Community Transcription Update-Twenty One Months On

January 24th, 2013

It’s been twenty-one 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.

As of this morning, we have 1,205 users-fully 210 them have transcribed within the last 90 days, which is about 17%. Those transcribers have made more than 9,520 saves to War Department documents, which is about 2,000 more than at the last update. That works out to 1,559 finished documents, along with another 29 documents begun. Additionally, transcribers have initiated approximately 366 conversations using the “talk” feature. We also know that on average, each document is edited about three times before it is finished. Moreover, we have had 45,300 total page views.

Our transcribers truly represent a variety of experience: we have independent scholars, museum curators, librarians, doctoral candidates, tribal historians, park rangers, genealogists, 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 Chickasaw Nation. Their interests range from professional research, to family research, to classroom activities. Some of our transcribers had extensive experience with historical documents when they began; for others, this is their first encounter with two hundred-year old letters and handwriting.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 describe intelligence reports from the American frontier. Others include nominations for government posts. Many documents request supplies or instructions; there are supply lists and officers’ commissions, as well as transcripts of investigations and disciplinary proceedings.

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

Washington, D.C., the inconvenient city

January 23rd, 2013

The Federal Government moved from Philadelphia to the new city of Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1800. Although the primary office of the War Department moved, some offices, like that of the keeper of military stores, remained in Philadelphia for a time.

Toward the end of July, Jeremiah Condy sent a letter from his home in the District of Columbia to Samuel Hodgdon, who was still in Philadelphia. Condy was a clerk in the Accountant’s Office as well as a practicing lawyer, and he was less than impressed with the new capital city.

In his letter, Condy told Hodgdon “not to come here if you can possibly avoid it”. Washington was unhealthy, with many cases of dysentery and bilious fever. Condy lived in Georgetown, part of the District of Columbia but a separate city from Washington, and while the climate there seemed to be healthier, he still seems to have felt it was worse than Philadelphia.

Moreover, Washington was expensive: “The markets are about one third dearer than in Philad[elphia] when we arrived they were much at the same prices, since then they have advanced about 33 [percent], when Congress comes they will I entertain no doubt be double.” While Washington no longer sees epidemics of dysentery, but new arrivals still complain about the cost of living, not to mention traffic and the weather.

Humphreys versus Fox

January 9th, 2013

A Quaker, Josiah Fox (1763–1847) was a British naval architect who came to the United States in 1793 to examine United States timber for shipbuilding and to teach drafting to American ship designer Jonathan Penrose’s sons. In 1794 he received a job as a draftsman working under Philadelphia Naval Constructor Joshua Humphreys (also a Quaker) and designer of the first six frigates. Fox and Humphreys clashed over design issues, the former believing that Humphreys’  designs were too radical-that Humphrey’s ships were too long in proportion to the beam and that the stem and stern rose too sharply. Eventually these disagreements led to considerable animosity between the two.

Humphreys’ tendency to claim most of the credit for the design of the first six frigates and the subsequent efforts by Humphreys’ son Samuel, also a naval constructor, to undercut Fox’s role in the original six frigate designs  have often obscured the contributions of Fox.  But in this May 1795 letter, obviously before the animosity had peaked, Secretary of War Timothy Pickering notes that Humphreys said the following about Fox: “Mr. Humphreys… thinks that there are few men in this country equally qualified in this line.”  Moreover, in a work entitled The History of the American Sailing Navy, Howard I. Chapelle,  who was an American naval architect  and curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution,  observed that “Fox was far better trained than Humphreys in all respects, and was a far superior draftsman.”