Rising from a chain of wilderness lakes, the St. Croix River is now an international wilderness waterway, constituting part of what is now the clearly defined boundary between Maine and the province of New Brunswick, Canada. In the 1790s though, boundaries throughout this region were far from clear. The meaning of the boundary descriptions outlined in the 1783 Peace of Paris was notoriously inexact and hard to decipher-mostly because the region had not yet been fully explored or mapped. During negotiations, later known as Jay’s Treaty, a joint commission agreed to establish the St. Croix River as part of the boundary between Downeast Maine and New Brunswick Canada. In this document, written from his mansion he called “Montpelier” in Thomaston, Maine, Secretary of War Henry Knox, an avid Maine land speculator himself, marvels at the region’s economic potential –its fisheries, waterways, lumber and agriculture. Though Knox’s handwriting was notoriously bad, this is a copy made by a clerk. The impeccable penmanship makes this an enjoyable read. By the way, Knox’s mansion is a museum now.
We’re pleased to introduce the Papers of the War Department blog, a forum that provides space to share information about the archive, its documents, and the history of the United States War Office in the late-eighteenth century. In coming weeks, we will introduce more categories to the blog, highlight particularly interesting documents and figures, and offer some tips to better utilize the search engine and the collection.
Although debtors prisons were abolished in the United States in the 1830s (decades before European nations), they were a harsh reality in late-18th and early-19th century America.
Samuel Lewis was a clerk working for the War Department in 1798. But by 1800 he found himself confined in a debtors prison. On May 3 of that same year, he wrote the Secretary at War, James McHenry on his current state.
Lewis’s letter reveals a lot about the pain that many debtors experienced while in confinement. Lewis calls himself a “wretched being, now almost worn down to a mere shadow, debilitated and weak.”
“I cannot see any other prospect before me,” Lewis wrote, “but dying in a Prison, and a whole family cast upon a World, where they are all strangers.” Lewis mourned the fact that he was separated from his “tender wife” and “helpless Children” who now suffered from the “sad want of a Protector.” Lewis’s characterization of himself as “Protector” also tells us about the role of husband and father in early America, which was far more paternalistic than it is today (although there should be no doubt that his wife and children did indeed suffer from his absence, both emotionally and financially).
Lewis hoped that Congress would grant him release – an action that he encouraged through both a petition and a letter to a Congressional committee. “I fear they will report unfavorably,” Lewis remarked sadly, “unless some kind and benevolent Heart would interest themselves with the Committee and recommend me to them.” No doubt, Lewis had McHenry himself in mind. Shockingly, Lewis reveals that the Treasury owes him reimbursement for past earnings he had not yet received, but he remained in confinement.
Click here to read the document.