Canadian Refugees

March 7th, 2013

In April, 1798, United States Congress passed “An Act for the relief of the refugees from the British Provinces of Canada and Nova Scotia.” Under the Act, the Secretary of War was required to advertise its terms and review all claims submitted. Who were these refugees? Why was their welfare the responsibility of the Secretary of War?

Just as there were some people in the colonies who remained loyal to the British Crown, there were people in Canada and Nova Scotia who supported the Continental Congress’ claim of independence. These people aided the Continental Army in Canada by providing food or shelter or by enlisting. Many of them then had to leave their homes when the British retook the area during the war, and those who made it to the United States often stayed until the end of the war and beyond. They lost their homes, their property, and sometimes their businesses. These were the refugees of the Act, and it was the intention of Congress to compensate them for their losses with grants of land.

Claims had to be supported by statements sworn before a judge or justice of the peace. While all that seems to have been required was a statement by the claimant, many also included supporting statements from family, friends, and former or present neighbors. For example, John McGown supported his claim with statements from a fellow soldier as well as justices of the peace from his former home in Amherst County, Nova Scotia. McGown himself submitted a supporting statement for the claim of Lewis Frederick Delesdernier, who was seeking compensation for himself, his parents, and his deceased brother.

By early May, 1800, the Secretary of War had received 73 claims, of which only 18 were disallowed. The smallest awards were 100 acre per person; Martha Walker, widow, and Edgar and Seth Harding received the largest awards at 2,240 acres each. Both John McGown and Frederick Delesdernier were granted 960 acres.

Fort Duquesne

February 25th, 2013

With the exception of perhaps West Point, no garrison is more frequently cited in this collection than Fort Pitt, along with its commander, Major Isaac Craig who restored the fort in 1791. But long before this bastion on the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers became a major supply depot for pushing provisions and supplies down the Ohio River to the western forts during the 1790s, the French  controlled this region,  using their  their own system of Indian alliances with the Six Nations of Iroquois and by constructing a series of forts running north-south from French Canada, including Fort Frontenac, (modern day Kingston Ontario, Fort Oswego, Fort Presque Isle (modern day Erie PA), and Fort LeBoeuf (Waterford PA).

Built by French and Canadians in 1754,  the construction of Fort Duquesne was a risky undertaking for the undermanned and under-resourced French, in many ways setting the stage for the beginnings of what Winston Churchill called “the first world war.”  For it was here that General Braddock, supreme commander of British forces in North America, along with his young aide George Washington,  aimed in 1755 to dislodge the French once and for all in a military campaign known as “Braddock’s March.”

But with his columns divided and strung out for miles, French and Indian forces inflicted a stinging defeat on Braddock’s army at the Battle of the Monongahela River.  Miraculously, Washington survived unscathed, even though he had two horses shot from underneath him.  After Braddock was killed, Washington took command of the general retreat back to Virginia.

Having taken measure of Braddock’s recklessness and refusal to engage in Indian diplomacy, General John Forbes (with Washington as his aide) advanced again toward Fort Duquesne in 1758 with 6000 British and Colonial troops.  Along the way Forbes systematically protected his lines of communications by creating a  system of forts, supply depots and blockhouses through modern day southern Pennsylvania, known as “Forbes’ Road.”  Hopelessly outnumbered, French forces blew up the fort and retreated to Fort Leboeuf.   Fort Duquesne became Fort Pitt, after William Pitt the Elder, where modern-day Pittsburgh stands today.

For more, see Fred Anderson (2000). Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766. New York: Alfred Knopf.


“Much more promising than many of the Virginia gentlemen.”

February 7th, 2013

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching thoughts are turning to love, courtship, and those cute candy hearts with the phrases on them. But love can also be serious business – especially if you are trying to marry the niece of the President.

That was the situation that Andrew Parks found himself in while he was wooing Harriot Washington, niece of then President George Washington, in 1796. With no biological children of his own, Washington was known to be a doting uncle. Because of this, and because of the prominence of his family, Washington was hesitant about Parks and wanted to learn more about the young man’s character before supporting the relationship.

This could be a difficult task for some, but being the President has its privileges. Washington had Secretary of War James McHenry investigate the young man’s past. McHenry contacted the Baltimore merchant Thomas McElderry who had taken Parks on as a business partner. In his response to McHenry’s inquiry McElderry assured him that Parks was a man of upstanding character. He also spoke of his skills as a businessman, having started his own “business for himself before he was nineteen years of age.” Because of this McElderry assured “with much propriety and reputation, [I] believe he will make a good husband, much more promising than many of the Virginia gentlemen.”

Harriot Washington and Andrew Parks were married on July 4, 1796.

Interested in reading McElderry’s response? View the original document here:

Washington, D.C., the inconvenient city

January 23rd, 2013

The Federal Government moved from Philadelphia to the new city of Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1800. Although the primary office of the War Department moved, some offices, like that of the keeper of military stores, remained in Philadelphia for a time.

