Document Spotlight-Business with the Alleghany Indians

November 28th, 2011

Transcriber Dawoogie brings us a behind-the-scenes look at American-Indian relations. Secretary of War Henry Knox instructs Lieutenant Jeffers concerning relations with the Alleghany Indians.

In a fascinating look at early American military policy, Knox outlines a set of policies designed to give tangible aid to the Indians. Knox also makes it clear that the American military is willing to support the Alleghanies with ammunition and other supplies. Jeffers is also to provide soldiers to help Alleghany scouts patrol, along with general guidelines as to geography.

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Steam-powered boats and the War Department

November 22nd, 2011

In 1787 John Fitch constructed the first steam-powered boat in America. Fitch was not the original inventor of the steamboat – that honor goes to the Scottish inventor James Watt – but Fitch successfully brought the technology to the United States.

In a letter to Washington’s Cabinet on June 22, 1790, Fitch applied for a patent for “applying steam to the purposes of propelling Vessels thro’ the water.” Fitch predicted that the new technology would have “great immediate utility” and would have “important advantages… not only to America, but to the World at large.”

Fitch was right, and the steam engine later brought about what Daniel Walker Howe calls the Transportation Revolution in America. The steam engine eased trade between distant regions, particularly benefiting farmers along the Mississippi River and Great Lakes region, and brought innumerable advantages to the American economy through the expansion of markets. Unfortunately for Fitch, his name is not normally associated with the rise of the steamboat in America – that honor goes to Robert Fulton, who was the first American to successfully market the steamboat for commercial use. In 1807, Fulton’s North River Steamboat began regular passenger services between New York City and Albany, a journey of 150 miles in only 32 hours.

Document Spotlight-“Murder of Some Friendly Indians”

November 22nd, 2011

Transcriber Dawoogie recently came across a letter from from Henry Knox to the governor of Pennsylvania detailing the murder of some Indians who had been friendly to the United States. Knox laments the murder, and ponders the potential consequences: in the first place, Knox writes, recent progress in peace overtures will be lost. In the second place, it is liable to spark a war between the Indians and Americans.

Further, Knox vows to put the resources of the government to work to find the murderer. Interestingly, though, he reminds the governor that prosecution of the murderer is a state, not a federal, issue.

Finally, Knox calls on the military officer in the vicinity of the murders, Major General St Clair, to investigate the circumstances (the second page of the letter is here:

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Community Transcription-Eight Months On

November 22nd, 2011

Another month, another 42 users…

It’s been eight 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 offer here another snapshot at our transcription activity.

To date, we have 398 users-approximately 77 of them have transcribed within the last 90 days-this is actually a few more than this time last month. Those transcribers have made more than 2,395 saves to War Department Documents, which is about 150 more than last month. That translates to approximately 580 finished documents, along with another 162 documents begun. Editors have nominated an additional 175 for transcription. Additionally, transcribers have initiated approximately 145 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, museum curators, and many other kinds of folks transcribing. There are transcribers from nearly every American state, from the Seneca Nation, Australia, and from the Creek Nation. 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. Many of our transcribers have only worked on a few documents, but several have transcribed dozens of them.

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

Document Spotlight-Horses and Saddles and Wagons, Oh My!

November 15th, 2011

Lest the casual reader think the War Department Papers are all concerned with boring military matters, we offer a break from discussions of appointments and maneuvers.

Transcriber Lsmith recently posted a document detailing Samuel Hodgdene’s equine concerns. In the first place, Hodgdene wants to make sure all the cavalry horses are outfitted identically. Thus, he insists on reserving a shipment of saddles for the “uniformity of the Cavalry which is meant to be a compleat Corps.”

On the other hand, Hodgdene still needs 100 horses on which to mount his cavalry. The second part of the letter, then, entreats the recipient to look out for 100 horses that are cheap and can be trained.

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Before Clara Barton’s Vision

November 10th, 2011

The mission of the American Red Cross is to provide humanitarian relief to those in need of assistance and was formally adopted at the Treaty of Geneva in 1864.  Prior to the formation of the Red Cross, Clara Barton provided relief to wounded soldiers as a field nurse and was among many women assisting the U.S. military, during and well before the Civil War.

A document written by Frederick Frye to William Simmons in 1797 shows that women were indeed on the payroll of the U.S. government, albeit an informal employment.  Frye noted that he brought on a soldiers wife to serve as a nurse at Governor’s Island in the newly commissioned hospital and that she was allotted pay for her services.  In 1795 Simmons approved the pay of Sarah Brooks for her service as a nurse in Carlisle, PA.  As far back as 1784 War Department documents contain evidence of female nurses staffing hospitals.

All this evidence begs the question: Why did it take so long for women to receive formally appointed roles in the military?  Is it a simple answer of gender inequality, or were there more minute reasons that barred women from official service in military hospitals?

