Nominated Document Spotlight-Murder and Mischief

August 8th, 2013

Are you a new transcriber who wants to see how hard it is to unravel historic handwriting? Are you a seasoned transcriber looking for a bigger challenge? This week we ask for your help with another document that has not yet been transcribed. Written by Robert Rankin to Thomas Lewis, this four-page document includes a report on incidents of murder and theft on the Ohio River by assailants in boats. The letter references whiskey, and murder, and the taking of prisoners. It is a slightly challenging document-the handwriting is good, but the image is not perfect.

Please help us get this document transcribed and into the historical record.

You may read and transcribe the original document here.

Next week we’ll feature another installment in our transcriber spotlight series.

This is one of many–there are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register (http://wardepartmentpapers.org/scripto/register.php) and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!

Document Spotlight-The Government Helps a Widow

July 18th, 2013

Today’s letter, brought to us by volunteer transcriber Deblegs, describes the government’s role in helping a widow recover some money owed her. The writer, a Mr. Dunscomb, reports to Josiah Howell that Mrs Williams has applied several times for benefits resulting from her husband’s death in service. It appears that another officer had been given funds to pay Mr. Williams, but had not; Dunscomb suggests that the widow’s money be taken from that officer to help Mrs. Williams as much as possible. He writes with compassion for her situation-”it will be of much use to Mrs Williams”-but also with some irritation at her many requests for help: “you will not only serve the concerned but rid me of frequent unnecessary applications.” All in all, a slightly complicated look at the world of accounts and bureaucrats. Moreover, it highlights some of the tensions between wanting to help and being inundated with desperate cases-all of which required investigation and diligence.

Read the original document here.

Next week we’ll feature another installment in our transcriber spotlight series.

It is not too late–there are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register (http://wardepartmentpapers.org/scripto/register.php) and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!

Document Spotlight-Zebulon Pike, Settlement of Accounts, and Stolen Vouchers

July 11th, 2013

Today’s letter, brought to us by volunteer transcriber Deblegs, concerns Captain Zebulon Pike (the father of explorer Zebulon M. Pike) and a settling of accounts with him over expense monies. The writer, Thomas O’Hara, explains that Pike may be owed some two hundred dollars for expenses. The remainder of the letter is remarkable for its discussion of a possible counterfeiting charge. An unnamed man was found in possession of counterfeited government vouchers-vouchers that had been stolen from a Mr. Pierce-and O’Hara expected to testify before the local grand jury in that matter.

Read the original document here.

Next week we’ll feature another installment in our transcriber spotlight series.

It is not too late–there are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register (http://wardepartmentpapers.org/scripto/register.php) and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!

A War Department of Twelve

May 15th, 2013

Today, the Pentagon alone employs upwards of 30,000 people. Contrast this with Secretary of War James McHenry’s diminutive War Department Staff of 1798, working out of an office “at the Northeast corner of Chestnut and Fifth Street,” in Philadelphia.

Document Spotlight-The War Department Versus the Free Market

May 9th, 2013

Clothing and supplying troops in the early Republic was almost as chronic a problem as feeding them. Officers and quartermasters spent a great deal of time and expense contracting with suppliers to get uniforms and material; unfortunately, those officers often had competition on the open market. In this week’s document, transcribed by volunteer Deblegs, we see how that competition could play out.

The writer describes a situation where the War Department wanted to purchase a lot of winter clothing for troops. Private buyers, however, wanted winter clothing, and the fact that two different buyers competed for the same goods drove the price up beyond $50,000. This drove the War Department out of the race for those goods, and officers had to turn elsewhere for the goods. Their frustration is evident in the letter.

Read the original document here.

Next week we’ll feature another installment in our transcriber spotlight series.

It is not too late–there are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register (http://wardepartmentpapers.org/scripto/register.php) and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!

Document Spotlight-Bread and Beef and Candles

May 2nd, 2013

One of the important things officers and administrators do for their soldiers is to keep them fed. Today’s document highlights the challenges associated with that process. Rations needed to be sourced, prices had to be negotiated, transportation had to be arranged. In this letter, transcribed by Perrin1, we get a peak at the prices the War Department negotiated for certain foodstuffs.

For 1796, the Department negotiated prices for bread and flour, beef and pork, candles, soap, and salt, including transportation to several different sites. The prices reflected different transportation costs; a pound of bread cost 4 1/2 cents delivered to Pittsburgh, but 9 1/2 cents transported to Presque Isle.

According to this letter, that contract included the delivery of half a million rations and fixed food prices for one year.

Read the original document here.

Check back next week for another installment in our transcriber spotlight series.

It is not too late–there are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register (http://wardepartmentpapers.org/scripto/register.php) and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!

Yellow Fever’s Challenges to the Government in Philadelphia

April 30th, 2013

In 1797 the city of Philadelphia experienced an epidemic of Yellow Fever. The residents of the city were all too familiar with the disease. In 1793, the city had faced one of the worst epidemics in the early republic. When the devastating Yellow Fever outbreak hit the city of 50,000, nearly 20,000 fled the city and almost 5,000 people perished.

Only four years later when Yellow Fever again gripped the city in the fall of 1797, residents had to weigh the benefits and costs of remaining in the city.  One such resident was President John Adams. Adams had the power to decide whether the government would stay in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time, or relocate.