Toward the end of July, Jeremiah Condy sent a letter from his home in the District of Columbia to Samuel Hodgdon, who was still in Philadelphia. Condy was a clerk in the Accountant’s Office as well as a practicing lawyer, and he was less than impressed with the new capital city.

In his letter, Condy told Hodgdon “not to come here if you can possibly avoid it”. Washington was unhealthy, with many cases of dysentery and bilious fever. Condy lived in Georgetown, part of the District of Columbia but a separate city from Washington, and while the climate there seemed to be healthier, he still seems to have felt it was worse than Philadelphia.

Moreover, Washington was expensive: “The markets are about one third dearer than in Philad[elphia] when we arrived they were much at the same prices, since then they have advanced about 33 [percent], when Congress comes they will I entertain no doubt be double.” While Washington no longer sees epidemics of dysentery, but new arrivals still complain about the cost of living, not to mention traffic and the weather.

Humphreys versus Fox

January 9th, 2013

A Quaker, Josiah Fox (1763–1847) was a British naval architect who came to the United States in 1793 to examine United States timber for shipbuilding and to teach drafting to American ship designer Jonathan Penrose’s sons. In 1794 he received a job as a draftsman working under Philadelphia Naval Constructor Joshua Humphreys (also a Quaker) and designer of the first six frigates. Fox and Humphreys clashed over design issues, the former believing that Humphreys’  designs were too radical-that Humphrey’s ships were too long in proportion to the beam and that the stem and stern rose too sharply. Eventually these disagreements led to considerable animosity between the two.

Humphreys’ tendency to claim most of the credit for the design of the first six frigates and the subsequent efforts by Humphreys’ son Samuel, also a naval constructor, to undercut Fox’s role in the original six frigate designs  have often obscured the contributions of Fox.  But in this May 1795 letter, obviously before the animosity had peaked, Secretary of War Timothy Pickering notes that Humphreys said the following about Fox: “Mr. Humphreys… thinks that there are few men in this country equally qualified in this line.”  Moreover, in a work entitled The History of the American Sailing Navy, Howard I. Chapelle,  who was an American naval architect  and curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution,  observed that “Fox was far better trained than Humphreys in all respects, and was a far superior draftsman.”

Secret Agent Number 13

December 18th, 2012

James Wilkinson was a soldier and a statesman. Serving in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Wilkinson was also the Commanding General of the United States Army from 1796 to 1798 and again from 1800 to 1812. From 1805 to 1807 Wilkinson served as the first Governor of the Louisiana Territory.

But Wilkinson had a dark secret. Beginning in 1787 he was also a spy for the Spanish Crown. With the intention of bringing western territories under Spanish control and gaining territory for himself as a reward, Wilkinson worked against the U.S. government from within for thirteen years. He conspired with fellow spy Aaron Burr, but gave Burr up to President Thomas Jefferson, avoiding implication himself.

Though not discovered as a spy during his own lifetime, Wilkinson did not escape controversy. He went through several court marshals and ultimately fell from grace after an unsuccessful attack on Montreal during the War of 1812. Wilkinson died in Mexico City in 1825 while attempting to negotiate for land in Texas.

His work as Agent Number 13 was discovered in 1854 by Louisiana historian Charles Gayarre.

To learn more about James Wilkinson see these documents.

The Uncertain Fate of Samuel Ewing

December 4th, 2012

At the end of July 1800, President John Adams signed a warrant for the execution of a deserter. Less than a month later, however, he reversed the decision and cancelled the warrant, although he held off granting a full pardon. What happened?

First, here are the facts of the case as related to Adams. Samuel Ewing deserted in Detroit from Captain Porter’s company in a regiment of Artillerists and Engineers on May 8, 1800. The next evening, he returned to the fort with a loaded musket and threatened to kill anyone who tried to capture him. When Lieutenant Rand approached him, Ewing pointed his musket and attempted to fire but the gun failed.

Secretary of War Samuel Dexter sent the proceedings of the court martial to Adams, remarking that he felt it was best the President confirm the sentence of death. As President, Adams was technically responsible for the decision. Adams replied that the sentence would stand as “the crime of this man is so gross it cannot with safety to the service be pardoned.”

Which begs the question, why did Adams change his mind? On August 8, Dexter had sent Adams an extract of a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Hamtramck, who had presided over the court martial. Hamtramck was concerned that Ewing might be insane: “having deserted on one day, returning on the next, and declaring war against a whole Garrison appears to me to have been the effect of a deranged brain.”

Adams took this suggestion seriously, although he was apparently irritated that no mention of possible insanity was made in the initial report of the court martial. On August 16, Adams canceled the warrant for the execution of Samuel Ewing. “Let the man remain under arrest for the present,” Adams wrote to Dexter, “To pardon him immediately might injure the service.” At this point, Samuel Ewing disappears from our archive, but it seems he was never executed.

