The Montana Historical Society received an envelope last Wednesday that had no return address, an illegible postmark and was 63 cents short on postage.
Inside was a stark piece of copy paper with the handwritten message:
“I think you may have an interest in the attached.”
In this case the anonymous sender was correct. The staff’s first reaction?
Sandwiched between the handwritten note and two other pieces of paper was the original act that created the Montana Historical Society on Feb. 2, 1865, handwritten and signed by territorial Gov. Sidney Edgerton.
“This is the most important document that has probably come through these doors in a while,” MHS Director Bruce Whittenberg said.
The historical society waited before announcing they received the document to ensure it was the original.
Rich Aarstad, the society’s senior archivist, examined the papers and compared it to other documents MHS has from the era. A homemade metal clip that fastens both pieces of paper together was his first clue that the document was authentic. A certified impression in the paper, the quality of the paper and the handwriting all matched other documents.
Without detailed testing it’s impossible to say with 100 percent certainty the document is original, but all the evidence points to it being the real thing.
The historical society had copies of the act in file, but never knew where the original was. It was just assumed the document had been lost, misplaced or destroyed sometime over the last century and a half. Now with its anonymous surfacing the act’s story is up only for speculation.
Aarstad and Whittenberg figure it would likely have been signed and sent straight to the territorial secretary.
The historical society didn’t become the official keeper of all state documents until the 1970s, so as a state document the act would have likely been stored in a building in Virginia City, the territorial capital at the time.
It’s classification as a state document rather than a historical artifact likely saved the act, because in 1874 documents kept by the historical society were destroyed in a fire.
In 1875, the territorial legislature packed up and moved the capital to Helena, where state documents were housed in the basement of the Capitol upon its completion.
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If the act ever made it that far it didn’t stay, changing hands sometime during the ensuing decades from the state’s archives to the ownership of whoever proceeds the anonymous donor.
“I didn’t know if the original existed,” Aarstad said. Until last Wednesday.
“That’s one of the beauties of this place. This kind of stuff happens here,” he added.
Besides the act and the note, the envelope also contained a copy of a 1908 letter sent to the librarian for the historical society at the time, detailing the origination of the MHS, and a clipping of a recent editorial in the Billings Gazette that called for the 2015 Legislature to approve funds for a new historical society building.
“It leads me to think whoever this is knew what they were doing and knew when they were doing it,” Whittenberg said.
Word of the document’s appearance prompted some legislators and other government workers to inquire about the act late last week.
“This gesture is a testament to the value that the historical society has provided to millions of Montanans since it was founded more than 150 years ago,” Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement. “The exhibits in the Montana Historical Society demonstrate the rich history of our state, it is time we had a building that is worthy of that heritage.”
The act itself has been copied and the original will be kept filed in historical society storage, where its current condition will be best preserved.
“It’s in extraordinarily good shape, whoever had it took very good care of it,” Aarstad said.
He said the act is the first document MHS received from the first territorial Legislature with Gov. Sidney Edgerton’s signature and will probably make appearances as exhibits rotate.
The actual document may stay stored away, but the excitement of its arrival can’t be boxed up.
“The staff is just electric in the building,” Tom Cook, the society’s spokesman, said.
“It was one of the most exciting days of my career here at MHS,” MHS Research Center Manager Molly Kruckenberg said in a press release. “To start your day with the return of a historic document to a place that can preserve it for future generations is amazing. To have it be our founding document is incredible.”
Kruckenberg said she hopes whoever sent in the document comes forward so more information can be gathered. Either way, the historical society thanked the anonymous donor for sending in the act.