Community Transcription-18 Months and 1,000 Transcribers

October 25th, 2012

It’s been eighteen months now since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription, 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 1,039 users-fully 178 them have transcribed within the last 90 days, which is nearly 20%. This continues a trend of increased users, but also more active users. Those transcribers have made more than 6,615 saves to War Department documents, which is about 300 more than at the last update. That works out to 1241 finished documents, along with another 19 documents begun. Additionally, transcribers have initiated approximately 322 conversations using the “talk” feature. We also know that on average, each document is edited about three times before it is finished.

Our transcribers truly represent a cross-section of life: we have high school teachers, librarians, demographers, doctoral candidates, journalists, historical re-enactors, CEOs, and many other kinds of folks transcribing. There are transcribers from every American state, and from six different continents. Affiliations range from major research universities to historical societies, and from the National Park Service to the Coast Guard. Their interests range from personal research, to genealogy, to dissertation research. Some of our transcribers had extensive experience with historical documents when they began; for others, this is their first encounter with two hundred-year old letters and handwriting.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 orders to military officers. Others describe treaty negotiations or terms. Many documents request supplies or instructions; there are financial records and officers’ commissions, as well as transcripts of disciplinary proceedings. One recent document included an allegation of forgery.

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

Hazards of Travel

October 25th, 2012

In October 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox and a Mr. Strong were involved in a carriage accident. As Knox explained in a letter to Jeremiah Wadsworth, the coachman took a turn too fast and the carriage overturned. Although the carriage was “much broken,” Knox and Strong luckily walked away with only bruises. “We do not so much repine at our misfortune as we rejoice at escaping greater evils, which we might have sustained” wrote Knox.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, carriage accidents could be dangerous, even deadly. Gouverneur Morris, New York politician and signer of the Constitution, lost his left leg below the knee in a carriage accident in 1780 and wore a peg leg for the rest of his life. In June of 1789 Daniel Huger, a member of Congress of South Carolina, was thrown from his carriage and fractured his leg. It could have been worse, as carriage accidents sometimes resulted in death. Huger might have shared the 1781 fate of a Massachusetts doctor who was thrown from his carriage, run over by it, and died a few days later.

While Knox’ letter appears to be the only one in the Papers of the War Department describing an accident, there are other instances where department carriages broke down. The receipts for General Wilkinson’s trip from Washington to Pittsburgh in December 1800 show his carriage being repaired at least four times, on the 4th, 11th, 15th, and 17th of that month. Poor road conditions contributed to breakdowns, damaging axles and wheels.

Travel by boat was not necessarily any better. In 1791 a boat carrying ammunition struck a rock, and while no one was hurt they had to transfer the supplies to a new boat. Six years later, a group going up the Allegheny River were less fortunate. Their boat sank, dumping some of the cargo into the river and leaving the rest damaged. Travel, whether by land or water, could be hazardous for members of the War Department.

Document Spotlight-More on the Stolen Certificates

October 9th, 2012

Last week we saw some documents dealing with a Captain John Phelon and accusations that he stole some certificate paper.  The allegations included some reports of Phelon’s whereabouts. This week, transcriber Lgr157 gives us another peak; today’s document details a different angle. The writer expresses concern that Phelon has done such a good job of forging signatures, holders will be unable to detect the forgery and will be defrauded. People should examine the reverse of the certificates, and should specifically be on the lookout for a small series of numbers in Phelon’s handwriting. At that point, the certificate is certain to be stolen, and potential victims should report the bearer of the certificates to authorities.

Read the original document here.

It is not too late–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!

Document Spotlight-Stolen Certificate Paper and Counterfeits

October 4th, 2012

Transcriber Lgr157 recently brought us a document that describes a crime drama unfolding in the early republic. The series of letters refers to a Captain Phelon, who has allegedly absconded with a quantity of certificate paper (think currency paper). The first letter describes the allegation, and reports a sighting of Phelon in New Hampshire. The second confirms that Phelon passed through Concord, Massachusetts headed toward Lake Champlain (which would seem to confirm the New Hampshire sighting). The third letter reports that Phelon seems to have headed for Canada; this seems to mean that Phelon cannot be apprehended and returned to the United States, but the writer wonders whether Phelon could be detained long enough to have the property recovered.

Read the original documents here, here, and here.

It is not too late–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!

The War Department, the French Five Hundred and Humanitarian Assistance on the Frontier

October 3rd, 2012

Hoping to garner national revenues from the sale of lands, in 1787 the Confederation Congress sold 1.5 million acres for a million dollars to the Ohio Company, a joint stock company made up of former Continental Army officers.   But like the British crown before the Revolution, and the Confederation Congress in the 1780s, the Federalists in the 1790s never quite managed to realize their hopes of an orderly and controlled pattern of settlement in the western lands.  The problem was that most American settlers knew there was no need to pay for land when it was simply there for the taking.  So, perhaps in an effort to find less savvy purchasers, one venture, the Scioto Company,  sent the poet Joel Barlow on a mission to France to try and sell land claims to a group of French artisans anxious to escape the French Revolution. The difficulty, as it turned out, was that the Scioto Company had sold shares in land it did not actually own. In any event, it was too late for the French settlers, who had already arrived in America, (many at the port of Alexandria, Virginia)  and quite anxious to settle on lands described by Barlow as a place of “milk and honey, where fish leaped into one’s arms, grapes grew in abundance and tallow candles could be picked from trees along the Ohio River.”  As it turned out, the settlement, modern day Gallipolis, Ohio (city of the Gauls) was extremely rough country and  far from developed.  In an instance of what we might term today “humanitarian relief”  for the hapless settlers, who apparently  lacked the rudimentary skills and know-how required to tame such wilderness, the War Department dispatched Major John Burnham and a detachment of about 35 men to construct 80 log houses and a number of block houses at the settlement. Ultimately though, disease and hostile Indians killed and scattered the “French five-hundred.” By 1806, there were only a handful remaining.  The Scioto Company collapsed in 1792.  In this document,  Major Burnham, in submitting his resignation, makes  references to the “Scioto business.”