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Honoring Lancaster NH and the legacy of Henry Willard Denison, citizen diplomat

Henry Willard Denison accompanied the Japanese delegation to Portsmouth for the peace conference in 1905.
Portsmouth Peace Treaty Forum

This year, Lancaster, New Hampshire celebrates its 250th birthday with a calendar of special events and programs. Among them is a talk at Weeks Library about "Teddy Roosevelt's Nobel Prize" and the Lancaster man who helped guide the Japanese towards the Portsmouth Peace Treaty that gave Roosevelt the honor.

A bronze bust of Denison stands at the entrance to the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Training Center in Sagamihara City, Japan. His portrait hangs in the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord. He was the first “foreigner” ever to receive the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun, the Japanese equivalent of knighthood. He was perhaps the first former “professional” to play baseball in Japan. He accompanied the Japanese delegation who came to Portsmouth in 1905 at the invitation of Teddy Roosevelt to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War as its senior legal advisor. And he died in Tokyo one hundred years ago on July 3, 1914, having chosen to spend his life as a career diplomat in Japan.

Who was he?

Henry Willard Denison was born at Guildhall Vermont on May 11, 1846, the son of Colonel John Paine Denison. In March of 1860, the family moved to Lancaster, where Henry attended Lancaster Academy (the spot is identified with a plaque behind the Weeks Library). Following school, Denison worked for the Coos Republican newspaper (in offices above the Lancaster Savings Bank), employed by the editor and family friend Colonel Henry O. Kent with whom he lived during his apprenticeship. He then moved on to Philadelphia printer McKellar, Smith & Jordan -- but according to later accounts, was “not well pleased” there. In 1864, thanks to his father’s cousin, Charles Dana who was Assistant Secretary of War in the Lincoln Administration, Denison went to work for the War Department and later transferred to the Treasury Department as a Customs clerk. While at Customs, Denison earned his law degree at what is now George Washington University) and played baseball (as starting first baseman) for the Washington Olympic Club, the city’s third major baseball team.

In 1869, Henry Denison went to Japan, as a vice consul to the American consulate at Yokohama, in a move that would transform his life. In the next decade, Denison made such an impression on the Japanese Government that in May 1880, he was invited to become legal advisor to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1895, he helped conclude a treaty of friendship with Great Britain, an alliance that would prove critical for its help to Japan’s Navy and its need for a strong European ally to counter the Russians leading up to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

In August 1905, Denison accompanied Japanese Ambassador Baron Komura to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for the negotiations to end the war. Press photographs from the time and the 1905 newsreel shot by Thomas Edison show his tall distinguished frame arriving at the Courthouse after the Portsmouth welcoming parade and climbing into a car at Wentworth By the Sea Hotel, where the delegation stayed as the formal negotiations at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard progressed. Denison was responsible on behalf of the Japanese, with Privy Councilor De Martens on behalf of the Russians, for drafting the final form of the Treaty of Portsmouth from the protocols agreed upon during the negotiations. He was one of the few present for the signing of the treaty at 3:47 pm on September 5 (a day and time now honored with commemorations throughout New Hampshire as Portsmouth Peace Treaty Day).

The day after the Treaty was signed, Denison boarded a train to Concord, meeting his old friend William Chandler, former Senator for New Hampshire who had helped his state win the honor of hosting the peace conference, at the station. Heading north to his hometown of Lancaster, Henry Denison arrived on the 10 pm train on Wednesday night, September 6. He stayed at the Lancaster House hotel, dined with Colonel and Mrs. Kent at their home on North Main Street and visited the grave of his sister, Frances, while also visiting with many old family friends at the Kents’ before departing at noon on Friday the 8th. His old Coos Country Republican carried front page stories about the welcome their famous diplomat received.

Subsequently, Denison represented Japan at The International Court of Arbitration at The Hague and, for his service, received the Grand Order of the Rising Sun from the emperor, the first time this Japanese decoration had been given to a foreigner. Henry Willard Denison died in Tokyo on July 3, 1914 and posthumously received the Order of the Chrysanthemum, Japan’s highest honor. He is buried alongside Baron Komura, in the Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo. His death mask is preserved at the Diplomatic School in a box made of paulownia wood – the blossoming tree that is the symbol of the Foreign Ministry.

Visitors can see the Lancaster Academy plaque, the Kent home and Main Street Lancaster. A pilgrimage to Lancaster to honor this New Hampshire citizen diplomat, 100 years after his death is worthwhile. The Japanese Foreign Ministry thinks Denison was important enough to hold a memorial ceremony at his grave each year on the date of his death.

On June 30, 2014 at 7 pm the Weeks Memorial Library in Lancaster hosts Charles B. Doleac for a free illustrated talk on “Teddy Roosevelt’s Nobel Peace Prize, the Portsmouth Peace Treaty & Henry Willard Denison.”