TAOS — A piece of early American naval history that had been in landlocked New Mexico for years has been returned to the ship where its first owner might have sailed more than two centuries ago.
Robert Smith said had found the copy of Grecian History in a garbage bag, ready to be thrown into the trash. He held onto it for some time before realizing it possibly survived a maritime battle during the War of 1812.
“One day I opened the up the cover of the book and it was just stunning,” Smith said.
Inscribed on the inside cover was the writing of sailor Charles F. Waldo, who served on the USS Constitution during a naval battle off the coast of Brazil.
Smith had sold the book to a close friend living in the Taos area for $200. He later recovered it following the death of his friend.
Smith had been doing some research on the book and was eager to know more about Waldo, as well as how the book had traveled so far, he said. The USS Constitution Museum in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard, which has accepted his donation of the book, “said this was a conundrum.”
Written in the book is the passage, “Captured off the British Frigate Java VIVA LA CONSTITUTION” and “y sus Hombres,” along with a date, December 12, 1812. The ship was involved in a battle against the English ship HMS Java in late December of that year.
Smith assumed the writing is that of the sailor who signed it, Waldo.
The curators at the USS Constitution Museum, where the ship is moored, initially told Smith they were unaware of the book and its relation to the ship but eventually took the book and began researching the writing and the relevance to the ship.
Kate Monea, an archivist in the curation department at the museum, said she was unable to comment on the book and its origins.
“We’re still working on verifying it on our own end,” she said.
But Smith is confident the book belongs at the museum.
“I feel a relief that it’s in the right place,” Smith said. “After all its travels it could have been lost, but it’s found.”
The USS Constitution was one of the first frigates commissioned by the U.S. government and launched in 1797. Old Ironsides, as it came to be known, saw many battles and is the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy.
This story first appeared in The Taos News, a sister publication of the Santa Fe New Mexican.