National Archives

Sold for the Benefit of the Captors, redux

Back in February, I wrote Sold for the Benefit of the Captors, so the recent post on the National Archives Rediscovering Black History: Blogs Relating to the African-American Experience site might have seemed familiar to some. Let’s unofficially call it Sold for the Benefit of the Captors, redux.

I’ve had a chance to do some additional research on the document, and I’ve made some revised conclusions, along with developing a long list of questions. Take a look at the new version. I am really honored and excited to share the research process with posts for the National Archives. Get ready for an interesting, challenging exploration of the treatment of black prisoners during the War of 1812.


Sold for the Benefit of the Captors

Surely many researchers dream of finding an unknown draft of a speech written by Abraham Lincoln; the doodles of JFK; the Ark of the Covenant; or whatever the movie National Treasure had thought was hidden somewhere in the vaults of the National Archives. The reality is that every archival file holds a hidden gem, for that information might be the key to solving a family’s mystery, or explaining their history. Sometimes, though, a document might be a bit more than a hidden gem. Let me explain.

I’ve been researching British sailors captured from the merchant vessel Dolphin and held as prisoners during the War of 1812, on behalf of Bruce Murduck, a genealogist in Canada. I’ve spent a bit of time reviewing the Registers of British Prisoners of War 1812-15.* The registers are a bit of a bear. They are mostly in alphabetical order, but only by the first letter of the surname. The entries are not in date order, and there are entries also placed in an appendix, plus a continuation of the appendix as entries for some letters in volume two. Looking for a man’s name means checking through many handwritten lines, and to be thorough, reviewing nearly every page in both volumes. At the back of volume one, I came across a most curious, unbound, folded piece of a paper.

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

“Preserve these sheets they may be wanted,” signed by J Beerce, and then lower down on the page, and upside down, “List of Slaves not Entd in General List.”

I unfolded the paper, and a list of 47 men appeared, some marked as slave, and some marked Negro. There are eight columns on the page, untitled, but they seem to follow the pattern elsewhere in the register: name, description of person, vessel on which they were captured, vessel by which they were captured, date of capture, where captured, where they were held, and finally, the date of what happened to them next, and what happened.

For example, James Baptiste, Seaman of the Sloop Searcher, captured by the Schooner Rapid in June 1813 off the coast of Belize. Taken to New Orleans and on 29 July 1813, “Sold for the Benefit of the Captors.” Seven men were sold on 29 July 1813 in New Orleans: James Baptiste, Thomas Clarke, Bristol Clarke, Sharper Forbes, Ranter Forbes, Thomas Forbes and Prince William Henry.

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

“Sold for the Benefit of the Captors:” that would be to benefit the war effort, to benefit the United States. The fate of others was “Sold by Order of the District Court.” Some died. And for some men, the information is blank, unknown.

But these men are not unknown. This document, a folded piece of paper that nearly 200 years ago a J Beerce suggested be saved, offers a genealogist, an historian, an archivist the opportunity to make these men known.

Will you help me tell their story?

Certainly I’m not the first person to see this document, nor the first to write about it. But I do not think it is well known. I’ve brought this document to the attention of several archivists at the National Archives, and it was received with much interest. I can’t fit the entire list, or a high-resolution copy of it on this blog, but I would be happy to share. Just contact me. All I ask is that you keep me posted on your research and discoveries, and share your results.

*Registers of British Prisoners of War, 1812-1815, 2 Volumes. Record Group 45: Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, 1691 – 1945. National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

Researching World War II Service: Beware the Unknown Unknowns

Irv Carl in WWII uniformMy great uncle Irwin “Irv” Carl served in the Army during World War II but that’s about all any family members knew. My search began with his enlistment data, and then I found a copy of his Application for a Headstone or Marker for a Military Veteran. That application matched the enlistment data, plus gave me a lot of new information. On most applications, you will find:

• Enlistment date
• Discharge date
• Service number
• Grade (rank)
• Medals
• Branch of Service, Company, Regiment and Division.

