Wednesday, December 7, 2011

interregnum

Today was my last official day as NARA's 2010 Citizen-Archivist (at least in my own mind).  That doesn't mean for a minute that I'll stop doing what it was that earned me the distinction in the first place.  The work continues.

NARA is naming a new Outstanding Citizen-Archivist for 2011 tomorrow and I hope that whomever is selected lives up to it, and adds something distinct to it.  2011 has been an interesting and challenging year for NARA and the research community navigating the drastic changes taking place in the archival world.  It was a distinct privilege and honor to be able to share in the transformation taking place at the National Archives.  Thanks to AOTUS Ferriero for making this a reality and for following through on his promise to make the members of the research community part of the conversation.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rev War junkie, part two - A Call to Serve

They didn't have Twitter or Facebook or YouTube to transmit their revolutionary words and actions.  They didn't have computing or fast transit, or even electricity, but the Patriots of the Revolutionary War did have the printing press and the pamphlet writers.  It could be said that half the war was won on paper, by the spreading of information, and the preservation and memorializing of deeds and events necessary to transmit the ideals of the egalitarian Revolution.

Many of the pamphlets were used for recruiting purposes.  A fine example of one such recruiting pamphlet, perhaps penned by Major General Charles Lee, or a gifted subordinate, was recently found in the Congressional relief petition case-file of Asher Sedgewick, a Patriot who served from Hartford, Connecticut from 1775 until the winter of 1780. 


US Legislative Archives, RG233, hr21a-g13.1

Asher Sedgewick signed this pamphlet, knowing full well that he may as well have been signing his own death warrant.  His name appears clearly written fourth from the bottom.  The lead signatory was Captain Abraham Sedgewick, his own father, so it is really not a mystery why Asher, at the time only 15 years old would have penned his name to this dangerous, seditious document.  Capt. Sedgewick used his utmost zeal and ardour, and perhaps several copies of this pamphlet, which he also probably read aloud to groups of men in Hartford, and raised a company of sixty enlisted men and four officers to serve in Colonel Chester's Regiment Connecticut Militia.


It is not really hard to imagine the impact of this pamphlet.  This one was used specifically for recruitment purposes, and just like recruitment attempts today played on the potential recruit's personal sense of honor and loyalty to submit to the service of their country as a test of character.  Of the signatories to the pamphlet only Capt Sedgewick and his teenage son Asher appear on the Travel Roll of men who actually marched with the Captain to Ticonderoga.

This payroll, which is mentioned by Asher's widow in his pension case file, has not been previously available to researchers.  Luckily for the modern Rev War scholar, the "Travel Role of Captain Abraham Sedgewick's Company Returning from Camp 1776", like the pamphlet, was submitted by Asher to Congress in 1820 in one of his attempts at obtaining a pension or an increase. 

US Legislative Archives, RG233, hr21a-g13.


This "Travel Role" shows the men returning by march from the vicinity of Fort Ticonderoga, New York to Hartford, Connecticut.  In addition to their monthly salary, determined by rank, each man was guaranteed a certain amount of pay, per mile, on the march to and from the place of service, either before or after muster.  Asher, who served as Fifer, traveled 237 miles and received £0-19-9 (19 shillings and 9 pence, when a Pound Sterling equaled 20 shillings).  They marched on foot, and had to obtain whatever lodging and provisions they could find along the way, using their own money or that provided by the Captain, which he received back from the men after the Travel Roll was submitted for pay.

I am inspired by the efforts of my nation's forebears, to continue to preserve their words and deeds.  Anyone interested in assisting to transcribe the names from this document, or other Rev War documents like this, is welcomed to contact soldiersource.com's internship coordinator Anne Musella.


Sources :

Pension case-file of Asher Sedgewick (available on fold3.com and in NARA RG15).

