In Memory of Lt. Col. Ronald J. Martin, USMC, Retired

July 29th, 2016

On July 14, 2016, the Rosenzweig Center lost Ronald J. Martin, a longtime and valuable member of our team, to his struggle with cancer. Ron came to the Center in 2008 to serve join the team of scholars editing the Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800, and was integral to our work with the National Park Service on the history of the War of 1812. He was an enthusiastic partner in our work to share early American history with the public, and we mourn his passing.

Serving as PWD’s only full time  staff person, Ron began as an assistant editor, but soon he moved into the role of Associate Editor. From that position, he worked with the assistant editors to complete the basic description (author, recipient, and date) of the full collection, more than 18,000 of the total 42,800 documents. Then, in 2010 he and the staff turned their attention to offering a more full description of a key subset of the collection. During the next three years, Ron shepherded the process of creating enhanced description, including people, places, and items mentioned and a general description of the document, for more than 27,000 items. Ron alone completed the description for more than 5,000 documents annually. In the end, the team exceed their description goals by 3,000 documents. As a result of this work, researchers, students, teachers, and members of the interested public have vastly improved access to the inner-workings of the early national federal government, to day-to-day correspondence on issues related to Native Americans, active military, veterans, and their families.

Beginning in 2010, Ron started to share his unparalleled knowledge of the PWD collections with the public through a series of blog posts. In the end, these short pieces covered the range of historical issues and events contained with in the collections. Ron wrote biographical sketches of key individuals, including Andrew Pickens, William Blount, Tobias Lear, and George Izard. He offered explanations for different kinds of documents, outlined important events in early national military history, and provided insight into the development of the Navy. Once RRCHNM began work on community sourcing the transcription of the Papers in March 2011, Ron carefully selected a set of documents that would be interesting candidates for public work. These documents included letters from Judith Sargent Murray, the Jay Treaty, materials on the beginning of the Quasi War, and orders for supplies related to muskets being manufactured by Eli Whitney—each one fascinating in its own way, and all reflective of different elements of the early national experience.

Upon the completion of the description for PWD, in 2013, Ron turned his attention to the War of 1812. Working with Christopher Hamner and Spencer Roberts, he created a significant amount of the historical content on the National Park Service’s website dedicated to the war’s bicentennial. The team for the 1812 work decided on content strategy that was more suited to the digital engagement habits of contemporary users, that stressed the cultural and social context of the war along with the more traditional materials on major military events, and that highlighted both contingency and diversity. Rather than presenting a series of longer essays that focus on key themes, the team developed 70 modules that users could explore by following their own interests and questions. “Voices” modules began with a quotation from a specific individual to offer users many human experiences and perspectives. “Moments” modules focused on a specific event to give users a sense of the key milestones of the conflict.”Perspectives” modules targeted the experiences of and impacts on the many diverse communities touched by the war. This approach allowed the team to present the history of the War of 1812 in new way while working within the constraints of the National Park Service’s technological infrastructure.

It was while he was finishing up his work on the War of 1812 that Ron fell ill. We at the Center have missed his kindness and generosity over the past year and a half, and we are deeply saddened at his death. Ron was so much more than a good historian—a Marine, a husband, a father, a champion hockey and football player—but, we knew him best through his hard work and his dedication to early American history. Given that commitment, Ron’s family has requested that memorial donations be made to RRCHNM. We will use those contributions to sustain our digital collections, including the Papers of the War Department project.

Transcribing Can Be An Unexpected Research Method

July 29th, 2016

Editors’ Note: This post was written by Associate Editor Ron Martin, a valued colleague and friend, some time ago. It is published posthumously in his honor.

On occasion, volunteers who transcribe documents for large collection projects can find unexpected bonuses as repayment for their time. When these projects overlap with one’s research, the transcription process uncovers minute details that might otherwise escape notice.