While these two documents were useful, I wanted to try and learn more, and placed a request for Irv’s military service record.

The service record request signaled challenges ahead: the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files, and 80 percent of Army records for personnel discharged between 1912 -1960. I was not surprised when I received a letter explaining that there were no records available for Irv, other than his final payment document. Something is always better than nothing!

The final payment roll confirmed the company, regiment and division. Or so I thought. I started to put together a report on Irv’s war experience based on the headstone application and final payment document, both of which placed him in “Headquarters Battery, 8th Infantry Division Artillery.” The 8th Infantry’s members wore a shoulder patch featuring an upward pointing gold arrow piercing a silver figure “8,” all on a blue shield.

I looked at dates, maps and locations, plotting where Irv might have gone or seen action. But then I received a box of photos from a relative. In that box were photos Irv had taken while in training and then in the European Theatre of Operations. A few images had information written on the back, some had identifiable landmarks, and others showed enough of Irv’s shoulder patch that the questions started.

If Irv was a member of the 8th Infantry Division, what was he doing wearing a patch for the 89th Infantry Division? The 89th Infantry Division patch is a distinct, stylized “W” inside a circle, black on khaki, nothing like the gold arrow of the 8th. There was no mixing up the two. Was he really a member of the 89th? If so, it would explain a few things: photos of Irv training in Colorado (the 89th trained at Camp Carson, Colorado), and some of the locations the 89th fought in Germany matched place names on the photos.

Why did the US military have the “wrong” information for the final payment roll and the headstone application? Actually, the information obtained in the two documents was accurate because at the end of World War II, Irv was briefly part of the 8th Infantry Division. Here’s why: when the war was over, the U.S. military in Europe needed to relocate more than 3 million service members, and get them back to a separation center close to the soldier’s final destination. It was a giant logistics puzzle. Attaching Irv to the 8th Infantry Division got him to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a separation center about 130 miles southwest of St. Louis, Missouri.

Irv Carl with 89th Inf Div Patch

Irv Carl with 89th Inf Div Patch

Without the photos of Irv, and examining the shoulder patch, I would have identified his WWII service incorrectly. But at the same time, I would have been working with the documents and the evidence available to me. When researching the veteran in your family, beware the unknown unknowns.

On this Veteran’s Day, I’m doubling down on my effort to identify any of the people in the photos my great-uncle took, as well as share the photos in the collection of the Signal Corps at the National Archives. Follow this link and take a look.

There are more photos from the National Archives to scan and add to the collection, and the next step for the family photos is to geo-locate them. I also need to start digging through World War II Operations Reports to see if I can determine the company and regiment to which Irv was attached. Much more research ahead!

Going to NIGR, not Niger

Street in Naimey, Niger

Not the corner of Pennsylvania and 7th Sts NW

Things are confusing in our household at the moment. One of us is traveling in Niger for work, and the other is attending the National Institute on Genealogical Research, known by its acronym, NIGR. The Nigeriens (not to be confused with Nigerians, from Nigeria) prefer a French pronunciation of the country name, something along the lines of “nee-ZHER,” while the Institute goes by “NYE-jur.”

Now that I’ve cleared up pronunciation, the more important information is, what is NIGR? NIGR is an intensive program offering a series of lectures plus on-site examination of federal records at the National Archives.

The syllabus includes: court martial records, pensions and other military records; public and private land claims; the Freedmen’s Bureau and Southern Claims Commission; American Indian research; using photographs and maps for genealogy; a lecture on documents relating to pirates and privateers; plus sessions in the Library of Congress, the Daughters of the American Revolution Library and with the US Customs and Immigration Service.

Whew. It’s going to be a brain-bursting week. I can’t wait.

A Tale From the Mixed-Up Files of the Civil War Pension Records

As a young reader, I loved the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konisburg, and the novel came to mind the past few days as I sought out a Civil War Pension file.