Petition for relief of Asher Sedgewick, US Legislative Archives, RG233 (House of Representatives), HR21a-g13.1, (viewed and scanned by Deiss, 18 May 2011)










Sunday, November 6, 2011

The challenges of Citizen-Archivery

I went to the National Archives' McGowan Theater on Friday night (4 November 2011) to watch and listen to a panel discuss the latest in social media in archives and government.  My primary focus was to learn the latest on the new Citizen-Archivist Dashboard, an application going online soon that will allow researchers to upload scanned or digitally imaged documents directly to the National Archives website and connect those images directly with official catalog citations in ARC and other online descriptive pamphlets and finding aides. This is what I've been hoping they would come up with and it looks like it will soon be available.

The intermediate steps have been to use Flickr and youtube to highlight National Archives records.  These services, as great as they are, have serious limitations.  They are most useful for casual perusal of individual, unconnected records, but not very useful for conducting serious research.  The images are generally too small for any real transcription work, especially when many NARA records are handwritten documents. The videos are generally low resolution and too short. The limitations on file size, format and description are also troubling.  Using these services were baby-steps to help familiarize the public (and NARA staff) with the concepts of social media and sharing of data in the open-source manner.  Despite this concept being essentially part of NARA's core mission-statement to make available Federal records and government data, it was a significant technological leap to make for an agency still stuck (in many ways) in a 20th century mode of thinking about records, public access and sharing. But, with AOTUS Ferriero's stewardship and his ability to pick smart, forward-thinking civil servants to carry out his vision, it happened.

They have slowly added more Citizen-Archivist interactive functionality.  The Online Public Access page now has a tagging feature, so researchers or would-be archivist-types, can tag an image and cite it, perhaps link it directly to items in ARC and other online catalogs.  This is another baby-step to full integration of the online and textual collections, with full search functionality and a direct description-to-item correlation and concordance.  This is all going to be at least theoretically possible once the HMS software is fully populated with data, all the boxes of records in the building have been tagged, marked and identified and the locations of every single item entered in the database.  This is still an ongoing process.

The local Wash-DC Wikipedian element is now involved, there is a NARA Wikepedian-in-Residence and some other big players are giving serious thought to how they can be a part of the game.  The private firms like ancestry.com (and oh yeah, there isn't anyone else except google perhaps) are spending their money to digitize records for their private networks, so some of the collection is getting online and available for a fee.  Ancestry.com is the business side of the equation, and it has relevance, despite its genealogy orientation.  It's sister site fold3.com (footnote.com) has a real potential for being more than just a genealogy site. With the right collections and indexing, arranged properly, it could be a premier military-history research resource.

Individuals are doing small projects, too numerous to discuss here.  There just isn't much in the way of funding available for the small-timers.  Congress has yet to really get behind these kinds of initiatives and although NARA is going ahead with their projects despite a shrinking budget, it will be difficult to expand on present efforts in the future without more money.  In the current climate, it is hard to imagine seeing a large influx of cash for this kind of thing.  It would seem like the perfect kind of thing for a techno-savvy philanthropist like Bil Gates to throw a billion bucks at, but what do I know?  I do what I do on a poverty level salary - actually less.

As a Citizen-Archivist, it seems challenging to find a way to present my data, to dispense my collection of scans and images, in a cost effective and labor efficient manner to the research community and the general public.  Its seems challenging to find ways to fund the activity of scanning and processing - whether raising funds through philanthropy, offering services, or using private resources.  I have found temporary solutions, again and again, to those problems.  The real challenge isn't either of those issues, but fundamentally that of perseverance, persistence, and flexibility in the face of rapid change. Circumstances and opportunities have changed so much at the National Archives in the past 36 months that it almost boggles the mind to keep up.

I look forward to the Citizen-Archivist Dashboard and what comes next, and hope that things plateau soon so that the contributions of Citizen-Archivists, past and future, will have a chance to achieve a more persistent and steadfast legacy.  It seems a waste of valuable labor to spend time to populate one system after the other with data just to see them superseded by a version X or a new software rev.  In the mean time, I will keep scanning.  The singularity, the composite solution will coalesce soon enough...