In a letter to Adams, U.S. Attorney General Charles Lee hoped “the cold of winter in the climate at Philadelphia to be an antidote to the Yellow Fever as the experience of 1793 seems to warrant.” But Lee warned Adams against the potential “danger to the health and lives of the members” of Congress. In a letter to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Adams asserted that he also hoped the fever would die down during the cold winter months. He optimistically decided Congress should continue to meet in Philadelphia.

Perhaps his decision not to disrupt the schedule of Congress had to do with foreign affairs. Friction with France, trading with Prussia, and treaties with England and Russia were all top priorities in Adams’ letters.  The epidemic helps to show the many challenges facing the government of the early republic from unexpected sources, like Yellow Fever.

Community Transcription-Twenty Four Months In

April 25th, 2013

It’s been twenty-four months now since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription, and ever since then we have been steadily adding transcribers as well as finished documents to our archive. What started with just a dozen or so volunteers has grown into an active, vigorous community of volunteer transcribers.

We offer here yet another snapshot at our transcription activity.

As of this morning, we have 1,345 users-fully 227 them have transcribed within the last 90 days, which is just under 17%. This number has dropped very slightly, but continues to hold relatively steady. Those volunteer transcribers have made 10,804 saves to War Department documents, which is about 342 more than at the last update. That works out to 2,017 finished documents, along with another 37 documents begun. Additionally, transcribers have initiated 423 conversations using the “talk” feature. We also know that on average, each document is edited about three times before it is finished. Moreover, we have had 58,952 total page views.

By now we have an incredibly rich variety of folks transcribing, from soldiers to students, from attorneys to archivists, and from writers to musicians. There are folks transcribing from every American state, and from six different continents. Transcribers also include teachers at every level of education, elementary to university. We have unaffiliated transcribers as well as those attached to institutions, ranging from major research libraries to historical sites, and from the National Park Service to the more than a dozen Native American tribes. Among those that specify an interest or focus, those interests range from professional research, to family research, to classroom activities. Some of our transcribers had extensive experience with historical documents when they began; for others, this is their first encounter with two hundred-year old letters and handwriting. Many of our transcribers have only worked on a few documents, but we have a growing number of people who have transcribed dozens of them. Some of our transcribers have no particular interest in the War Department Papers, but are evaluating Scripto to use in their own projects.

The documents themselves vary widely in content. Many of them deal with pay for soldiers or officers. Others are transcripts of speeches or treaties. Some documents detail disciplinary action; there are supply lists and officers’ commissions, as well as intelligence or action reports.

As we continue forward with the project, users may still register for a transcription account.

Loyal Citizen or Lying Cheat?

April 17th, 2013

When his 1798 claim for a reward of ten dollars for capturing and returning a deserter was denied by the Accountant of the War Department, Hugh McAlister appealed the decision by writing directly to the President of the United States. McAlister argued that he was a “well known friend to the Constitution” and that William Simmons, the Accountant, had only denied the claim because of a preexisting prejudice.

He was right that Simmons was prejudiced against him. Simmons remembered that McAlister had been implicated in a case of forgery in 1797. Joseph Humprheys, one of the witnesses in the case, had alleged that McAlister was part of a scheme to forge to forge soldier’s powers of attorney and thereby take their pay or land. If nothing else, McAlister was the Notary Public who had certified as true the forged powers of attorney, and while he was not convicted, Simmons and others believed him to have been guilty.

However, Simmons did not mention McAlister’s history in his denial of the claim, instead pointing out that the deserter McAlister claimed to have returned did not appear in any Muster Roll, nor had the army advertised for a deserter by that name or appearance.  The “deserter” may never have been in the Army at all! Usually, civilian captures of deserters took place after the War Department advertised in newspapers with the name and description of the deserter, which they only did once a military attempt to retrieve the deserter had failed. The fact that there was no soldier by that name in Muster Rolls, no account of a military attempt to recover the man, nor any advertising may have suggested to Simmons that McAlister was trying a new form of fraud.

President John Adams referred the matter to Secretary of War James McHenry, who wrote to William Simmons for clarification. Simmons defended his decision in letters to McHenry and the President. In his letter to Adams, Simmons pointed out not only the lack of evidence for McAlister’s claim but the man’s history of fraud. His shorter reply to McHenry, however, only mentioned the lack of evidence, and McHenry apparently felt that Simmons was not answering his questions appropriately. In a letter dated October 25, McHenry asked Adams whether he thought that Simmons’ behavior in the matter amounted to insubordination.

There does not seem to be any indication that McAlister’s claim was every paid. Whether or not McAlister was trying to defraud the War Department, and whether he’d committed fraud before, his letter of complaint to the President for a $10 reward caused a great deal of drama in the War Department offices.

Document Spotlight-One Hundred Eighty Dollars’ Worth of Salary

April 11th, 2013

This week we offer another document spotlight to show some of the things our volunteers are finding as they transcribe documents. Transcribed by Dapperlaw, the letter was written by Joseph Howell, and was included in the pay packet for Michael G Houdin. It details Houdin’s salary–$180 for the period 1 July 1793 through 31 March 1794. I also instructs Houdin to sign and return receipts for the money showing he received the pay.

Read the original document here.

Check back next week for another installment in our transcriber spotlight series.

It is not too late–there are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register (http://wardepartmentpapers.org/scripto/register.php) and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!