The Secret of Silas Deane’s Snuff-Box

We had an original document game in my historical research methods class today. We were investigating the mysterious death of Silas Deane (a small-time diplomat to France during the revolutionary war) using a textbook which came with a CD of relevant original documents. My task was to form an opinion of Silas Deane from his obituaries. (Julian Boyd seems to be the big expert on Silas Deane scholarship).

Here is the story I told (the time line, with sources is below).

Warning: this is an exercise in conjecture, perhaps even historical fiction. Please do not take this for more than it is: a fun mental exercise with historical documents.

Silas Deane, not the brightest bulb in the box perhaps, but not an embezzler, fell from grace in the middle of the Revolutionary War because of bad political timing. Before his fall, he was one of the first diplomats the founding fathers sent to France to get support for the revolutionaries. While in France, King Louis XVI presented Silas “with his picture, set round with brilliants“.  Because of his fall, Silas spent 11 years in poverty, ranging from uncomfortable to abject. He died trying to get back to America.

His brother asked that Silas’s “gold snuff box”, evaluated to be worth 90 guineas ($12,613.96 in 2008 U.S. dollars) be sold “after the picture is taken out“.

My theory is that that “gold snuff box”, with a picture, which was evaluated by a gem-expert is the same “picture, set round with brilliants” that Louis XVI gave Silas when he was in political favor. When he died, Silas had his traveling baggage and this “snuff box”–not even enough money to pay for his own funeral, for which his brother had to send money. For the 11 years Silas lived in poverty, he kept this gift, even when he not only wanted food, but a bed to lie upon“.

Silas Deane is commonly assumed to have been a thief at the least, and a traitor at the worst (link to his descendant’s very emphatic website). Learning something about him as a person, that he was so proud of his work that, even when homeless and starving, he never sold a gift worth what ~$12,000 would be worth to us today, was a valuable exercise in historical inquiry.

Please check out the time line for more details on Silas Deane:


  • Silas Deane sent to France as part a group of diplomats, whose job is to procure support (political, military and monetary) for the revolutionaries from the French Court (Benjamin Franklin came a few months later to join this delegation).



  • Silas has been accused of embezzling somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds (translates to between $7,037,651.33 and $14,075,302.66 in 2008 U.S. dollars, according to this neat historical currency converter)
  • Congress debates heatedly, but decides to recall him from France
  • For whatever reason, he does not leave, but continued in France until


  • He sent letters to various founding fathers, arguing that America should try for peace with the British, which may have made sense to write when he wrote them, but did not match the national feeling 3 months later, when they arrives in America and the Continental Army was winning.


  • Silas lives in Flanders, poor by most accounts, unable to go to England for fear of appearing a traitor, and absolutely unwelcome in the United States.



  • Silas’s brother writes a letter, settling Silas’s effects. His brother had to forward money to have Silas buried. He also says the gold snuff box, in the hands of Sir Robert Herries, I would have sold, provided it would be sold for the 90 guineas valued at by the lapidary you mention, after the picture is taken out, which I would have sent here.”
    • Link goes to the only piece of Silas Deane’s jewelry I could find
    • 90 guineas is about $12,613.96 in 2008 US dollars, from this neat converter
    • A lapidary is an expert in precious gems
    • quote from ibid.

Throughout my whole life, my family has visited antique shops with treasure-hunters’ joy. Returning from family vacations through gold country, we would examine old horse-shoes, books, women’s hat-pins, and jewelry. I learned early that estate-sales and garage-sales tell an intimate story of a family, sometimes funny (did they really use this frog soap-dish?) and sad (did they really want to sell that gold-chain with grandma’s picture inside?).

I did not realize until this class that my mom was training me in historical evidence and interpretation. It’s good to be my mother’s daughter.

Inspirational Quote:

”I’ve searched my conscience, and I cannot accept that there are two equivalent sides to every story.” – Edward R. Murrow

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