Friday, November 4, 2011

Blessed by the Windham Bacchus

The Windham Bacchus was originally carved by British prisoners
confined to an improvised jail at Windham Green during the Rev War.
The artifact has been restored at various times, but still retains
much of the original work. Author's photo, 2001.
Ten years ago, this month, I traveled to Windham County, Connecticut. Heavily wooded and rural, Windham County is serene and quiet, largely unchanged since the time of the Revolution. I touched base with my roots, found the graves of my ancient ancestors and stood on the green where the Militia mustered in 1775. It was a highly patriotic time, in the wake of 9/11, and I seemed to be having one strangely serendipitous moment after the other. Locals opened their doors to me to share local history, documents, food and more. I stayed in a cold, rustic cabin, roamed misty old cemeteries, and absorbed the charm of the place. Paul Newman waved at me. It was a great week and climaxed when the local librarian in the tiny library on the Windham Green, dared me to climb a ladder just vacated by a handyman and touch the legendary Windham Bacchus. What made her dare me? The thing was what looked to me like twelve feet up, on a pediment, a forbidden artifact of the Revolution - off-limits. But, I took the challenge. I touched the Windham Bacchus. Did I receive some kind of strange curse, to be obsessed with the Revolutionary War? The question is moot, look where I am.


More about the Bacchus of Windham :

It appeared on china dishware.

The Treasury of American Design considered it a 'treasure'.

See page 38 of Early American Wood Carving By Erwin Ottomar Christensen for an explanation of the carvings' origin.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ali ben Moussa, a real Zouave


Every Civil War aficionado knows the story of the legendary Zouave regiments and their many and varied, sometimes valiant, exploits.  Styled after the crack Algerian forces in the employ of the armies of France, their American counterparts tended to resemble the North-African soldiers only in dress and rarely in fighting skill.  Nonetheless the romantic ideal of a whole unit dressed in suave Zouave fashion spoke to the hearts of many would-be soldiers, and dressed as they were, they stood out amongst the other blue garbed men.  Noticed and noted, they tended to emulate the expectations heaped upon them, rushing headlong into slaughter in an attempt at glorious victory, and occasionally succeeding.

If the example of the one genuine Zouave in the service of both Union and Confederate armies is anything to base an opinion on then it will be a disappointing one.  Ali ben M’oussa was born in Algiers about 1830, right about the same time that France conquered the land now known as Algeria.  He stood 5’ 4½” tall, had hazel eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion.  It is unclear whether he was indeed French, a native North-African, or some mix, and his name is not an uncommon one from the North African region.

It is unknown when he arrived on our shores, but his first encounter with authorities that resulted in a record being made was in late July 1863 in Providence, Rhode Island when he enlisted for service in the Union Army.  He volunteered, or was persuaded, to act as a substitute for a man unwilling to submit to the indignity of conscription, and for a hefty sum. As little as $300.00, perhaps as much as several thousand dollars could be gained by offering himself as a substitute.  He joined on 28 July 1863 as a recruit for the 5th Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, then already in garrison at New Bern, Craven County, North Carolina.  He was transported south then mustered-in on 16 August and assigned to Company K, commanded by Captain E. Meulin.

(NARA RG94, entry 519)
       With perhaps hundreds of dollars from his pay, due for being a substitute, stuffed in his uniform pockets, he never bothered to even collect his $100 bounty or muster for pay before he deserted.  Taking his knapsack, haversack, and canteen, but leaving behind his weapon he turned up missing on 23 September 1863.  After wandering the North Carolina and Virginia countryside for a few weeks, he was arrested by Confederate authorities and sent to Richmond, where he was imprisoned at Castle Thunder.  Castle thunder was the popular name for the Eastern District Military Prison of the Confederate Army’s Department of Richmond.  It was a 3½ story structure formerly used as a tobacco warehouse, re-purposed to house the south’s political prisoners, spies, captured Union citizens, foreigners, deserters and others.  Moussa fit several of those categories, being at once Union deserter, unusual foreigner and suspected spy.

