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Dr. Leon deValinger, Jr.

A Glimpse and a Checklist

By Jerry A. Shields, Ph.D.

"This book is dedicated to Leon deValinger, Jr., who labored long and hard in the vineyards of Delaware History as State Archivist and State."

So wrote State Senator Roger Martin on the dedication page of his 1991 work Tales of Delaware, perhaps as a way of expressing his appreciation for deValinger's help when Martin was writing his earlier book on Delaware's governors. Two years earlier, the state had finally gotten around to naming its Hall of Records in Dover for the man who fathered its existence.

Such latter-day recognition, while surely deserved, is scarcely sufficient to honor Dr. deValinger, who, between 1930 and 1970, established himself as one of the leading state archivists in America. During his career and beyond it, he also wrote, edited and/or compiled (sometimes singly, sometimes jointly with a colleague) numerous valuable scholarly publications on Delaware's distant and more immediate past.

I visited Dr. deValinger (whose doctorate is honorary, having been conferred by the University of Delaware in 1969) recently at his home in Dover, the place where he has lived and worked nearly all of his adult life. He's 88 now, still mentally acute, trim and neatly attired, but can't use his right hand much — the result of a stroke a few years ago. His wife Margaret (they were married in 1933) is in poor health at a local nursing home, where he visits her three times a week.

Still, he seems quietly pleased to be alive and in reasonably good health and spirits at his age. His memory, he claims, is not so sharp as it once was, but he remains a repository of knowledge about matters Delawarean. During the nearly 20 years of our acquaintance, I have not infrequently gone to him with questions other sources hadn't answered, and always found him kind, courteous and helpful.

As we sat in his neatly-furnished and rather old-fashioned formal living room, he was in a mood to reminisce, as I'd hoped he would be, and, while he talked about his early career and how he became State Archivist, I scribbled as much of it as I could into a notebook, feeling privileged to be sharing his experiences of six decades ago.

Some two hours later, I sensed he was tiring and ended the interview, but could have sat and listened happily all afternoon and evening to his remembrances. Returning home, I transcribed my hastily scrawled notes in order to be able to give a more detailed account of what he'd said.

Leon deValinger, Jr., was born in Middletown on June 25, 1905, the son of Leon and Mabel L. (Morton) deValinger. Contrary to impressions left by a brief biographical sketch of him in Volume III of Henry Clay Reed's Delaware: A History of the First State (1947), his roots in Delmarva go far back.

In Europe (according to a genealogically-inclined cousin of his), the family's name was once Dind and later Pahud. The settling of an ancestor in Valangin, Switzerland, was responsible for its being changed to deValinger a few hundred years ago.

Later ancestors migrated to America and settled at Frenchtown, Maryland. No longer existing, Frenchtown (about a mile south of Elkton at the head of the Elk River) was the western terminus of a stage route (and later, as of 1832, the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad — first regular steam passenger train service in America) across the peninsula linking the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays and carrying travelers between Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and other points.

During the War of 1812 (in late April of 1813 to be more exact) the deValingers fled Frenchtown when it came under bombardment by vessels of a British fleet commanded by Admiral Sir George Cockburn. The refugees made their way to nearby Glasgow, Delaware, where our subject's great-grandfather met and married a local woman named Martha Harris.

" One child — my grandfather Henry Clay deValinger — grew up, married, and moved to Middletown," my informant related, " where he ran a general store. During the Spanish-American War he would supply Fort Delaware with provisions. One of his brothers owned the Middletown Hotel."

Henry Clay deValinger's son Leon became a draftsman and designer, and, after his own son, Leon, Jr., was born, he sent the youngster to public school in Wilmington. Upon graduation from high school in 1925, Leon, Jr., who had shown an aptitude for academics, was accepted at the University of Delaware, where he majored in history and minored in political science. " I was going to major in education," he recalls, " but couldn't stomach all those teacher-training courses I would have had to take."

In 1929, Leon, Jr., entered and won an essay contest with a paper on the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad. The original of that prize-winning effort is among the holdings of the University Library's Special Collections.

Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1930, deValinger looked around for employment, which was not easy to find in that first year of what is now known as the Great Depression. He had hoped to teach in a preparatory school, but, with colleges and universities cutting staff, prep school vacancies were being filled with experienced former professors.

