Transcribing Can Be An Unexpected Research Method

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.

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