It wasn’t long before the confident and well-informed Algerian addressed a letter to the prison’s commander, General Winder.  On Halloween, 1863 his plea made its way to the prison’s commissioner, Major Isaac H. Carrington.  Carrington’s job was to review the prisoners’ cases, ascertain the circumstances of the detention, and make decisions on their final disposition.  Moussa was politically adept and charismatic, enough to impress Carrington.  His letter states that he was forced to desert the Union forces because Captain Emelius de Meulen had treated him cruelly. However, Moussa had only been under the Capt. de Meulen's command for 6 weeks. He stated that he wouldn’t want to fight against the southern cause in any event because his home country’s monarch, Emperor Napoleon III, was just about to recognize the Confederate States.  He didn’t want to raise arms against a nation that was about to be recognized by his homeland’s leaders, to whom he still professed loyalty.

(NARA RG94, entry 409, Enlisted Branch Letters Received)


Considering Moussa’s background and birthplace it is amazing the Carrington so readily admitted Moussa into the Confederate Service.  He stated that he was a French Soldier by occupation and was born in Algiers, Africa.  The south was desperate enough to enlist foreigners or even mercenaries like Moussa, but to select a man from Africa seems so antithetical to the southern cause that it baffles the mind. Desperation leads to many things. Moussa must have been one smooth, calm, collected, well educated and well spoken man; must have known at least three languages, perhaps Arabic, French and English, and keen enough to understand how to use the military system to his advantage.  On can also only speculate on his religion, whether he was a Muslim, a Christian or neither.  His service record doesn’t indicate anything in that regard nor do his actions.

(NARA RG109, War Dept Collection of Confed Recs)


He cheated the North out of  pay as a substitute.  He would never have been drafted anyhow, being a foreigner and an African.  It is not likely that even in the North, he would have been received with anything but some sense of suspicion.  He was savvy enough to desert and not be caught by his former unit.  Once captured he wormed his way into Carrington and Winder’s favor, obtained his freedom and was paid for it.

He was formally enrolled as a Private in the Confederate Army on 28 December 1863 at Richmond, Virginia by Captain Samuel T. Bayly. At the time he enlisted Moussa, Bayly was Assistant Adjutant General on General Winder’s Staff in Richmond.  He must have had some prior training as an artilleryman, as both the Union and Confederate authorities assigned him to Artillery units.  This may also indicate that he had some prior experience with cannon from being a mariner or sailor. He was placed in Captain Brander’s Company, Pegram’s Battalion Artillery Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, and almost immediately reported as absent sick.

He knew the system well, complained of the generally un-diagnosable ailment of rheumatism and was sent to the General Hospital at Charlotteville, Virginia where he was able to stay until 25 March 1864 when returned to duty.  The next and only notation concerning Ali ben Moussa in the records again indicates the he promptly deserted instead of returning to his unit.

One of the Civil War's only real Zouaves, a genuine French soldier from Algeria, did not live up to the glorious reputation of his native brethren.  After this period, no trace of him can be found.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rev War junkie

Lately I have become a Rev War junkie - kinda hooked on the experience of finding original Rev War documents.  It is a real rush to find an actual, real-life, no-foolin' Revolutionary War document.  I found my first such document (a tiny pay voucher) when I worked processing the DAR's original membership application files for the PG Project back in 2004.  It was a thrilling event and it just keeps getting better.  Unlike drugs, the experience does actually get better and better each time - no matter what the dose!

I'll let this beautiful document speak for itself.  This is the original muster-roll of Major Jeremiah Bruen's Company in Colonel Jeduthan Baldwin's Regiment of Artificers (in the Continental establishment).  These Patriots were the rough equivalent of today's Engineers.

from nara rg233, hr15a-g10.1, tray03
( larger version available here )






This document may be the only record of Bruen's Company at this time (March 1780), showing the full compliment of men.  In fact Major Bruen's Compiled Military Service Record (in NARA RG93) does not reference this record.  The CMSR of Sgt. John Thomas doesn't even make reference to this month at all.  Thomas' and Bruen's CMSRs clearly show that the clerks in the R&P office (or more likely the MS Office of AGO) did not have access to this document when carding the Rev War military service records in the summer of 1906.  What they had access to at the time is filmed on NARA micropub M246 (Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783) and available on footnote.com. 

