Yellow Fever’s Challenges to the Government in Philadelphia

April 30th, 2013

In 1797 the city of Philadelphia experienced an epidemic of Yellow Fever. The residents of the city were all too familiar with the disease. In 1793, the city had faced one of the worst epidemics in the early republic. When the devastating Yellow Fever outbreak hit the city of 50,000, nearly 20,000 fled the city and almost 5,000 people perished.

Only four years later when Yellow Fever again gripped the city in the fall of 1797, residents had to weigh the benefits and costs of remaining in the city.  One such resident was President John Adams. Adams had the power to decide whether the government would stay in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time, or relocate.

In a letter to Adams, U.S. Attorney General Charles Lee hoped “the cold of winter in the climate at Philadelphia to be an antidote to the Yellow Fever as the experience of 1793 seems to warrant.” But Lee warned Adams against the potential “danger to the health and lives of the members” of Congress. In a letter to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Adams asserted that he also hoped the fever would die down during the cold winter months. He optimistically decided Congress should continue to meet in Philadelphia.

Perhaps his decision not to disrupt the schedule of Congress had to do with foreign affairs. Friction with France, trading with Prussia, and treaties with England and Russia were all top priorities in Adams’ letters.  The epidemic helps to show the many challenges facing the government of the early republic from unexpected sources, like Yellow Fever.

Community Transcription-Twenty Four Months In

April 25th, 2013

It’s been twenty-four months now since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription, and ever since then we have been steadily adding transcribers as well as 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 1,345 users-fully 227 them have transcribed within the last 90 days, which is just under 17%. This number has dropped very slightly, but continues to hold relatively steady. Those volunteer transcribers have made 10,804 saves to War Department documents, which is about 342 more than at the last update. That works out to 2,017 finished documents, along with another 37 documents begun. Additionally, transcribers have initiated 423 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 58,952 total page views.

By now we have an incredibly rich variety of folks transcribing, from soldiers to students, from attorneys to archivists, and from writers to musicians. There are folks transcribing from every American state, and from six different continents. Transcribers also include teachers at every level of education, elementary to university. We have unaffiliated transcribers as well as those attached to institutions, ranging from major research libraries to historical sites, and from the National Park Service to the more than a dozen Native American tribes. Among those that specify an interest or focus, those 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 we have a growing number of people who 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. Many of them deal with pay for soldiers or officers. Others are transcripts of speeches or treaties. Some documents detail disciplinary action; there are supply lists and officers’ commissions, as well as intelligence or action reports.

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

Loyal Citizen or Lying Cheat?

April 17th, 2013

When his 1798 claim for a reward of ten dollars for capturing and returning a deserter was denied by the Accountant of the War Department, Hugh McAlister appealed the decision by writing directly to the President of the United States. McAlister argued that he was a “well known friend to the Constitution” and that William Simmons, the Accountant, had only denied the claim because of a preexisting prejudice.

He was right that Simmons was prejudiced against him. Simmons remembered that McAlister had been implicated in a case of forgery in 1797. Joseph Humprheys, one of the witnesses in the case, had alleged that McAlister was part of a scheme to forge to forge soldier’s powers of attorney and thereby take their pay or land. If nothing else, McAlister was the Notary Public who had certified as true the forged powers of attorney, and while he was not convicted, Simmons and others believed him to have been guilty.

However, Simmons did not mention McAlister’s history in his denial of the claim, instead pointing out that the deserter McAlister claimed to have returned did not appear in any Muster Roll, nor had the army advertised for a deserter by that name or appearance.  The “deserter” may never have been in the Army at all! Usually, civilian captures of deserters took place after the War Department advertised in newspapers with the name and description of the deserter, which they only did once a military attempt to retrieve the deserter had failed. The fact that there was no soldier by that name in Muster Rolls, no account of a military attempt to recover the man, nor any advertising may have suggested to Simmons that McAlister was trying a new form of fraud.

President John Adams referred the matter to Secretary of War James McHenry, who wrote to William Simmons for clarification. Simmons defended his decision in letters to McHenry and the President. In his letter to Adams, Simmons pointed out not only the lack of evidence for McAlister’s claim but the man’s history of fraud. His shorter reply to McHenry, however, only mentioned the lack of evidence, and McHenry apparently felt that Simmons was not answering his questions appropriately. In a letter dated October 25, McHenry asked Adams whether he thought that Simmons’ behavior in the matter amounted to insubordination.

There does not seem to be any indication that McAlister’s claim was every paid. Whether or not McAlister was trying to defraud the War Department, and whether he’d committed fraud before, his letter of complaint to the President for a $10 reward caused a great deal of drama in the War Department offices.

Document Spotlight-One Hundred Eighty Dollars’ Worth of Salary

April 11th, 2013

This week we offer another document spotlight to show some of the things our volunteers are finding as they transcribe documents. Transcribed by Dapperlaw, the letter was written by Joseph Howell, and was included in the pay packet for Michael G Houdin. It details Houdin’s salary–$180 for the period 1 July 1793 through 31 March 1794. I also instructs Houdin to sign and return receipts for the money showing he received the pay.

Read the original document here.

Check back next week for another installment in our transcriber spotlight series.

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!

What were Charleville Muskets?

April 5th, 2013

This collection includes ubiquitous references to the Charleville musket or the “Charleville pattern.”   Charlevilles were originally made  in France in the early 176os. The name Charleville comes from the name of the arsenal in northeastern France where they were produced.  Charlevilles  became a mainstay for the colonists during the American Revolution thanks in part to the efforts of Lafayette and the American Silas Deane.  Because France was not officially at war with Britain until 1778, they had to find workarounds in the manner of shipping.   Thus shiploads of Charlevilles would sometimes make their way to the West Indies first, where they were then reembarked and transported  on American vessels to  America. These were .69 caliber smoothbores–packing a punch for sure, but not very accurate and so generally employed in mass formations at a standard rate of fire  of about two to three rounds per minute.   In some documents you’ll find references to either Black Walnut or Maple as the preferred wood for the stocks.  In this document, there is reference to the “Charleville pattern,” but it very likely means the  Springfield Musket of 1795, manufactured at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts.



Document Spotlight-Major General’s Commission

April 4th, 2013

It has been a few weeks since we had a document spotlight. This week we feature a very basic document detailing an important executive function.
The letter from Secretary of War Henry Knox contains a commission from President George Washington appointing Anthony Wayne to the rank of Major General. Written in 1792, the letter announces the appointment and asks that Wayne respond as soon as possible with his acceptance and an oath of office.

The letter itself gives few other details, but instead refers to an enclosed act of Congress; the details concerning a Major General’s pay and benefits are included in that act. It is worth noting, too, that Washington’s appointment required the approval of the Senate.

Read the original document here.

Check back next week for another installment in our transcriber spotlight series.

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!