Community Transcription-Six Months On

September 29th, 2011

Has it really been that long?

It’s been six months now since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription. Way back in March we offered the Scripto transcription tool, and ever since then we have been steadily adding 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 thought you might like to know just how much activity these pages have seen.

To date, we have 308 users-approximately 70 of them have transcribed within the last 90 days. Those transcribers have made more than 2,000 saves to War Department Documents. That translates to approximately 450 finished documents, along with another 195 documents begun. Editors have nominated an additional 200 for transcription. Additionally, transcribers have initiated nearly a hundred conversations using the “talk” feature.

Our transcribers truly represent a cross-section of life: we have university professors, genealogists, students, editors, librarians, historical re-enactors, hobbyists, and many other kinds of folks transcribing. There are transcribers from nearly every American state, from Europe, Australia, and from Japan. Their interests range from personal research, to genealogy, to professional projects. Some of our transcribers had extensive experience with historical documents when they began; for others, this is their first encounter with two hundred-year old letters and handwriting.

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

Help Needed-Transcribe this document

September 29th, 2011

While transcribers can select a document to work on from a list of nominated documents, we thought it might be a good idea to highlight a document every now and then that needs to be transcribed.

This week’s featured letter, written in General Henry Knox’s hand, concerns an issue with muskets and musket parts.

You may find the document here

Please request an account (, sign in, and transcribe this document for us. Or choose a different one here ( You will be contributing to the historical record by adding to our archive.

Uncle Henry Wants You

September 28th, 2011

In a directive of early December 1789, Secretary of War Henry Knox informs Captains Burbeck and Savage that each of them is directed to recruit the requisite number of men to complete their two companies. He lists the qualities he requires of new recruits and sets the deadline for the completion of the recruitment effort. He wants “men of the best qualifications for soldiers” and specifies that their companies must be completed by February 1st; i.e., the two captains have only two winter months to recruit the men necessary to fill the quota of forty men for each company.

Knox stresses that the recruits must be “men of the best character for sobriety and honesty.” They must be “well formed in their bodies and limbs–healthy and robust.” They must be at least five feet six inches in height and between the ages of eighteen and forty five years old. He emphasizes that foreigners are not permitted in the Army “unless their characters shall be well-authenticated.” Springfield, Massachusetts is to be the principal rendezvous point for these companies so as soon as twelve men are recruited at any other place, they should be marched immediately to Springfield. As soon as the necessary forty men for each company are assembled, they will then be marched to West Point.

Knox states that he expects weekly returns on the progress of the recruitment effort. He explains that Burbeck and Savage must “use the higest cautions in this business” and if any of the recruits should desert the service, “it will be a reproach to you, as well as a loss to the public.” To ensure that there is no misunderstanding regarding the importance of their mission, Knox states that “candor” forces him to warn that the success or failure of the recruiting effort will affect “the prospects of your continuance in service.”

Document Spotlight: No Sleeping in the Yard

September 26th, 2011

Recently, transcriber Sharpjohng came across an interesting passage in a document. In order to maintain order at the Gosport, Virginia, Naval Yard, it became necessary to proscribe a list of regulations. Many of them are relatively normal rules pertaining to naval or construction sites: protect the wooden ship materials from the weather; keep construction clutter to a minimum. One rule, though, strikes the twenty-first century reader as a little curious:


“…discourage the Workmen from Sleeping in the yard, frequent quarrels having hitherto taken place.”


It is hard to know how common it was for workers to sleep right on the construction site; one also wonders whether workers were sleeping while they were supposed to be working, or whether this was a barrack-type situation. Finally, exactly how did this lead to frequent quarrels?


Red the document here:

Dozens of documents like this one are awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register ( 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!

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.

Document Spotlight-A Peace Proclamation

September 19th, 2011

Transcriber Cpartrid recently ran across and transcribed a document related to treaty between the young United States and the Creek nation. As President of the United States, George Washington was authorized to negotiate treaties with other nations; this treaty, ratified by the Senate as the constitution requires, recognizes the sovereignty of the Creeks, and promises peace and friendship.

With ratified treaty in hand, Washington here asks his military officers to respect the terms of the treaty.

Read the transcription here (

Dozens of documents like this one are awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register ( 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!

The USS Crescent

September 12th, 2011

Today most of us would react in horror to the idea of arming our adversaries with an American-built warship to bribe them from attacking our merchant vessels.  But before the United States became a maritime power,  many considered it cheaper to pay tribute to North African pirates than to build a navy from scratch.  Thus, in  1796, while the original six frigates were under construction,  word arrived of a diplomatic settlement with Algiers.  Terms included payment of a lump sum of half a million dollars as ransom for American prisoners,  an annual tribute of over $20,000, and construction of  four ships, one of which would become the  frigate “Crescent. ”

Congressional authorization for the  original six frigates  had called for a halt in construction the event of peace with Algiers.   President Washington nevertheless  pressed  Congress to reconsider.   As a compromise, Congress approved the completion of three, (the “United States”, “Constellation”, and “Constitution”),  with the remaining three (including the “Congress” in Portsmouth), to temporarily remain unfinished on the shipyard docks.

Designed by ship builder Josiah Fox and built by naval constructor James Hackett, the “Crescent” was a 36 gun frigate  built at the Portsmouth New Hampshire Naval Shipyard.   In this letter,  Hackett reports to Secretary of War James McHenry that the “Crescent,” built for the Dey of Algiers, was launched  on 29 June 1797 at 4pm.   A year later,  the American captives came home,  although many had died due to disease and dreadful living conditions.

Document Spotlight-Orders for Captain Preston

September 7th, 2011

Newly-commissioned Captain William Preston received this letter from Henry Knox in August of 1792. The letter contains Preston’s orders and instructions to march for Point Pleasant.
Transcribed by volunteer Wvancestors, the orders give very specific instructions for Preston’s conduct–keep a journal, refrain from antagonizing residents and inhabitants, maintain strict accounting of expenses and purchases. In addition, Preston is cautioned to respect the local authorities, to pay close attention to the health of his soldiers, and to camp with his soldiers each night. It is a fascinating look at life from the perspective of a junior military officer in the late eighteenth century.

Read the transcription here (

Many documents like this one are awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register ( 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 might read!