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?