the Wary old fellow avoids an Action; doubtfull of the behavior of the Army."

- General James Wolfe (Letter 233) on the banks of the River St. Lawrence, 31 August 1759

The University of Toronto has acquired an archive of national importance to Canada’s heritage: the personal correspondence of General James Wolfe (1727-1759).

The acquisition, through Christie’s, was made possible by the generous philanthropic support of Helmhorst Investments Limited and the assistance of a Movable Cultural Property grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage. 

“Our Government is proud to have contributed to the repatriation of this archive, as it will be an invaluable addition to our national heritage,” said the Honourable Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages. “This archive of correspondence is of exceptional cultural and historical importance for all Canadians, and I am pleased that it will be made available to Canadians through the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.”

The story of Wolfe’s death during the 1759 Battle of Quebec is familiar to many Canadians. His reading of Thomas Gray’s An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard the night before the battle, and his declaration that he “would rather have written that piece than take Quebec tomorrow” have become the stuff of legend.

Wolfe’s letters home to his family are the main documentary source for his life. They have been in private hands since the death of his mother in 1764 and will now be available for study, giving a true picture of the private man as well as the soldier.

“General James Wolfe was an interesting person, not just as a soldier,” said Anne Dondertman, associate librarian for special collections and director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. “His letters are candid and personal. They convey a sense of immediacy, of what it was really like to be there on the spot. He had a good sense of humour. He was critical both of his fellow soldiers and of humanity in general. He was also just a very gifted writer, so his letters are good prose."

The 229 autographed letters include the first, written to his mother at the age of thirteen as he was preparing to depart for war, and the last, written within sight of Quebec just two weeks before his death. They add very significantly both to the detail and the overall picture of the published records of Wolfe’s career.

“The acquisition of the Wolfe archive is an outstanding example of collaboration between the University of Toronto Libraries, a private donor, and the federal government’s program to support the repatriation of items of outstanding significance and national importance,” said President Meric Gertler. “This archive will be a valuable resource for students and scholars for years to come.” 

The archive is now housed at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, which is open to the public. The collection had been the subject of a campaign to keep the letters in the U.K. along with other items considered of great historical significance, such as Jane Austen’s ring. At U of T, plans for its digitization are underway so that this important historical material can be made widely available.

“Uniting an archive of such importance to the course of Canadian history with the Thomas Fisher Library, a major research institution, guarantees ongoing research and accessibility, which we are proud to support,” said Christie’s representative Margaret Ford.

The University of Toronto Libraries system is the largest academic library in Canada and is ranked third among peer institutions in North America, behind just Harvard and Yale. The system consists of 44 libraries located on three university campuses. Its Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library houses the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, including books, manuscripts and other materials, and is the largest rare book library in the country. One of its greatest strengths is Canadiana and the Library actively acquires important material related to Canada’s history and culture.

The donation to acquire the Wolfe archive was made through Boundless: The Campaign for the University of Toronto, which aims to raise a historic $2 billion for U of T’s highest priorities. To date, the campaign has raised more than $1.35 billion toward its goal, thanks to the generosity of alumni and friends.

For more information about the Fisher Library’s collections, visit http://fisher.library.utoronto.ca.

For more information on Boundless: The Campaign for the University of Toronto, visit www.boundless.utoronto.ca.