Guide to Native American Research

September 26th, 2016

Representing federal correspondence and documents from the early republic, the Papers of the War Department contains over 2,000 documents pertaining to federal relations with more than forty Native American tribes. Finding a specific item on the site can be difficult without knowing the full scope of the collection or how individual documents are described. To assist researchers of Native American history, we compiled a list of tribes, with all known variations of spelling, mentioned in the documents of the PWD (see below).

The below list of tribes are meant to be used as initial search terms. To achieve the best results, perform an
advanced search and browse documents for places associated with the tribe of interest during the late 18th century. To get an idea of what locations would be associated with a tribe on PWD, browse tags in the “place” field of a specific document, such as in the example below.

Speech to the Five Nations of Indians at Philadelphia,” April 17, 1792, from Timothy Pickering to the Headmen of Five Nations.

List of Native American Tribes on PWD
Each grouping includes all known variations of tribal/nation names within the collection for locating documents on each specific tribe. This list includes plural spellings only when the tribe cannot be found under the singular. Assume a plural search will be needed. Some of the below names/spellings may yield similar or same documents.

  • Five Nations
  • Mohawk
  • Oneida
  • Onondaga, Onandaga, Onondago, Onondagoes
  • Cayuga, Cayoga, Cuyahuga
  • Seneca, Senaca, Seneka, Senecas of the Glaize
  • Six Nations
  • Tuscorora, Tuscarora, Tuscarawas
  • Seven Nations, Seven Villages, Anishanabea
  • (Mississauga) Mississaga, Massasauga, Messagues, Messassagues
  • Creeks, Creek Nation
  • Iroquois
  • Piaukonohou
  • Delaware, Delaware Nation
  • Moravian
  • Lenape
  • Munsee, Munsey
  • Mohicans
  • Connoy
  • Nanticoke, Nantakokies, (Wantikokes?)
  • Mingo, Mingoes
  • Chippewa, Chippawa, Chipewa, Chipeewas
  • Potawatomi, Potawatami, Pattawatamie, Poutawatomie, Putawatomie, Pottawatamies, Pouttawatamies, Potowatomies, Potawatomies, Potawatimes, Potawanamees, Pattawatamies
  • Sioux
  • Catawba
  • Muscogee, Muskogee
  • Natchez (search within persons/groups)
  • Chickamauga, Chiccamaga
  • Chickasaw, Chicasaw
  • Cherokee
  • Miami, Miamies
  • Choctaw, Chocktaw
  • Weas, Weeas, Oiatanon, Ouiatenon
  • Kaskaskia
  • Peoria, Peorians
  • Cahokia
  • Kickapoo, Kikapoo
  • Eel River
  • Piankashaw, Piankishaw, Piankeshaw
  • Musquitoes
  • Wyandot, Huron
  • Ojibwa
  • Weachtenos
  • Ottawa
  • Shawnee, Shawanese, Shawanesse, Shawnese, Shawanee, Shawanoe, Shawenesse, Chanuanan, Chaouanon, Chanianons
  • Sauk, Sacs


If you have found any tribes or variation in spelling not mentioned here, please send us an email:

How to Transcribe Letterbooks

January 21st, 2016

A letterbook is a bound collection of copies of letters sent and received by one person, usually organized chronologically. Clerks, who often had neat penmanship, were employed to create copies of their employer’s letters. Some early Americans wanted to utilize letterbooks when writing their memoirs; others simply found it useful and practical to have copies of their correspondence on hand. From a technological perspective, letterbooks were quite useful in the event that a person’s original correspondence got lost or, in the case of the War Department, fell victim to fire. From today’s perspective, a letterbook is akin to an email’s sent mail folder.

There are many letterbooks in the Papers of the War Department. If you are unsure of whether or not you are viewing a letterbook, check the document format field found on the document view page. When you come across a letterbook, it is important to note exactly which document is being described in the document view page and then transcribe only that document. Our system is not equipped to show only the specified document in the letterbook, and multiple pages of the letterbook will be accessible via the initial document.

The transcribe view page of the document does not specify which document to transcribe, but generally it is the first document that appears after clicking “transcribe this document.” If it is still not clear, check the date, author, and recipient names in the document information box on the document view page to ensure they match the letter you are transcribing. If there are multiple letters written on a single page within a letterbook, make sure to transcribe only the document described in the document view page. Each document within the letterbook will have its own document page; if an entire letterbook is transcribed through one single document, the metadata associated with the documents within the letterbook will not match up properly.

What is that word?

