Help Complete a Transcription: Keeping Up Appearances at Fort Niagara

October 24th, 2014

In this Letter from Captain James Bruff to accountant William Simmons.  Bruff had recently assumed command of Fort Niagara after the British agreed to turn it over to the Americans as part of the Jay Treaty. He laments that his own government does not provide enough of an allowance for entertaining British officers, who are garrisoned just across the Niagara River at Fort George, while British government “makes an allowance for such purposes.”

This particular letter is cited in Eliga Gould’s 2012 work Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire.  Gould highlights Bruff’s perception that keeping up certain appearances with other Western nations was a sure sign of stature, sovereignty, and treaty-worthiness  “among the powers of the earth.”

What is that word?

October 14th, 2014

If you have transcribed a letter, rather than a bill or report, you might have come across a jumble of letters at the end of the letter, just before the sender’s signature. The most common would be “yr obt svt.” What does this mean?

Just as modern correspondence conventionally ends with “Sincerely” or “Best Wishes” (on paper, at least), there were phrases in common use for closing letters in the late eighteenth century. “Yr obt svt” is short for “Your obedient servant.” Sometimes letter writers used the longer “Your most humble and obedient servant,” which might get compressed to “yr most hmbl & obt svt.”

Abbreviations like these, as well as variations in handwriting, can be confusing for scholars and transcribers new to eighteenth century documents. Fortunately there are a number of resources to help decipher handwriting and become familiar with eighteenth century letters.

For paleography (the study of handwriting) visit’s “How to read 18th century British American handwriting,” as well as Reed College’s Digital Collections study guide for Colonial American Handwriting and their letter matching game. For letter styles and conventions, Colonial Williamsburg offers a handout (pdf) for teachers to help students write their own eighteenth century correspondence. Read our post explaining just what, exactly, a letter book is. It also helps to read more letters, for which you can turn to modern print editions or this openly accessible online edition of the correspondence of major political figures of the founding era, provided by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission, part of the National Archives.

There are also a number of books on deciphering handwriting as well as the culture of letters and letter-writing in the eighteenth century. Talk to your local reference librarian to find out more.

Community Transcription – Forty-One Months

October 1st, 2014

It has been forty-one months since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription. We are still receiving regular requests for transcription accounts.

Here is a snapshot of transcription activity for September:
 As of this morning, we have 1,953 users, with approximately 41 new transcribers registered since the last update. Those volunteer transcribers have made 13,332 saves to War Department documents, which is about 96 additional edits since the last update. The average number of edits before a document is saved continues to be three. We have had 205,244 total page views.

Among those who signed up to transcribe in the last month, there were living history practitioners, students in a course on public history, and members of American Indian nations that are present in treaties and other historical documents in our collections. Transcribers include teachers at every level of education, elementary to university. Those who specified an interest or focus mentioned Post Vincennes, southeastern Ohio, Georgia frontier scouts, and the Whiskey Rebellion.

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