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December 7, 2010

Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library Acquires Two 17th-century Letters

Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library has acquired two 17th-century letters from Philip III of Spain concerning the settlement of Jamestown as a gift from best-selling author Patricia Cornwell.

William M. Kelso of Jamestown Rediscovery said Cornwell has been an avid follower of the progress of the excavation of Jamestown over the years and has provided financial support to the project. “Her interest is finding evidence of past events,” he said. “She funded an insightful burial study examining the years of the Starving Time at Jamestown.”

“The excavation of Jamestown produces a wealth of forensics about America’s past,” Cornwell said. “It is all about how we began, who we were and who we are and why. I can't think of a more worthy and exciting project, and I'm so happy I've been able to participate in it over the years.”

Cornwell acquired the two letters warning about the danger of Jamestown being a pirate base. “She asked me where the most logical place for them to reside would be,” Kelso said. “I recommended the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library. I thought with the Foundation’s collaboration with Preservation Virginia that the letters would enhance the greater Jamestown-Colonial Williamsburg story.”

In each of the letters, the king of Spain wrote to the Alonso Perez du Guzman, the seventh Duke of Medina Sidonia, about his concern over the first permanent English settlement in North America. In the first letter dated July 29, 1608, the king said, “By various avenues He (i.e., the King) has been advised that the English are attempting to procure a foothold on the Island of Virginia, with the end [in mind] of sallying forth from there to commit piracy.”

In the second letter dated June 11, 1609, the king asked, “You will do me great service in continuing [to gather] intelligence about the designs of the corsairs and any [intelligence] that shows the English having interest in continuing to populate the land called Virginia in the Indies.”

“Philip III of Spain was concerned the English would create a base in Virginia to attack Spanish ships in the Atlantic,” said Doug Mayo, associate librarian of the Rockefeller Library. “He is afraid that the English are not only going to attack the Atlantic but raid as far as the Pacific and New Spain, or Mexico, as well.”

King Philip believed his fleets were threatened by the British, and on two occasions the Spanish set out for Virginia to garner intelligence about the English settlements. In June 1609, a group led by Capt. Francisco Fernández de Ecija left Florida for Virginia but ran into the Mary and John, a larger English ship commanded by Samuel Argall off Cape Henry. The English ship chased the smaller Spanish ship down the coast for several hours, and Ecija abandoned his reconnaissance and continued down the coast to Florida. In 1611, a ship left Portugal to investigate the settlements in Virginia. Three men landed near Point Comfort and were taken captive by the English. Marco Antonio died shortly after capture. Don Diego de Molina got a message smuggled out of the country to the king of Spain during his imprisonment. The letter encouraged the king “to stop the progress of a hydra in its infancy, because it is clear that its intention is to grown and encompass the destruction of all the West, as well by sea as by land and that great results will follow I do not doubt, because the advantages of this place make it very suitable for a gathering-place of all pirates of Europe, where they will be well received. For this nation has great thoughts of an alliance with them.”

In 1616, Molina and Francisco Lembri were shipped back to Europe. Lembri was discovered to be an Englishman and hanged for betraying his country on the ship. Molina survived the voyage and returned to Spain.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia was known as the commander of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The single-page letters were part of the Medina Sidonia’s family archives in Spain and auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York.
The letters eventually will be put on display in the Rockefeller Library. The Rockefeller Library’s Special Collections department houses the Foundation’s most valuable manuscript material, architectural and archaeological drawings, rare books and images.

Cornwell is one of the world's major international best-selling authors, translated into 36 languages across more than 50 countries. She is a founder of the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine, a founding member of the National Forensic Academy and a member of the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital's National Council, where she is an advocate for psychiatric research. In 2008 Cornwell won the Galaxy British Book Awards' Books Direct Crime Thriller of the Year – the first American ever to win this prestigious award. Her bestsellers include “Scarpetta,” “Book of the Dead” and “The Front.” Her earlier works include “Postmortem” – the only novel to win five major crime awards in a single year –and “Cruel and Unusual,” which won the coveted Gold Dagger award in 1993. Dr. Kay Scarpetta herself won the 1999 Sherlock Award for the best detective created by an American writer.

A new collaboration between The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Preservation Virginia will showcase the connected histories of Jamestown and Williamsburg through compelling stories of discovery, diversity and democracy. The combined effort will underscore the importance of the region to the emergence of the United States. The Historic Triangle, comprised of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, is one of the foundations of America.

Preservation Virginia, a private non-profit organization and statewide historic preservation leader founded in 1889, is dedicated to perpetuating and revitalizing Virginia's cultural, architectural and historic heritage thereby ensuring that historic places are integral parts of the lives of present and future generations. Its mission is directly consistent with and supportive of Article XI of the Constitution of Virginia to protect the historical sites and buildings in the Commonwealth benefiting both the Commonwealth and the nation. Preservation Virginia provides leadership, experience, influence and services to the public and special audiences by saving, managing, and protecting historic places, and developing preservation policy, programs, and strategies with individuals, organizations, and local, state, and national partners.

Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by Preservation Virginia and the National Park Service and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Visitors share the moment of discovery with archaeologists and witness archaeology-in-action at the 1607 James Fort excavation April-October; learn about the Jamestown Rediscovery excavation at the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, the site's archaeology museum; tour the original 17th-century church tower and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church; and take a walking tour with a Park Ranger through the New Towne area along the scenic James River. For further information, visit or call (757) 229-0412 or (757) 229-1733.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural organization dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and presentation of the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia. This town-sized living history museum tells the inspirational stories of our journey to become Americans through programs in the Historic Area and through the award-winning Revolutionary City program. Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at

Media Contact:
Penna Rogers
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