October 14th, 2014

If you have transcribed a letter, rather than a bill or report, you might have come across a jumble of letters at the end of the letter, just before the sender’s signature. The most common would be “yr obt svt.” What does this mean?

Just as modern correspondence conventionally ends with “Sincerely” or “Best Wishes” (on paper, at least), there were phrases in common use for closing letters in the late eighteenth century. “Yr obt svt” is short for “Your obedient servant.” Sometimes letter writers used the longer “Your most humble and obedient servant,” which might get compressed to “yr most hmbl & obt svt.”

Abbreviations like these, as well as variations in handwriting, can be confusing for scholars and transcribers new to eighteenth century documents. Fortunately there are a number of resources to help decipher handwriting and become familiar with eighteenth century letters.

For paleography (the study of handwriting) visit’s “How to read 18th century British American handwriting,” as well as Reed College’s Digital Collections study guide for Colonial American Handwriting and their letter matching game. For letter styles and conventions, Colonial Williamsburg offers a handout (pdf) for teachers to help students write their own eighteenth century correspondence. Read our post explaining just what, exactly, a letter book is. It also helps to read more letters, for which you can turn to modern print editions or this openly accessible online edition of the correspondence of major political figures of the founding era, provided by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission, part of the National Archives.

There are also a number of books on deciphering handwriting as well as the culture of letters and letter-writing in the eighteenth century. Talk to your local reference librarian to find out more.

What is a Letterbook?

October 16th, 2013

If you are looking at an image that contains multiple documents with unusually neat penmanship, you are looking at a letter book. Letter books are simply copies of original letters bound together in a book and usually organized chronologically. Making such hand written copies was the job of a clerk. Among many other qualities, clerks had to have good penmanship. That’s why these letters are so easy to read.
There are numerous letter books in the Papers of the War Department collections. The letter books of Generals such as Anthony Wayne, for example, furnish us a picture of his Fallen Timbers campaign-both in terms of what he sent to the War Department and what he received from Henry Knox. The letter books of accountants such as Joseph Howell and William Simmons have thousands of entries.

You might have wondered, if there was such a devastating fire at the War Department, where did all these documents come from? One of the reasons is letter books. Recipients kept copies of letters received from the War Department. So, while perhaps the original copy (and the letter book) in Philadelphia might have gone up in flames, a copy of the letter was sometimes recovered elsewhere. And it was for just that reason-having copies of documents in case the originals were lost-that letter books were designed.

Nautical Terminology: Learning a New Language at the War Department

November 20th, 2012

Before the formation of the Department of the Navy in 1798, naval affairs came under the direction of the War Department.   Among Washington’s Cabinet members, former bookseller, Continental artillery officer and staunch Federalist, Secretary of War Henry Knox was the most vigorous proponent for the development of an American Navy.  Against the objections of many Anti-Federalists, Congress nevertheless passed the Naval Act of 1794, approving expenditures of $688,888 for the construction of six frigates.  A contemporary living along America’s coast might catch a glimpse of the new American navy -beginning with the laying of the keel-at one of six shipyards: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Gosport,  Virginia,  and Baltimore. Paid an annual salary of $2000, “naval constructors” were professional shipbuilders-a couple of the better known  were the Philadelphia Quakers Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox.   “Superintendents” were the Navy Captains who were expected to command the ships.  These included notables such as John Barry, Thomas Truxtun and Samuel Nicholson.  “Naval agents” such as Henry Jackson of Boston worked with the War Department to procure men and materials for the ships.  Shipyard clerks oversaw the day to day operations of the yard and kept track of expenditures.  With the building of a naval organization came a unique and confusing lexicon of nautical terminology.  Here are definitions for some of the terms found in this letter forwarded by Knox to the Secretary of Treasury containing Joshua Humphreys’ recommendations and estimates on the costs of procuring white oak timber and planking.

A frigate was a sailing warship with a single continuous gun deck, typically used for patrolling, blockading, etc., but not in line of battle.  (The American frigates were built to be fast enough to get away from a ship of the line, but heavy enough to overpower the typical, lighter European frigates.)

Beam is the width of a vessel at the widest point, or a point alongside the ship at the midpoint of its length.

The bilge is the compartment at the bottom of a ship where the water collects.

Futtocks are pieces of timber that make up the transverse frame or the ribs of the ship.

The gun deck is designed for the mounting of cannon to be fired in broadsides.

The hold is usually a storage space inside the ship’s hull for cargo.

The keel is the central structure of the hull.

Knees connect two parts roughly at right angles.

Here are a couple of  websites that might prove useful to anyone interested in learning more about nautical jargon.