The Battleground State of Ohio

November 9th, 2012

Much like this election season, in 1794 Ohio was a battleground state. But in a different way. There American settlers and Native Americans clashed over land rights.

In October of 1794 The Northwest Indian War had been fought for the previous nine years and after the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20 of that year the Chief of the Wyandots sought peace.

In this war native tribes banded together to prevent American settlers from entering their land. These tribes, who called themselves the Western Confederacy, were the Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Miami, Wea, Kickapoo, and Kaskaskia. The Ohio lands they sought to defend had been guaranteed to them by the British Empire with the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768. But following the American Revolution, the U.S. felt that this treaty was no longer applicable and settlers sought out lands in the Ohio River valley.  American settler’s intrusion into native lands sparked the war in 1785.

It had been a long war and after the loss at Fall Timbers the Wyandots wanted peace. The Wyandot Chief knew that he could not negotiate a full peace without the other native tribes, but wanted a truce all the same. This was a divisive move amongst the natives, but the Wyandots sought to at least guarantee a ceasefire on the land west of the Ohio River until a formal treaty could be drawn up.

Later a full peace would be negotiated with the Treaty of Greenville in August of 1795.  At this time the natives would loose large tracts of land, which include present day Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. But for now the Chief of the Wyandots moved his people west of the Ohio, and waited for peace.

Check out the full document here.

Hazards of Travel

October 25th, 2012

In October 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox and a Mr. Strong were involved in a carriage accident. As Knox explained in a letter to Jeremiah Wadsworth, the coachman took a turn too fast and the carriage overturned. Although the carriage was “much broken,” Knox and Strong luckily walked away with only bruises. “We do not so much repine at our misfortune as we rejoice at escaping greater evils, which we might have sustained” wrote Knox.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, carriage accidents could be dangerous, even deadly. Gouverneur Morris, New York politician and signer of the Constitution, lost his left leg below the knee in a carriage accident in 1780 and wore a peg leg for the rest of his life. In June of 1789 Daniel Huger, a member of Congress of South Carolina, was thrown from his carriage and fractured his leg. It could have been worse, as carriage accidents sometimes resulted in death. Huger might have shared the 1781 fate of a Massachusetts doctor who was thrown from his carriage, run over by it, and died a few days later.

While Knox’ letter appears to be the only one in the Papers of the War Department describing an accident, there are other instances where department carriages broke down. The receipts for General Wilkinson’s trip from Washington to Pittsburgh in December 1800 show his carriage being repaired at least four times, on the 4th, 11th, 15th, and 17th of that month. Poor road conditions contributed to breakdowns, damaging axles and wheels.

Travel by boat was not necessarily any better. In 1791 a boat carrying ammunition struck a rock, and while no one was hurt they had to transfer the supplies to a new boat. Six years later, a group going up the Allegheny River were less fortunate. Their boat sank, dumping some of the cargo into the river and leaving the rest damaged. Travel, whether by land or water, could be hazardous for members of the War Department.

The War Department, the French Five Hundred and Humanitarian Assistance on the Frontier

October 3rd, 2012

Hoping to garner national revenues from the sale of lands, in 1787 the Confederation Congress sold 1.5 million acres for a million dollars to the Ohio Company, a joint stock company made up of former Continental Army officers.   But like the British crown before the Revolution, and the Confederation Congress in the 1780s, the Federalists in the 1790s never quite managed to realize their hopes of an orderly and controlled pattern of settlement in the western lands.  The problem was that most American settlers knew there was no need to pay for land when it was simply there for the taking.  So, perhaps in an effort to find less savvy purchasers, one venture, the Scioto Company,  sent the poet Joel Barlow on a mission to France to try and sell land claims to a group of French artisans anxious to escape the French Revolution. The difficulty, as it turned out, was that the Scioto Company had sold shares in land it did not actually own. In any event, it was too late for the French settlers, who had already arrived in America, (many at the port of Alexandria, Virginia)  and quite anxious to settle on lands described by Barlow as a place of “milk and honey, where fish leaped into one’s arms, grapes grew in abundance and tallow candles could be picked from trees along the Ohio River.”  As it turned out, the settlement, modern day Gallipolis, Ohio (city of the Gauls) was extremely rough country and  far from developed.  In an instance of what we might term today “humanitarian relief”  for the hapless settlers, who apparently  lacked the rudimentary skills and know-how required to tame such wilderness, the War Department dispatched Major John Burnham and a detachment of about 35 men to construct 80 log houses and a number of block houses at the settlement. Ultimately though, disease and hostile Indians killed and scattered the “French five-hundred.” By 1806, there were only a handful remaining.  The Scioto Company collapsed in 1792.  In this document,  Major Burnham, in submitting his resignation, makes  references to the “Scioto business.”