Do the 'official records' show that this unit was at Morristown in March 1780?  No, the records do not.  Jeduthan Baldwin's published diary doesn't cover 1780 and published letters to and from Major Bruen only cover the period up to February 1780.  The men named in the document are now concretely documented in historical time-space. 

Is this, in fact, new evidence of Patriotic military service? Hell yes!

Why is this important?  Evidence of Revolutionary service is rare, exceedingly rare.  To see any new, previously undocumented source is a reason to celebrate.  I don't really need to expound in the importance of Rev War scholarship, do I?  This document is an official muster-roll from the Continental Line.  The Compiled Military Service Records of the men named on this document need to be amended, or appended, or in some other way their service needs to be memorialized.

So, who cares?  Well, I do.  Other scholars of the Revolution should revel in the experience of being able to see new full-color scans of these documents, when 99% of 18th century documents are only available in black & white, on poorly imaged microfilm that hasn't been updated in half a century.  The descendants of these men may also care to take the opportunity to claim a bit of 'patriotic service' for an ancestor for whom the record was not complete enough to justify entrance to a lineage society like the NS-DAR, SAR or the few others.  Major Jeremiah Bruen was, until 1807, a member of the Society of the Cincinnati; perhaps descendants of the Major, or Lieutenants Little and Spencer would find this document useful.

Over the next few months, I will be making copies of these records available.  My eventual plan is to make all of them available with a rough finding-aide to the location of the original Rev War documents at the National Archives.  Oh yeah, that will get done when I finish the twenty-thousand other projects I am simultaneously working on.  No, really.  Please keep the spirit of the Revolution alive.  Be a junkie for your country.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Can you say bye-bye NHPRC...?

Rep. Chaffetz (R-Utah) wants to shut down the NHPRC.  Who is
really behind this kind of anti-intellectual activity?  This seems to fit nicely with ancestry.com's plan to corner the digitization market.  If there are no large public-sector grants available, then for-profit research outfits like ancestry will be the winners in the future of digitization.  That does not leave a level playing field for anyone but the largest of game-players.



It seems a moot point to hammer the archives on enforcing the digital partnership agreements when they are constantly having their budget gutted at every turn.  Actions like Chaffetz's would leave the archives in a very bad position, with ancestry as their only, rather dubious, partner.  We need to make sure that NARA and NHPRC stay funded - then we can afford to be picky about particulars with specific partnership issues.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why researchers matter - redux.

Here is another reason why researchers matter.


Ever traveled to a library, archives or records center just to find out it is closed because of an emergency situation, a power-outage or some other logistical problem?  It has happened to every newbie researcher, and probably to many of the more experienced ones.  It is part of the risk involved in conducting on-site of research.

However, what if the place was closed because of a lack of funds?  This is occurring more often and in the case of Minnesota, it is not just one city or county, it is the entire state and all of its publicly funded research facilities.  This could easily happen to the research institution that you use most often.  It could happen because the state runs out of funds.  It could also happen if legislatures fail to adequately fund these institutions in the first place.

So, how do researchers matter in this case?  Well, it seems rather obvious = get involved! Let your legislators know, at the state and Congressional levels, that your institution matters to you and it must be adequately funded.  Tell them how and why you use it and how it impacts you, your family and your clients or whomever is the recipient of the data or information you discovered while researching.  It actually works.  I have seen it in action, all it takes is some time and a great deal of polite, patient persistence.

At my favorite research facility, the National Archives, researchers have been involved in many ways to help.  The most important contribution was several years ago after the archives was closed because of a water damage after a flood in the basement of the building.  It seemed that Congress just wouldn't give NARA adequate funding to make the repairs and stay open at the same time, or ever compensate them for any of the repairs retroactively.  The place was scheduled to be closed for at least four weeks and after re-opening was to have more limited hours than before.  NARA only needed $36-million, but (former) Archivist of the US Weinstein wasn't persuasive enough to convince Congress.