It started out as a simple request – could I locate the file and scan the contents for a researcher in Texas? He provided me with the T288 index card for Walter Vaughn, who had been a member of the 74th Indiana Infantry, Company H, and the 1st Regiment U. S. Veteran Volunteer Engineers, Company C, during the Civil War.

I took the application and certificate numbers from the index card, which dated to 1880, when Walter Vaughn applied for an invalid pension, and filed a search request at the National Archives. Usually, retrieval from the stacks takes about an hour. I went up to the reading room, but received the dreaded white “return request” slip. The file was not located. My mistake, I should have also checked the T289 organizational index for the same soldier.

Pulling up the T289 index card for Walter Vaughn began what one NARA staffer dubbed, “a rabbit hole” of names, dates and files. On this card, the clerk, writing almost 100 years ago, wrote to also reference the files of John U. Hurst of Ohio and Daniel S. Witmer of Indiana. I emailed the researcher, asking if he wanted me to continue, and if he knew either of these additional surnames. He knew the surname Witmer as the maiden name of Walter Vaughn’s wife, Permila.

John U. Hurst's T289 CardA staffer helped me as I pulled up information on the new names, which resulted in even more “see also” notations: Foster Wable and Aaron Hurst. Who were all these men and how did they all connect? Papers were scattered across the staffer’s desk, and I sketched a flow chart to see if that provided any clarity. Meanwhile, two additional staffers joined in the discussion. One noted that on Aaron Hurst’s card was the name of his mother: Lucy Wable. Lucy? I thought we were looking for Permila! I assembled a small stack of file requests, and the staffers made me promise to give them the full report of what I found.

Based on the flow chart and dates on the index cards, I guessed that the answer might be found in Foster Wable’s file. The file was at least three inches thick. I dug in – pages and pages on Foster Wable’s application for a pension, even more pages on his wife Lucy’s application for a widow’s pension, and yet even more pages on Lucy’s application for her son Aaron Hurst’s benefits. Lucy’s marital history partially explained things: Foster Wable was her fourth marriage and third husband. Her second marriage was to John Hurst, and they had a son, Aaron. John and Lucy divorced, then remarried, then divorced again. I found a touching note from the nurse who cared for Aaron Hurst as he lay dying in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, but not one mention of Walter Vaughn or Permila. The filed turned out to be a total red herring.

Next up, Daniel Witmer’s file, another thick set of papers. Again, multiple pages of applications for pension, but most of it was focused on Permila J. Long and her widow pension applications, and rejections. Permila married Daniel Witmer in 1866; he died in 1892. She married John Hurst in 1900; he died in 1904. Finally, she married Walter Vaughn. Marriage and relationship flow chart 2This explained the connections between the women and the men, and I found Walter Vaughn’s pension files after all the paperwork for Daniel Witmer. This allowed me to complete my client’s request, but it didn’t satisfy my curiousity – why was Walter Vaughn filed with Daniel Witmer? If there was a widow’s pension, it would have been filed as such, but these files were for soldier’s pensions.

I had one more file to go, John U. Hurst. Ultimately, I did locate the “Rosetta stone” for the files, a piece of paper in John Hurst’s file, with the notation from a clerk written on 2 December 1918:

There is in the blue jacket several independent claims which should be separated and sent to their proper places.Image

Touching History

Viewing Widow's Pension File at the National Archives

Viewing Widow’s Pension File at the National Archives

Being a researcher and living in Washington, DC has its advantages, with the National Archives’ depositories of documents accessible to the public. With so much available online, it is easy to forget the feeling of holding a century-old document in one’s hand.  The paper might be yellow, brittle or creased, but in addition to the information it possesses, that piece of paper is a connection to the past. An ancestor’s hand passed across that same piece of paper.

A recent project had me accessing several record sets at the National Archives. Since my client also lives in DC, I brought him with me to the research room to view his third great-grandmother’s application for a Widow’s Pension after the death of her husband, a member of the U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War. The Widow’s Pension files can be a genealogical treasure trove, but in this case, they were more: connecting the Civil War to the present day.