A Pair of Overalls

August 1st, 2012

In the lists of articles of clothing which frequently appear in War Department correspondence there is an item which has a deceptively familiar name: overalls. Inventories list woolen and linen overalls for the troops, commanders write requesting additional overalls for their corps. Overalls were an important part of the suits of clothing issued to soldiers, but they did not in any way resemble the straps-over-the-shoulder coveralls people wear today.

Overalls were, very simply, trousers with a gaiter, which covered the top of the shoe. Unlike breeches, which only went to the knee, overalls covered the full length of the leg. The bottom of the leg flared out into the gaiter, with buttons on the flare for a tighter fit around the foot and sometimes a strap which went under the foot to keep the bottom of the pants from pulling up.

A 1784 engraving shows two American soldiers, a rifleman and an infantryman, in their uniforms. Both are wearing overalls, and the engraving clearly shows the straps under the boot as well as the buttons on the side.

The War Department Fire and Compensation

February 7th, 2012

The papers of the War Department – along with the other executive departments – relocated to Washington, D.C. from Philadelphia in the summer of 1800. Five months later on November 8, 1800, flames engulfed the new building. You can read one of the immediate reactions here. The devastation felt by Secretary Samuel Dexter in the wake of the fire shines through in the plainly, solemnly stated first sentence in another letter the same day: “On Saturday evening last my office with all the Records, Papers, &c. was consumed by fire.” The fire was an incalculable disaster for the young federal government, destroying valuable Indian, veterans, and military records that had been collected since the Revolutionary War. Dexter quickly wrote his subordinates in order to obtain much-needed copies of documents that had been lost. More than two centuries later the Papers of the War Departments is nearing completion of a digital reconstruction of that lost archive.

There is a lesser known story that surrounds the fire, however. After the move from Philadelphia, Dexter had the War Department records moved into a three-floor house on 2100 Pennsylvania Avenue belonging to Joseph Hodgson – which Dexter leased for eight months until a better location was found. A federal employee who helped relocate the records – William Markward – lived in the basement with his wife, and the two of them helped with maintenance around the house in exchange for living quarters. The fire of November 8 was not only a disaster for the War Department, but for the Markward family as well. $800 worth of personal belongings were destroyed, and William’s salary was only $350 a year. To make things worse the House of Representatives rejected his petition for compensation, arguing that they had no obligation to pay employees whose property was destroyed by accident or fire.

Even Joseph Hodgson, the owner of the house, had an exceptionally difficult time receiving compensation. When the lease ended in April 1801 – five months after the fire – Hodgson filed a lawsuit against Dexter for breaking his contract by not returning the house in good order, as the lease had specified. Two years later the Circuit Court ruled against Hodgson, claiming that a government representative like Dexter could not be held personally liable, and the Supreme Court upheld the ruling. Joseph Hodgson died in May 1805, and between 1806 and 1822 his wife Rebecca filed nine petitions for compensation. In May 1822 Congress finally passed a bill compensating the family $6,000 for the destroyed house.

Source: Elaine C. Everly, “The Local Impact of the War Office Fire of 1800,” Washington History (Spring/Summer 2000), 8-9.

Ghost Author of Documents

September 26th, 2011

In browsing or searching the files of the Papers of the War Department digital archive, you may come across the authors, “Elijah and Simon House”.  Investigating further, you’ll learn that they were contractors from Hebron, CT.  That is where their biographical information ends within our database.  As editors, we asked ourselves many times over who these two men were and why their names appeared on so many of our documents.

In most cases, their names were used as place holders until the original author of the document could be ascertained.  But that information still leaves the larger question unanswered – Who were the gentlemen from Hebron?

The General Assembly of Connecticut listed Elijah House of Hebron as a member in 1804.  The roll of state officers and members of the General Assembly of Connecticut proving this can be found on Googlebooks, page 145.  As it turns out Elijah was not just a contractor and political figure but also a member of a moderately successful family.  Elijah inherited the family homestead  and all its tools from his father, James, in 1797.  Elijah also built a successful merchant firm along with the largest house in Andover.

Land records show he leased several buildings to his son, Simon, in 1815.  They included not only the merchant shop but also the slaughter house and rights to the cooper shop for “trying tallow, lard, etc.”  Unfortunately, financial ruin ends the story of Elijah House’s financial success.  Like many other merchants, he extended credit to the French during their quartering in local homes during 1781.  Elijah never recouped the expenses and his estate was left insolvent upon his death.

The French were also the demise of Simon House.  Simon became a Colonel in the American military during the War of 1812 and returned to civilian life on an upwards trajectory.  The merchant shop he ran grew into a successful trading company which ran shipments of provisions  from Connecticut to the West Indies.  In a dark twist of fate, his goods were seized by the French and promissory notes of compensation were lost.  Simon House lost $35,000 in goods which was never regained.