The best job he could find was as an assistant to Newark town engineer Merle Sigman. At the time, the road from Newark to New London, Pennsylvania (present Route 896) was just starting to be built, and Sigman, with deValinger as helper, had the task of surveying that part of the road within Newark's town limits.

Sigman operated the transit and his assistant carried the chains and held the wand for his boss to sight upon. On days when it rained, young Leon, who had learned draftsmanship from his father, would plot the results of the surveys.

" One hot day in August, we came in all sweaty and dirty," he relates, " and found a man waiting to see me." The stranger introduced himself as R. R. Gentry of the Texas Oil Company and said he was in charge of a large district lying south of Philadelphia. Being on the road a lot, he had gone to the University dean's office looking for a person to handle the regional office work while he traveled. The dean had given him the names of five candidates and deValinger's was one.

Scrutinizing the sweaty young man still burdened with his surveying equipment, Gentry remarked, " You look like a worker," and hired him on the spot. " And that," recalls the former assistant town engineer of Newark, " is how I came to Dover."

For some months deValinger worked in Texaco's regional office in the state capital, handling the several briefcases full of paperwork Gentry would bring in off the road each week. One day he got a call from his college friend Henry Clay Reed. Then in graduate school at Princeton working toward his doctorate, Reed was in Dover for the day doing research at the Archives. Could Leon join him for lunch? he asked. Leon could and would.

" Have you ever been in the Archives?" Reed asked over lunch. " No, I haven't," deValinger admitted. His companion explained that Judge Henry Clay Conrad, the current State Archivist, was in need of a capable assistant, and Reed felt Leon might be just the right person for the job. He soon arranged to introduce his friend to Judge Conrad, and the two hit it off immediately.

The Archivist (and author of the notable History of the State of Delaware, published in 1908) was a prominent Wilmington attorney, a pillar of Republican politics, and a Sunday school teacher. Having taken a liking to deValinger, he hired him as an assistant and soon introduced him to prominent members of Old Dover and Old Delaware society. One of these was Mabel (Mrs. Henry) Lloyd Ridgely, whom deValinger remembers as " a remarkable woman." Mrs. Ridgely was then head of the state's Public Archives Commission at a time when Delaware government was largely run by commissions.

In November of 1930, Judge Conrad became ill and soon died, leaving the state without an Archivist. " Looking at some of the people applying for the job," Dr. deValinger says, " I figured I had more on the ball than they did, so I applied too." Before pursuing the matter very far, though, he made a trip to Princeton to visit Reed and ask if his friend thought he had a chance. Certainly, said Reed, but he urged Leon to meet with the commissioners individually and plead his cause in person. Two of the commissioners lived in Georgetown. " I still didn't have a car," he says, " but I found a taxi driver in Dover who would take me to Georgetown and back for $25. I came away with one commissioner's support and the other's promise to talk it over with her brother, a noted judge."

Once the Commission met to appoint a new Archivist, however, the support deValinger was counting on had softened somewhat. The Commissioners came out of the meeting and told the young man that Dr. George Ryden would talk to him. Ryden, head of the history department at the University, informed Leon that he, Ryden, had been named as the new Archivist. All was not lost, however, for deValinger had been named as assistant Archivist to work full time in Dover while Ryden, who was busy enough in Newark, would serve basically in a part-time capacity, coming down to Dover once or twice a week to check on things.

It is likely deValinger's age worked against him in his failure to get the top job. He was, after all, only 25, and the Commissioners probably had doubts that someone so young had the maturity and experience to handle the position. But he had impressed them enough to land a full-time job doing most of the work and shouldering the responsibility even if he didn't have the title he'd sought.

He decided to take things in stride, be patient and do the best he could in the lesser office, hoping matters would work out over the long haul. Eventually they did. As Assistant State Archivist, deValinger would make significant archival and historical contributions in numerous areas, and in 1941, when Ryden died, he assumed the title as well as the duties of State Archivist, remaining in the job until 1970 and earning a reputation as one of the best in the country.

In that year, he ran afoul of the Peterson administration, was demoted and soon forced to retire just short of reaching the age when he could qualify for a full state pension. Part of the conflict was administrative. Governor Russell Peterson was converting Delaware from a commission-based to a cabinet-based form of government, and Archives was to be part of a Division of Historical and Cultural affairs in the Department of State.

