Community Transcription Update-Twenty Months On

December 18th, 2012

It’s been twenty 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 1,157 users-fully 192 them have transcribed within the last 90 days, which is about 16%. Those transcribers have made more than 7,503 saves to War Department documents, which is about 800 more than at the last update. That works out to 1,369 finished documents, along with another 17 documents begun. Additionally, transcribers have initiated approximately 349 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 students, museum curators, demographers, doctoral candidates, tribal historians, park rangers, musicians, and many other kinds of folks transcribing. There are transcribers from every American state, and from six different continents. Affiliations range from theological seminaries to historical societies, and from the National Park Service to the Chickasaw Nation. 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 Some of our transcribers had extensive experience with historical documents when they began; for others, this is their first encounter with two hundred-year old letters and handwriting.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. Some of our transcribers have no particular interest in the War Department Papers, but are evaluating Scripto to use in their own projects.

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. A recent series of documents showed that a high-ranking military officer was involved in international espionage.

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

Secret Agent Number 13

December 18th, 2012

James Wilkinson was a soldier and a statesman. Serving in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Wilkinson was also the Commanding General of the United States Army from 1796 to 1798 and again from 1800 to 1812. From 1805 to 1807 Wilkinson served as the first Governor of the Louisiana Territory.

But Wilkinson had a dark secret. Beginning in 1787 he was also a spy for the Spanish Crown. With the intention of bringing western territories under Spanish control and gaining territory for himself as a reward, Wilkinson worked against the U.S. government from within for thirteen years. He conspired with fellow spy Aaron Burr, but gave Burr up to President Thomas Jefferson, avoiding implication himself.

Though not discovered as a spy during his own lifetime, Wilkinson did not escape controversy. He went through several court marshals and ultimately fell from grace after an unsuccessful attack on Montreal during the War of 1812. Wilkinson died in Mexico City in 1825 while attempting to negotiate for land in Texas.

His work as Agent Number 13 was discovered in 1854 by Louisiana historian Charles Gayarre.

To learn more about James Wilkinson see these documents.

The Uncertain Fate of Samuel Ewing

December 4th, 2012

At the end of July 1800, President John Adams signed a warrant for the execution of a deserter. Less than a month later, however, he reversed the decision and cancelled the warrant, although he held off granting a full pardon. What happened?

First, here are the facts of the case as related to Adams. Samuel Ewing deserted in Detroit from Captain Porter’s company in a regiment of Artillerists and Engineers on May 8, 1800. The next evening, he returned to the fort with a loaded musket and threatened to kill anyone who tried to capture him. When Lieutenant Rand approached him, Ewing pointed his musket and attempted to fire but the gun failed.

Secretary of War Samuel Dexter sent the proceedings of the court martial to Adams, remarking that he felt it was best the President confirm the sentence of death. As President, Adams was technically responsible for the decision. Adams replied that the sentence would stand as “the crime of this man is so gross it cannot with safety to the service be pardoned.”

Which begs the question, why did Adams change his mind? On August 8, Dexter had sent Adams an extract of a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Hamtramck, who had presided over the court martial. Hamtramck was concerned that Ewing might be insane: “having deserted on one day, returning on the next, and declaring war against a whole Garrison appears to me to have been the effect of a deranged brain.”

Adams took this suggestion seriously, although he was apparently irritated that no mention of possible insanity was made in the initial report of the court martial. On August 16, Adams canceled the warrant for the execution of Samuel Ewing. “Let the man remain under arrest for the present,” Adams wrote to Dexter, “To pardon him immediately might injure the service.” At this point, Samuel Ewing disappears from our archive, but it seems he was never executed.