American Colonization Society agent Eli Ayres recorded the deal in careful script on the front and back of a single sheet of paper. He signed it along with U. S. Navy Captain Robert Stockton and six local leaders, who referred to themselves as Peter, George, Zoda, Long Peter, Governor and Jimmy. (They were called “kings” in the contract, although they were not monarchs in the European sense.) The written agreement, not unusual for the era if astonishingly casual to the modern legalistic mind, is the founding document of the nation that would become Liberia.
American newspapers published accounts of the purchase and transcripts of the contract after Ayres returned to the States, but in 1835 a committee of the American Colonization Society reported that the document itself was missing—the last time the contract was known to be cited in print. Over the ensuing decades, that loss contributed to the myth that the contract had never existed at all—that the Americans had simply seized the land by force or fraud.
Not often is a historian presented with such a high-stakes challenge: Find a nearly 200-year-old sheet of paper, which may not even be real, that launched a new nation. But it was a challenge that C. Patrick Burrowes, a former Penn State University professor who has spent much of his career researching Liberia’s early history, was eager to take on. So, exactly two centuries after the document was supposedly drafted, Burrowes set out to solve the existential mystery and clarify our understanding of a critical chapter of U.S. and African history.