The Difficulties of Wagon Transportation

March 21st, 2012

We often take for granted the incredible advances in transportation that have taken place over the course of the last two centuries. In the nineteenth century, the advent of the steamboat and railroad – along with vast improvements in the road system – inaugurated what Daniel Walker Howe has called a “transportation revolution.” Unfortunately for the War Department in the 1790s however, none of these technologies were yet available. Transporting much-needed supplies – such as stationary, muskets, gunpowder, cartridges, knives, clothing, food, and other key military provisions – was a costly and risky endeavor that often frustrated the department. Provisions had to be waggoned over scarcely maintained and often impassable roads and trails, often for incredible lengths through thinly-inhabited areas.

In the autumn of 1792 we catch a glimpse of just how difficult transportation in 1790s America could be. In August, for instance, Secretary Knox had to scold Major Isaac Craig for demonstrating impatience over the slow arrival of waggoners to Pittsburgh, writing, “a sufficient time has hardly elapsed… it requires from twenty one to twenty five days for this journey.”

Sometimes the waggoners contracted by the War Department failed in their duty, causing great delay in delivering key supplies. In the following letter the Quartermaster General was said to have expressed great displeasure with the clerk William Knox for employing “improper waggoners – in several Instances men who are not to be depended on.” In September a waggoner who was found tardy was “refused any further employ by way of punishment.”

When a wagon had to be sent across a river, nature itself could get in the way, as we see in this August letter regarding the Ohio River – “the River is now so low that it is impossible for any Craft of Burthen to descend.” Overall, transportation in the 1790s was a difficult issue that the War Department frequently struggled with – a difficulty that, over time, would gradually disappear.

Document Spotlight-Nine Thousand Pounds of Cannonballs

March 20th, 2012

Recently, transcriber Nbollen brought us  a document detailing the kinds of logistical considerations military officers faced daily. While not a matter of life or death, officers had to make sure outposts were adequately supplied; likewise, arms or materials sitting around in unnecessary places made it hard to keep hot spots had what they needed.

In this document, Samuel Hodgedon gave a brief summary of the artillery situation at Fort Ransalaer–there seemed to be eight six-pound cannons and one four-pound cannon that were being underutilized. He asked for those cannons, along with carriages, to be taken to Governor’s Island. In addition, he asked that 1,000 nine-pound cannonballs be taken as well, but only if it could be done easily and cheaply.

These kinds of decisions were routine, but required adequate communication. A supply officer had to know what equipment was available, and where it was available. Thus, correspondence like this took up a great deal of an officer’s time.

Read the original document here.

There are many more documents 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!

Smallpox Inoculation 1792

March 14th, 2012

In July 1792, General Anthony Wayne opened a letter to Secretary of War Henry Knox with concerns about small pox among the troops. The prevalence of small pox in Pittsburgh had led him to inoculate a small group of soldiers, but this was only a temporary fix as new detachments were arriving with the possibility of more soldiers who had neither been inoculated nor had the disease.

Wayne was reluctant to establish a routine of constant inoculation, risking the health of those soldiers affected. Inoculation, after all, involved infecting the person; while most people survived, there was always a risk of serious illness and death. Wayne proposed separating those who were still susceptible to small pox, sending them to the block house at Big Beaver, at least until Knox could offer an opinion on whether to proceed with inoculation.

Knox approved of the plan to separate the vulnerable from the infected and immune. He considered July a very bad time to attempt inoculation, and suggested that it could be done one the troops were in winter quarters. The decision to wait until later in the year may have been inspired by prevailing medical wisdom of the time. In a 1791 essay Observations on the small-pox and inoculation published in Edinburgh, Scotland, surgeon Alexander Aberdour asserted that winter was the best season for inoculation, “though it may be done at any time when the air is cool” (74). On the other hand, Knox may also have simply wanted to wait until it would be easier for the War Department to lose time and possibly men to the process of inoculation.


Source: Aberdour, Alexander. Observations on the small-pox and inoculation: to which is prefixed a criticism upon Dr. Robert Walker’s late publication on the subject, by Alexander Aberdour surgeon in Alloa. Edinburgh: Printed for J. Elder, 1791.

Who was Andrew Pickens?

March 7th, 2012

Andrew Pickens was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on September 19, 1739. His Scots-Irish family Andrew moved south in search of new land, living in Augusta County in the Shenandoah Valley, later in the Waxhaw settlement along the North Carolina-South Carolina border, and eventually in the Long Cane settlement in Abbeville County, South Carolina, bordering Georgia.

At Long Canes, Pickens would marry and start a family. He farmed and became prosperous trading with his Indian neighbors. An ardent patriot as the American Revolution approached, Pickens became a military leader during the war. He led expeditions against the Loyalist-allied Cherokee and in 1779, when Sir Henry Clinton sent British troops into South Carolina to bolster support for the Loyalists, Pickens and his three-hundred man militia defeated a larger British force under Colonel Boyd at Kettle Creek in North Georgia. Pickens was later captured by the British and took an oath to sit out the remainder of the war. But when Tories destroyed much of his property and frightened his family, he gathered his militia and fought with them as a guerilla unit against the British. Under Daniel Morgan, Pickens’ militia played a key role in the defeat of the Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens as they feigned retreat and then counterattacked the British Regulars.

After the Revolution, Pickens acquired land in western South Carolina on the banks of the Keowee River and built a house called Hopewell. Highly respected by the Cherokees who called him “Wizard Owl,” he served as a commissioner for negotiating a treaty with the Southern Indians. Later he became a Congressman. In this document, Henry Knox presents  Pickens with a sword from Congress, citing his “spirited conduct” at Cowpens.

Document Spotlight-Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

March 6th, 2012

Recently, transcriber Lamar brought us a fascinating look at Indian-American relations and borders. The letter describes a dispute over the actual boundary between United States territory and Cherokee territory. To support his interpretation of the boundary, James W. Henry encloses the transcripts or notes made during negotiations between the two parties in Philadelphia in 1796. Henry remarks that the enclosed notes are the only copies available of those negotiations, and pleads for their safe return.

Read the original document here.

There are many more documents 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!

Community Transcription-Eleven Months On

March 5th, 2012

It’s been eleven months now since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription. Nearly a year ago, 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 yet another snapshot at our transcription activity.

To date, we have 550 users-fully 97 of them have transcribed within the last 90 days-this continues a trend of increased users, but also more active users. Those transcribers have made more than 3,840 saves to War Department documents, which is about 200 more than last month. That translates to more than 790 finished documents, along with another 120 documents begun. Editors have nominated an additional 90 for transcription. Additionally, transcribers have initiated approximately 210 conversations using the “talk” feature. We also know that on average, each document is edited between three and four times before it is finished.

Our transcribers truly represent a cross-section of life: we have university professors, genealogists, hobbyists, editors, librarians, historical re-enactors, firefighters, and many other kinds of folks transcribing. There are transcribers from every American state, and from five different continents. Affiliations range from the Seneca Nation to the Daughters of the American Revolution, and from the Society of the Cincinnati to major research universities. 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.

The documents themselves vary widely in content. Some are intelligence reports detailing the movements of Indian parties. Others describe treaty negotiations or terms. Many documents chronicle criminal proceedings; there are financial records and officers’ commissions, as well as supply inventories.

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