While transcribing for the Papers of the War Department: 1784 to 1800, I chose to work on documents related to Fort Niagara in New York State because the topic fits into my other research. The fort sits at the mouth of the Niagara River, across from Fort George and the Canadian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. During the War of 1812, the artillery pieces at Fort Niagara rained shells and hot shot onto the opposite shore, setting fires amongst the houses and harassing the British troops.

Before the war, however, the fort housed American troops during a time of peace with the British. The officers on both sides faced similar difficulties, such as providing rations for their troops in the middle of winter and ensuring that the payroll arrived on time. One letter from William Simmons to James McHenry reports that $245.05 is overdue to pay the soldiers and officers at Fort Niagara.

That the American and British officers had similar difficulties is not, however, remarkable or new knowledge to any scholar of the Niagara frontier (or any other outposts during the late eighteenth century). The particular scrap of information that I found interesting was in a report from the fort commander, James Bruff, to William Simmons of the Accountants Office.

In his report, Bruff laments the costs that he incurs by hosting foreign (meaning British) officers for dinners and parties. During the peace between the two nations, officers from both sides regularly crossed the river to visit their counterparts. In fact, according to the report printed on July 15th, 1812, in Baltimore’s Federal Republican, when the British officers at Fort George received notice of the declaration of the War of 1812, they were hosting Americans for dinner. Graciously, the British troops escorted the Americans back to their side of the river so that hostilities might commence promptly in the morning.

Following an explanation of the costs he has incurred, Bruff makes an interesting comparison:

The British officers who have commanded here at Oswego inform me that their pay wou’d not support a table, and that their government make an allowance for that purpose (in some instances) exceeding their pay: shall our government (founded on justice) be the only one that requires officers to be polite, conciliating and to keep up an intercourse with foreigners & foreign officers at their private expense?

Even if Bruff was exaggerating the tales he heard from British officers, his complaint highlights the complex nature of international relations across the border between the British Lower and Upper Canadas and the newly formed United States of America. American officers could simply look across the river to see British defensive strategy or ask a British officer about their supply chain and resource management. The comparison was not only easy to make, but also highlighted how much further the American military would need to improve to be classed amongst the powerful imperial states.

The borders along the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers were unusual; although the political bodies of each nation clashed from time to time, the military forces on those frontiers traded goods, information, customs, and meals. Despite the distinction that political allegiance created, the Niagara River was a permeable border across which people moved freely even on the day before war.

In my research for my dissertation, I hope to uncover such connections that crossed the political boundaries to better understand the lives of people who lived on the borders; in particular, I hope to explore how the war disrupted those connections and how families negotiated that contested space.

My time spent transcribing was not meant to link so well with my research, but as it turns out, volunteering to work with historical material can uncover unexpected, valuable information for historians and history enthusiasts alike.

Community Transcription – Sixty-Two Months

July 5th, 2016

June marked the sixty-second month since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription. We continue to receive regular requests for transcriber accounts. Here is a snapshot of transcription activity for the month:

Twenty-six new transcribers signed up last month, and as of June 30, the total number of transcribers was 2,646. These new transcribers come from a variety of backgrounds and included university students, genealogists, independent researchers, and public historians.

The individuals who signed up to transcribe in June mentioned an interest in people and topics such as the Indian wars, Kentucky, slavery in Virginia, Jonathan Grant, Henry Foxall, Mohawk Valley, and Joseph Brant and Molly Brant.

Transcribed documents include documents regarding Anthony Wayne’s campaign strategy, the termination of scouts for protection, financial matters, the settlement of army officers’ accounts, troops ready to march, a request for authorization to dispatch militia and spies, Indian relations and troop status, and deserters, training troops, and supplies.

Our community of transcribers have added 458 transcribed pages to War Department documents, with the total number of saves being 18,578. Overall, we have had 502,115 page views.

We interviewed transcriber Scribe of Poland as part of our fifth anniversary celebration of community transcription. Check out her interview to get an idea of the kinds of documents transcribers come across while volunteering for the PWD.

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