Chapter 1: Origins
When something unique becomes a possession, there emerges an intense desire to uncover its origins, discern its beginnings, and retrace its paths. Thus is the case with the bag. Its hard brown surface with soft underside carries with it the warm scent of leather. The maze of cracks and crevices along its bottom most likely hold remnants of its journey—a crumb of bread or speck of dirt from a far off place. A gray oilcloth strap replaces the masculine black canvas that had been added by its previous owner. It is a heavy load to carry, but worth the inspiration that oozes from it. The research into the origins of the bag takes curious minds to a French leatherworker serving—not by choice—with the French army in 1755.
What is known about the elderly Jacques de Marseille comes from the diaries of young soldiers—a gentle soul who made the finest leather goods in all of Europe, a man of family, and sought after by French nobility for his craftsmanship. His trade forced him into the service of the king in a land far from home and those he loved. Oddly, Jacques’ name appears again in the tales of an experienced explorer by the name of Daniel Boone.
As for Mr. Boone, history tells us that he left home in 1755 and served as a wagoner under General Edward Braddock. One might say that had it not been for this bloody battle and more specifically an ambush by the French and Indians, the bag would have quite possibly never come into being. It was during this ambush that the clever and skilled Boone escaped on horseback nearly knocking down a frightened and badly shaken Jacques de Marseille who had taken off on foot hoping by the grace of God to find a way back to his family in Paris. Even though the two men were on opposite sides of the war, in this brief encounter a deal was struck ensuring Marseille’s safety—safe passage for a unique piece of leather
Jacques insisted he had discovered the rare piece of skin in his shop, but was sure he had never purchased it from the local tannery. It was seemingly perfect. There was no visible marking where the animal had been taken down and the auburn brown was unlike anything he had ever seen. He had saved it for something special, thinking that its use was of far more importance than to be turned into a pair of shoes.
It is said that Boone held onto the leather until 1789 when John Adams invited him to dinner. Adams, known only by his family and close friends as a man hungry for adventure, was aware of Boone’s ability to escape Indian capture and traverse the unexplored territories. No one knows for sure exactly why the leather traded hands at this point. One source suggested it was a gift, another said that Boone was tired of holding onto it, and others claimed that since he was so well skilled in the cleaning of hides, he never saw a need for it. Nonetheless, Adams found quick use for the leather.
He commissioned a leatherworker in Boston to craft the hide into a bag that would carry his important documents. He thought it was a clever use of the hide until the leatherworker, seeing the quality of what was now in his possession, sold the leather to a native for more than a year’s wages, sailed back to England, and was never heard from again.
The story of the leather went dark until 1891 when the Alaskan gold rush brought settlers and miners by the thousands to the new land. It is here that the tale of the mysterious leather that had made its way from France and into the hands of Daniel Boone and John Adams resurfaced. Apparently, Nona—a very old and wise bread maker who lived in Alaska with her 2 daughters, 3 sons, and 19 grandchildren—discovered the hide. In the tale, Nona made fresh bread in her home every morning before anyone in her large family awoke. But by the time she had finished and carried the bread to all of her family members, the bread was cold. She wished her family could have soft warm bread for breakfast. When Nona discovered the leather at the local market, she instantly recognized its uniqueness. The vendor explained to her the unusual history of the leather, but Nona didn’t know a bit about a man named Boone, had never heard of France, and considered it nonsense that the leather had belonged to a president of the States. It took Nona almost a week to perfect her bag and make sure it was just how she wanted it. After the bag was made, she used it to carry fresh bread to her family in the village everyday. Before her death, the family entered into a horrible feud over to whom it would belong once she died. Angered by her family’s fighting, it is said that Nona tossed the bag into a small wooden boat, gave it a shove, and watched as it sailed to what is now known as Russia.
Ten years later, a German immigrant by the name of Fredrick Bambach told a tale to an American journalist of his unique bag. Bambach said he bought the bag from a Romanian traveler who claimed a fisherman had found the bag off the coast of Russia. Needing a bag to hold what little possessions he knew he could take with him, Bambach secured a few precious pictures in the bag’s front pocket, and made the long trip to New York.