Realizing what needed to be done, the researchers formed a vigilante-committee of sorts, and charted a course of action.  The group lobbied congress, and had meetings with members of the appropriations committee(s).  After a short time, the researchers were able to get the ball rolling and believe it or not, Congress gave NARA the necessary funds to make the repairs, get the doors open and resume normal hours of operation.

I believe that researchers matter, not just as users of the institutions, but as players in the game.  If you want that place to remain open, you MUST be involved.  More interested parties will swoop in and take control, or the collection may even be auctioned off, or disposed of.  At that point, it is often too late to act, so do something now.

Should we just sell our entire cultural heritage to a for-profit corporation like Ancestry.com or do we keep it alive locally at institutions that can be physically visited, where real research can be conducted using real items, documents and ephemera?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

NARA thinking of automating record request process

NARA has been hearing this from the research community for some time : let us request records electronically, before our visit to NARA and on-site.  They have finally started a serious process to see how this can be facilitated. From past discussions on this subject it seems to cover two different issues.  Will a researcher, not at a NARA facility, be able to identify an item from ARC or another finding-aid to generate a pull-request to be submitted ahead of their visit to NARA; or will this only be a paper elimination process and researchers will still be required to submit requests on-site at a NARA facility, but just using a computer instead of a pen?


There are two obvious problems... (1) if a researcher submits an electronic request from home or the office the day before planning their research trip and then never shows-up, the staff has wasted their time performing the pull, and the record remains unavailable to other researchers for a period of days; and (2) the electronic finding aides, including ARC and its successors, are not yet complete enough to enable identification of box level items without intervention of an archivist or technician.

There are probably many more questions and issues that need to be addressed.  NARA staff will be holding a public meeting on this subject (this schedule is probably tentative) :


The meeting dates are:
Archives 1, Thursday July 7, 2:00-3:00 Room G-24
Archives 2  Tuesday July 12, 10:00-11:00 Lecture Room B
 
Come to the meeting.  However, if you can't be present you should post comments and questions here, and on the NARAtions blog on other issues relevant to record-requests that you would like to have addressed.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why researchers matter

Researchers are part of our research institutions.  They are there, whether on their own volition or by proxy to seek some data in the holdings.  They are as much a part of the institution as the books, papers, manuscripts and artifacts they come to use and experience for research and enjoyment.  Without the researching public, there would be no need for the repositories themselves. In our society, we don't save the ephemera of our past simply for its own sake; we do it because there is a desire to have the data and experience of the people who lived before us available for any number of reasons.

Access and customer-service are just as important as preservation and conservation.  Even with the spread of digitization, as everything slowly gets scanned, you can't deny the human desire to know, to see, to touch an object to verify its existence.  When anything can be faked, we just will really never know if these things are 'for-real' unless we can see them and know for sure.  Looking at facsimiles or even 3D renderings isn't enough.  Why are the Constitution and Declaration of Independence on display at the National Archives when they have been printed and reprinted like the bible?  Why do researchers still demand to see the Roswell material, or any number of artifacts?  Facsimiles and reproductions, no matter how sophisticated, just aren't fully adequate to fulfill the primal need to see and feel a physically tangible object.

It is also unreasonable to suggest that the curious citizen-researcher become an historian or archivist to gain access to items on a tangible level.  Down the road, the citizen-researcher will still come knocking on the door of the old "paper archivist" to see the lone curator of the stacks when the digital world far out strips the physical one.  There will still be the metaphysical need and undeniable right, to know, see and touch.

Hopefully, in the future, there will still be repositories to hold the objects and documents of our history and culture. Only by connecting one-on-one, face-to-face with on-site researchers will institutions and records repositories be able to justify their existence.  They can do this by improving customer-service, bringing it up to a level equal with conservation and custodial responsibility.  If our institutions can't connect with the researchers who are physically present, then we should just replace archivists and curators with information-technology experts and just lock the doors.