Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Reconstructed "War Department" Papers - 1784 - 1800 - Online and Searchable

Back on September 19th, in honour of “International Talk Like A Pirate Day”, I briefly recounted the story of Granddaughter and Grandson’s 5th great grandfather William Sturgis (1782 – 1863) and his encounter with the Ladrone pirates in the China Sea near Macao in 1809. 

At the time, I directed readers to the many gems in the archival holdings of the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Massachusetts.

Today, I’m directing your attention to yet another gem – the reconstructed “Papers of the War Department 1784 - 1800

As you may already know, the War Department in Washington suffered a disastrous fire on the night of 8 November 1800, destroying the office and all of its files.  However, more than a dozen years ago, historian Theodore J. Crackel, premier military expert and editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington,  took on the formidable task of trying to reconstruct the Office’s official papers, based on the holdings of more than 200 archival repositories around the world.  More than 3,000 collections were surveyed in the hope of assembling at least part of what had been lost in the fire.

In 2006, the collection – by then numbering more than 45,000 documents - was transferred to the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.  Earlier this year, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) provided funding to continue the addition of more detailed data to the records collection, thus making it more useful and accessible to researchers.  Much of the collection has been digitized and is freely available and searchable.

You can see what great stuff is available by following the link here.

So, what does all this have to do with William Sturgis and the Ladrone pirates?

Simply this – when Sturgis returned to Boston after the pirate attack, his first stop was likely at the home of the woman who was about to become his wife later that year -  Elizabeth  (Betsy) Marston Davis.  Betsy’s father – John Davis, Esquire (1761 – 1847) -  was at the time a prominent federal judge in Boston, appointed by John Adams in 1801 and an expert in admiralty law.

However, before he was appointed the Federal judge, Davis had previously served as US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, appointed by George Washington. And before that, he had served for several years as Comptroller of the Currency, appointed by Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott.

Much of Davis’s job as Comptroller involved balancing the new nation’s books and collecting money that belonged to the treasury. As such, he often found himself with the job of tracking down money that had been allocated for war and defense. He contacted former officials and asked them about the status of their outstanding accounts.

There are a number of interesting pieces of correspondence from and to John Davis in the reconstructed Papers of the War Department referenced above.  The item below, a letter from Davis to former US Quartermaster General Samuel Hodgden requests the return of $280.42 to the US Treasury.  The actual document is in the National Archives and Records Administration: [2nd Cong, Senate, Sec Treas Reports, RG46.]

When they grow up, I hope that Granddaughter and Grandson appreciate all the efforts their 6th great-grandfather John Davis took on their behalf to ensure that their infant federal government collected its outstanding debts.

A penny saved, and all that…

Anyway, here’s the letter and the transcription:

[Stamped: Received/ from/ State Dep’t./Nov. 24 1894./R.P.O. 401310]

Treasurer’s Office
Comptroller’s Office
March 7: 1796.


You stand charged on the Books of the Treasury,  as late Quarter Master General, with a balance of  Two hundred and eighty Dol[lars an]d forty two cents, as communicated to you by the late Comptroller of the Treasury in his letter of the 12: of August 1794.  It being desirable that this account should be closed, I have to request that you will make payment of said balance, as soon as shall be convenient, to the Treasurer of the United States [?] which measures will be taken to close the Account in the public Books.
                                                                                                I am very respectfully
                                                                                                Your Obedt Serv’t
                                                                                                            Jno. Davis

Samuel Hodgden, Esq.

No comments:

Post a Comment