But another part of deValinger's problems was caused by his insistence that state government, whatever its form, should continue to support Archives with adequate budget money from the General Fund. Peterson, trying to cut state costs, wanted the Archivist to be more active in seeking federal funds. As the dispute escalated, deValinger was removed as State Archivist and named State Historian instead — a lesser office. Soon after, he was pushed to resign. He then took a lobbying job for the League of Local Governments, retiring from that only a few years ago.

The Archives enjoyed its Golden Age during his tenure and has languished since then. Certainly much of this is due to lack of adequate financial support by the state, but it is also true that no one has stepped forward since 1970 and come close to filling his shoes.

As he'd done in 1930, deValinger in 1970 swallowed his pride, did not complain, and made the best of it. He would have liked to finish some projects he hadn't completed, such as the comprehensive edition of John Dickinson's letters he'd worked upon, when he could find time, during many of his forty years of state service. That project was handed over to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, which seems not to have advanced it much further since he gave it up.

The Texas Oil man, Gentry, had sized him up well in saying he looked like a worker. Leon deValinger, Jr., has always worked hard, as the following checklist of his works will demonstrate. This may not be a complete list of his productions, and I will be grateful if readers can add to it. A majority of these items are listed in Reed and Reed's A Bibliography of Delaware through 1960. I have indicated in the checklist which ones are by putting an R [for Reed & Reed entry] number at the end of each item mentioned in that source.

A few of the items in the checklist have not been published, but I have included them because they are accessible to read and copy if not to collect. Also, I have decided not to distinguish, in the following list, between items Dr. deValinger wrote (or co-wrote) and those he mainly edited and/or compiled. The distinction will be obvious to those who familiarize themselves with his works.

A deValinger Checklist

1. " An Essay on the New Castle-Frenchtown Railroad," entered in competition for the Old Home Prize. Typewritten, author's name and prize award. 1929. [Original in University of Delaware Library Special Collections.] 5 pp.

2. " When Lotteries Financed Delaware College," in University of Delaware Alumni News, June 1932. Pp. 2-ff. illus. R 3336

3. George Washington and Delaware. [With Dr. George Ryden.] Prepared for the Delaware State George Washington Bicentennial Commission. Dover: Public Archives Commission, 1932. 56 pp. frontis. portraits. [The authorship of this work is not immediately apparent, but a prefatory note reads " The work of preparing this pamphlet has been done by Dr. George H. Ryden, State Archivist, and his assistant, Mr. Leon deValinger, Jr." But it's not found catalogued under Ryden's or deValinger's names.] R 17504.

4. " Journal of Jachariah Ferris's Visits to Southern Friends' Meetings," in Bulletin of the Friends' Historical Association (Spring 1933).

5. " The Delaware State House," in D.A.R. Magazine, 68: 726-27 (1934), cover illus. R 4493

6. Lafayette in Delaware. [With William P. Frank.] Prepared [for the Grand Lodge of Delaware Freemasons] as a Part of Delaware's Participation in the Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Death of Lafayette. Wilmington: W. N. Cann, 1934. 20 pp. [No authors are listed for this work, but Dr. deValinger told me that the project originated when Anna T. Lincoln (historian, teacher, curator of the Historical Society of Delaware, and later, in 1937, author of Wilmington, Delaware: Three Centuries Under Four Flags) introduced him to Bill Frank and asked them to collaborate on the project.] R 4237

7. Development of Local Government in Delaware, 1638-1776. Master of Arts thesis, University of Delaware, 1935. [Not formally published, but mimeographed and made available in a small number of copies to libraries at the time. A copy was sold at Wilson's Delaware Auction a few sales ago.]

8. Colonial Military Organization in Delaware, 1638-1776. Wilmington: Delaware Tercentenary Commission, 1938. 58 pp. frontispiece.[This work was published separately, but also in another edition bound together with articles by Ryden and M. M. Daugherty.] R 1639, 3182

9. Articles on 11 Delaware subjects for the Dictionary of American History (Scribners, 1938). [Reed's biographical sketch of deValinger (History, Vol. 3) mentions these.]