Cole, J.R.  History of Tollard County: Connecticut (1888).   CT: Higginson Book Company, 1992.

A History of The Ecclesiastical Society and 1st Congreagation Church – Andover, Connecticut 1747 – 1972.

Roll of State Officers and Member of the General Assembly of Connecticut from 1776 – 1881.  Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood, &  BrainardCompany, 1881.

A Gill Filled with Taffia

June 20th, 2011

Sound like a secret code?  In a way, it is.  Both the word “gill” and “taffia” are relics from 18th century language that described a unit of measure and a type of alcohol, respectively.  The words  first appeared in War Department correspondence on September 25, 1790 in a letter from James O’Fallon to George Washington.  The letter discussed the South Carolina based Yazoo Company, the Choctaw Nation, and lists various articles for rations given to the troops by contract with the merchant Yazoo.

Research on the two unknown nouns led to the discovery that a gill was a unit of liquid measure for spirits and was approximately 1/4 pint or double the size of a jack (which is double the size of a jigger).  Taffia was a low grade rum dispersed in daily rations for troops.

In a later letter from G. Washington the McHenry, Washington advised that liquor should be removed completely from the list of approved rations due to to its two-fold evil.  First, it intoxicated the troops which caused rowdy and lawless behavior.  Second, when soldiers used it as a trade-able good, the soldier who gained the spirits would become doublely intoxicated and at a loss for the other goods he traded for alcohol.  Thus the quality of the troops was compromised.

Unfortunately, there was little alternative to alcohol for durable provisions.  Unlike water or milk (two other drinks consumed during this period), alcohol rarely spoiled and could be kept in large quantities for a length of time.  Untainted water was difficult to obtain, and was highly dependent on the availability of fresh water rivers, lakes, or ponds.  It was safer to drink alcohol than to risk infection or death from contaminated water.  Therefore, alcohol was kept in the ration allotment along with the small list of other items.

Upon first examination it seems the rations allotted the troops was sadly lacking any vegetables, fruits, or dairy.   Instead, it favored salt pork/beef, corn, flour, and various types of distilled spirits all of which were cheap and were easily stored and transported.   However the list is partially misleading.  Troops were free to purchase other food with their pay or forage for edibles in the woods surrounding their encampment.   Yet that did not mean soldiers diets were complete by any stretch of the imagination.

Have any readers encountered good documentation of the types of illnesses suffered by soldiers due to malnutrition?  Is there any documentation on how it affected troops?  From basic research, fatigue due to lack of fluids seemed to be the biggest nutritional influence on the battlefield that was documented.


Allowance of Spirits

May 3rd, 2011

It was common in the late 18th century American army to provide a daily allowance of “spirits” to each soldier. Generally the allowance was measured in “gills,” a gill being the equivalent of four fluid ounces.  Section 6 of  “An Act to augment the Army of the United States” specifically provided that “…every non-commissioned officer, private and musician shall receive daily…a gill of rum, brandy, or whiskey.” (1 Stat. 604-05) [July 16, 1798]  However, Congress must have had second thoughts about the allowance because only eight months later, section 22 of a law entitled “An Act for the better organizing of the Troops of the United States (1 Stat. 749-55) [March 3, 1799]  stated “That it shall be lawful for the commander-in-chief of the army, or the commanding officer of any separate detachment or garrison thereof, at his discretion, to cause to be issued, from time to time to the troops under his command…rum, whiskey, and other ardent spirits in quantities not exceeding half a gill to each man per day…” In his General Orders of June 13, 1799, Inspector General Alexander Hamilton discussed “issuing Liquor to the Troops” and directed that the allowance for each man should be a half gill per day “whenever the Contractors can furnish the supply.” He added, however, that commanders had the discretionary power of “issuing for fatigue service or on Extraordinary Cases.” In other words, commanders could reward their men for additional work or exceptional service with additional rations of liquor.  When Hamilton discussed the matter in his letter of August 26, 1799 to John J. U. Rivardi, he observed that although most men had enlisted when the allowance of spirits was half-gill per day “…Those who entered the Service whilst the act of Congress which allows a gill pr. day was in force…have some colour to contend that the witholding from them of any part of that allowance would be a breach of contract.” Hamilton’s comment would seem to indicate that the allowance of spirits was a significant factor in the decision of those who enlisted in the army. Indeed, it may have been so significant  that cutting that allowance in half might constitute a legal justification for terminating the enlistment.