Document Spotlight-Mr. Fox’s Appointment

November 7th, 2011

Transcriber Sharpjohng recently found a document detailing Josiah Fox’s appointment as a clerk in the War Department. The letter specifies Fox’s salary (a whopping $5 per year); also included is the text of the oath Fox was required to take. In the oath, taken 17 July 1794, Fox affirms that he will support the U.S. Constitution and will execute the office to the best of his abilities.

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General Statement of Indian Policy

November 2nd, 2011

As President George Washington’s Secretary of War, Henry Knox was responsible for Indian affairs. During the first year of Washington’s presidency, Know wrote a letter to the president in which he described in some detail his views on Indian policy. Written in January 1790, this document is the closest thing we have to a comprensive statement of the early Indian policies of Knox and Washington.

Knox discusses the cost of war and peace with the Indian Nations along the Southwestern frontier. He speculates on the size of an army necessary to engage hostile Indians along this vast expanse of territory. He concludes that peace and diplomacy are much less costly than war: “A comparative view of the expenses of a hostile or conciliatory system towards the Indians, will evince the infinite economy of the latter over the former.” (In an earlier letter, Knox had made the same claim, only in more specific terms: “…the expence of managing the said Indians and attaching them to the United States for the ensuing period of fifty years may on average cost 15,000 dollars annually. A system of coercion and oppression for the same period…would probably amount to a much greater sum of money.”)

He references the practice of providing gifts to subjugated people by European nations which he believes to be the safest way to manage Indians: “It seems to have been the custom of barbarous nations, in all ages, to expect and receive presents from the more civilized, and custom seems confirmed by modern Europe, with respect to Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.” In this instance, the “barbarous nations” are the Indian tribes and the “more civilized” is the United States. He worries that if the U.S. does not provide the presents, they will be provided by the Europeans to the detriment of American interests. “Is the situation of the United States such, with respect to the neighboring European colonies, as to render it good policy at this time to annihilate the Indian customs, and expectations of receiving presents, and thereby disgusting them in such a manner as to induce them to connect themselves more closely with the said colonies?”

He declares that Native Americans, like all peoples, possess the natural rights of man that “ought not wantonly to be divested thereof.” Regarding the crucial question of Indian land, he asserts that the land is theirs unless legally acquired by the United States under the auspices of the federal government. No state may purchase Indian land without the permission of the federal government: “Should any State, having the right of preemption, desire to purchase territory, which the Indians should be willing to relinquish, it would have to request the General Government to direct a treaty for that purpose, at the expense, however, of the individual State requesting the same.”


Harpers Ferry and “The Habitual Laziness of the Poor in this Country”

November 1st, 2011

It is fairly well known that ever since the days of the French and Indian War, George Washington had been an aggressive land speculator up and down the Shenandoah Valley and around the Potomac River.  Washington believed passionately in the economic potential of the Potomac River,  and was president of a joint stock venture called the “Potowmack Company.”  Behind all this entrepreneurial spirit was a belief that commerce and industry, taking place alongside rivers like the  Potomac, would unify the new nation.  Indeed, Washington envisioned a symbol of this unity a few miles down river in what would become the City of Washington.

Before the establishment of Harpers Ferry Arsenal,  US troops received their arms either from overseas or private government contractors.  Washington, aware of some of the shady and deceptive practices by contractors, wanted to reform the system. So in April 1794, he successfully sponsored a bill “for the erecting and repairing of Arsenals and Magazines.”  Out of the appropriation was  roughly enough funds for four national armories.  With Henry Knox’s strong endorsement, the military storage depot at Springfield, Massachusetts  on the Connecticut River,  was first on the list.

There were other pre-existing magazines left over from the Revolutionary War,  located at Philadelphia, Carlisle, West Point and New London, Virginia.  Some proposed that, along with Springfield, three out of four of these facilities could be simply rebuilt.  The other idea was to purchase land for a brand new facility that might someday be expanded into a manufacturing facility. Not surprisingly, Washington supported  Harpers Ferry as the location.  Not everyone believed that using the bulk of appropriations for a single establishment at Harpers Ferry was such a great idea.  For example, Colonel Stephen Rochefontaine, a French-born military engineer whose name appears frequently in the Papers of the War Department, believed that there was insufficient land for the erection of buildings along the river. He also expressed concern over the area’s vulnerability to floods. (He would turn out to be right.  Disastrous floods over the years would spell the downfall  Harpers Ferry as an industrial town).   Interestingly, James McHenry would consult the services of a noted British engineer named  James Brindley, the nephew of the famous English canal builder of the same name. (By the way,  when McHenry refers to a “race,” he is talking about construction of  a canal).

After a few years of delay,  Washington would live only long enough to see the early construction of the facilities at Harpers Ferry  under the Adams administration,  beginning around the fall of 1798.  Here are a couple of reports on the progress of construction, one from the first Superintendant of Harpers Ferry, Joseph Perkin, and another from John Mackey, the first Paymaster, who laments the “habitual laziness” of the local canal diggers.