10. Catalogue of Delaware Portraits. Dover: Delaware State Portrait Commission, 1941. 64 pp.

11. Indian Land Sales in Delaware ... with Addendum, a Discussion of the Family Hunting Territory Question in Delaware, by C. A. Weslager. Archaeological Society of Delaware [1941], 24 pp. [Weslager was then editing the Society's journal, and, when this article of deValinger's was submitted to him, he was inspired to add a 7-page addendum of his own. He in turn sought input from deValinger on this, whose suggestions are acknowledged by Weslager as having been incorporated into the addendum.] R 726

12. " How Delaware Is Solving the Problem," in Minutes of the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies, 37th Annual Meeting, pp. 26-31 (1942). R 15

13. " John Janvier, Delaware Cabinetmaker," in Antiques, 41: 37- 42. (January 1942), illus. R 1175

14. Calendar of Kent County Delaware Probate Records, 1680-1800. Dover, 1944. 558, 133 pp. Edition of 300 copies. R 1703

15. " Delaware" entries in Britannica Year Book for 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945. [Mentioned in Reed biographical sketch.]

16. " The Collection of Personal Military Service Records in Delaware," in American Association for State and Local History War Records Collector. 2: 6-7 (1945). Mimeographed. R 3270

17. " Council of Safety Minutes," in Delaware History, 1: 55-78 (1946).R 1722

18. " Delaware Records for Genealogical Research," in National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 35: 1-3 (March 1947). R 797

19. " Rodney Letters," in Delaware History, 1: 99-110 (July 1946) and 3: 105-115 (September 1948). R 1713

20. " The Place of County Records in the State Archival System," in American Archivist, 11: 37- 40 (1948). R 16

21. Delaware: the Diamond State. Wilmington: State Board of Agriculture, 1948. 64 pp. Illus. [This, the 4th edition of a work bearing that title, is the only one compiled and edited by LdVJr.] R 395

22. " The Burning of the Whorekill, 1673," in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 74: 473- 487 (Oct. 1950). Offprinted in soft paper cover. 14 pp. R 1661

23. " John Dickinson's Handwriting," in Autograph Collectors Journal, Summer, 1951, pp. 2-6. R 1003

24. Reconstructed 1790 Census of Delaware. Washington, D. C.: 1954. 83 pp., map. Reprinted from National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Sept. 1948-Dec. 1953. [Second printing, 1962 third printing, 1984.] R 688

25. Review of Dr. John Munroe's Federalist Delaware, in Delaware History, Vol. 6 (Fall-Winter, 1954-55), pp. 256-7.

26. Delaware's Role in World War II, 1940-1946. [With William H. Connor.] 2 vols. Dover, 1955. illus. R 3269.

27. " The John Dickinson Mansion," 12 pp., map. Bound together with J. H. Powell, " The House on Jones Neck." 26 pp. illus. [1955]. R 4518.

28. " Microfilming and Preservation of Public Records, an Address...." 1956. Reprinted from Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference, National Association of Secretaries of State. R 17.

29. Debates and Proceedings of the Constitutional Conventions of the State of Delaware I-V. [Compiled with William H. McCauley.] Milford: Chronicle Publishing Co. for State Supreme Court, 1958. 3,564 pp.

30. Court Records of Kent County, Delaware 1680-1705. Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1959. xxii, 382 pp. with index. Vol. VIII of American Legal Records. Later printing: Millwood, N. Y.: Kraus Reprint Co., 1975. R 2713

31. European Influences as Evidenced in Today's Delaware. Dover: Delaware State Development Office, 1960. 4-page folder, illus.

32. " Delaware" (Chapter 5), in Milton Rubincam, et al., Genealogical Research Methods and Sources. Washington, D. C.: American Society of Genealogists, 1960.

33. A Calendar of Ridgely Family Letters, 1742-1899. [Co-edited with Virginia E. Shaw.] 3 vols. Dover: Privately published for the Public Archives Commission, 1948, 1951, 1961. Edition of 300 copies. illus. R 1704

34. The Swedish Settlements on the Delaware. Dover: Delaware State Museum, 1963. 4-page pamphlet, illus., map.

35. " Leonard E. Wales, President 1879-1893," pp. 44-46 of " Men Who Led the Society," Delaware History, April 1964.

36. Calendar of Sussex County, Delaware Probate Records, 1680-1800. Dover: Public Archives Commission, 1964. 310, 87 pp.

37. How Delaware Became the First State. Dover: Division of Archives and Cultural Affairs, 1970. 34 pp. facs.

38. Report on Excavation of the St. Jones River Site near Lebanon. Dover: Delaware State Museum, 1970. 53 pp. with 7- page bibliography, illus.

39. " John Dickinson and the Federal Constitution," in Delaware History, 22: 4 (Fall-Winter 1987), pp. 299-308.


Leon deValinger died July 5, 2000 at the age of 95. See obituary.

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