Jefferson, Kosciuszko, and a Wolf-skin Pelisse

Gaye Wilson, Historian
Robert H. Smith International
Center for Jefferson Studies

On our Study Trip to Poland, we saw numerous portraits and prints of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, hero in three wars for independence—in the American Revolution, in Russia, and in his home country, Poland. We were told that he presented a wolf coat to Thomas Jefferson. Gaye Wilson sheds further light on this interesting relationship.
— Editor’s Note

 

“Give me leave to present you a Fur. . .” Thaddeus Kosciuszko began a brief note to his friend Thomas Jefferson with this polite request. It was in the late spring of 1789, and he was preparing for his return to Europe following a short stay in the United States. During these few months he and Thomas Jefferson had developed a lasting friendship that prompted Jefferson’s assistance in arranging Kosciuszko’s voyage to France and further assistance in overseeing his financial affairs in the United States. The fur became a parting gift.

Some mystery has surrounded this fur, as Kosciuszko’s note gave no indication as to the type fur or even if it was a garment or simply pelts. Mentions in letters between Jefferson, family members, and friends have provided clues as to the nature of the fur. The winter after Kosciuszko’s departure Jefferson commented in a letter to his daughter Martha that he had stayed perfectly warm on his trip from Monticello to Philadelphia “thanks to my pelisse,” and then several years later he requested she send him “my wolf-skin pelisse and fur-boots.” His detailed instructions on how to wrap and pack the pelisse would indicate he felt it a valuable item.

The term “pelisse” was applied to either a cloak or a fitted outer garment worn by both men and women with the distinguishing characteristic, especially for men, of a fur lining. A close family friend, Margaret Bayard Smith, who was also acquainted with Kosciuszko, wrote an interesting anecdote about the fur cloak loaned to her one winter evening in Washington City by President Jefferson. She mused upon it being the one presented Jefferson by Kosciuszko that had in turn been presented to Kosciuszko by Czar Paul I. Unfortunately she did not identify the type fur but seemed quite definite as to its history. Ten years after Jefferson’s death, a letter between family members mentioned the Kosciuszko fur. “Mary says Kosciuszko’s wolf skin pelisse is at Mrs. H. [Margaret Bayard] Smith’s who suggested it would be well to give it to some society which she named (but Mary had forgotten). She thought they would go to the expense of having a glass case made for it to preserve it from the moths.” Was this idea carried forward? At this point it is not known what happened to the Kosciuszko-Jefferson wolf skin pelisse, but obviously friends and family members believed it possessed enough historical importance to merit preservation. It is quite likely that it has been preserved at least in a portrait of Jefferson painted in 1805 by Rembrandt Peale, as the fur collar of the cloak with which Jefferson wraps himself looks very much like wolf.

Note: Christine Rostworowska, our Study Trip historian on Poland, has searched the known images of Kosciuszko looking for a portrait of him wearing the pelisse, but, at this time, she has not found one. However, she thinks there might be mention of it in Polish journals, diaries, etc.

*UPDATE

We asked if there was a known image of Kosciuszko wearing his wolf-skin pelisse. Upon receiving her Winter Decorative Arts Trust Newsletter, Dorcas Taylor from Winterthur did some research and emailed to say that Winterthur had the image. Thanks to Dorcas Taylor and Winterthur, here it is.

 


 


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