Malignant Disorder in Philadelphia

March 28th, 2011

During most of the presidential administrations of George Washington and John Adams (1790-1800) the “seat of government'” was in Philadelphia. The War Department offices, therefore, were in a location that was annually afflicted during the hot summer months with outbreaks of malaria–known simply as “the fever”–which raged through the capital city resulting in the loss of countless lives. Of course the cause of this deadly disease was not known so the response of the federal government was to move its offices and employees to Trenton, New Jersey where they remained until it appeared safe to return to Philadelphia, usually in November. In 1793 one of the most virulent malaria epidemics in U.S. history occurred in Phildelphia, killing five thousand people 0r ten percent of the city’s population. In a series of letters written during the late summer and early autumn of 1793, Samuel Hodgdon, the Commissary of Military Stores, who for unknown reasons remained in the city, frequently refers to the ravages of (in his words) the “malignant disorder.”  In a letter written on September 21st, he enviously observes that “half the inhabitants of the City are gone into the country.” This exodus included the Chief Executive and his Cabinet: according to Hodgdon, the President was at Mount Vernon, the Secretary of the Treasury [Hamilton] was in New York, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs [Jefferson] was in Virginia and the Secretary of War [Knox] was in Boston. But Hodgdon was still mired in Philadelphia with “my hands full of business.” Referring to the effects of the disease, he laments that the “havock in our city…has surpassed everything that I have before seen.” “The dying groans has filled our long nights and the dead has rushed to our eyes with the returning day. Whole families have been swept away.” Aside from the obvious concerns about himself and his family, Hodgdon had to worry about the possiblity that the supplies of clothing he was sending to the Army might be infected with the disease. Although he notes that “a large portion of the Clothing was on the road before there was any infection in the City” he decided to take no chances with the clothing that was still to be sent. His solution was “smoking and repacking” the clothing before sending it.

Community Transcription: One Week On

March 25th, 2011

Wow, what a week! One week ago we began a new phase in documentary editing by opening the PWD archives to volunteer transcribers. Using Scripto, CHNM’s open-source transcription tool, PWD has now opened up many pages of previously-untranscribed documents to the public; volunteers have already begun the important work of transcribing them.

In one week we have added nearly 120 new transcribers. About half of those volunteers had previously volunteered to help transcribe, but nearly half of them signed on after our launch. The transcription volunteers range from graduate students to retired editors to librarians.

Our volunteers got right to work; within hours we had our first transcribed pages. To date, editors have nominated some 70 documents for transcription, and our volunteers have begun transcribing most of those. We have more than a dozen finished documents–those have been protected from further editing. The transcribed documents represent varied topics, from military orders to status reports.

Additionally, users have opened more than two-dozen conversations using the discussion feature. Topics range from questions about transcription formats to suggestions for other transcribers. One volunteer suggested that another transcriber’s document referred to a horse, and not a house.

It appears that the community generated transcription is well on its way to becoming an important resource for researchers. As we register more volunteers, we are excited about the possibilities. We are widening our outreach, and fully expect continued success in this important partnership between private editors and public volunteers.

Volunteer to be a Transcription Associate

March 17th, 2011

We are pleased to announce the launch of community transcription with the Papers of the War Department.  Beginning today, interested volunteers can register to begin transcribing any of the materials in this groundbreaking digital archive.

With major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities and the National Archives’ National Historical Publications and Records Commission, PWD is pioneering a new phase in digital documentary editing with an alpha implementation of Scripto, CHNM’s open source tool for crowdsourcing documentary transcription, by allowing users to transcribe historical documents and contribute them to a digital archive of correspondence, speeches, accounting logs, and other documents from early American history.

Building on the models of other crowdsourcing projects like Wikipedia and Flickr Commons, PWD will benefit from the various enthusiastic communities of volunteer transcribers. Volunteers—who may include historians doing scholarly research, students and teachings, genealogists, and other interested members of the general public—will have the opportunity to transcribe any of the over 45,000 documents in the digital archive.  In doing so, they will make that text available to the search engine, improving the ability of users to locate the materials they need.  Additionally, as users select documents to transcribe the editors at the PWD project will gain significant insights into the areas of the collection that are of most interest to the wider user community.

Please join us in this new venture in public history!

Land Acquisition and the National Road

March 9th, 2011

Searching the War Department digital archive, 914 documents appear with the keyword search “land rights”.  The documents detail the acquisition of the western territories that bordered Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York.  The Cumberland valley and mountains proved to be a hotbed for hostilities between American Indian tribes and white settlers over land rights and use.  The U.S. government pressed forward and westward expending resources and lives to obtain land rights to territory held by Creek, Cussetah, Chocktaw, and Cherokee Nations.

Through the Treaty of New York, Treaty of Galphinton, and the Treaty of Greeneville (among others) the U.S. acquired large parcels of land and began infrastructure developments to assist in travel and transportation from the East Coast to the frontier settlements.  One such accomplishment was the establishment of the National Road which was overseen and constructed by the War Department.

Beginning in the Cumberland territory, the National Road was proposed to run from Maryland to the Ohio River.  Completed in the early 1800’s, the marking of the road took place under the direction of Captain Sparks in the late 1700’s.    More information on the development of this road and existing structures, such as the Casselman Bridge, can be found through the National Parks Service.