How many copies does it take?

Sometimes you just don’t realize what you are looking at. I was reviewing the Wolcott papers to make sure I put the right volume- and object-numbered document in the correct “folder” of the finding aid (just one step in the project funded by NHPRC to get our manuscripts online through Connecticut History Online). I kept seeing the words “duplicate” and “triplicate” along the top edge of letters dated 1795 in Amsterdam and addressed to the Treasury Department in the U.S.

In the upper left, you can see the word "Duplicate". The letter was "mailed" July 1795 and did not arrive until October.

In the upper left, you can see the word “Duplicate”. The letter was “mailed” July 1795 and did not arrive until October. Note that the original was conveyed through Hamburg.

It was only by the time I had gotten through three or four folders that I realized that, in 1795, you did not pick up the phone, hop on a plane, or use any technology we are so used to today. In 1795, you sent multiple copies of a document (all done by hand, mind you, in perfect script) via several different routes to ensure the message arrived. I imagine the ones marked “Quadruplicate” were by far the most important. Even then, some letters took months to arrive. What happened to other copies? Did they arrive too and just not get saved? Or did they have some misadventure?

Three copies of this letter were sent to the Treasury Department.

Three copies of this letter were sent to the Treasury Department and took seven months.

In this day and age when Secretary of State Kerry can be in Ukraine in a matter of hours, how does one even begin to fathom the pace of diplomacy in the 18th century? The issue resolved in 1795, to which this letter was a part, was commonly called the Jay Treaty. The treaty averted war between the young United States and Great Britain and stipulated the final withdrawal of British troops from forts in the Northwest Territory. Maybe having to take your time meant you had to think about what you were doing in a more methodical manner.

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“Book of letters”

One of my tasks in getting the Oliver Wolcott papers digitized and online is quality control—looking at each image to make sure it is clear and legible. I am up to box 18 (of 59!). When I got to the volumes of draft letters in box 16, I noticed the “docketing” on the reverse. It gave me some insight into how his office was run. Wolcott wrote his own letters, but then secretaries took those, copied them, and recorded each letter in a register of sorts. Then that information was written on the back of the page, as can be seen in this example. This letter was written to the Secretary of State and recorded in “Book of Letters No. 3 to Executive Officers.”

A check of the National Archives indicates that for the Department of the Treasury, there is an entire series of “Letters Sent”, including indexes and registers that are organized by the recipient—President, Cabinet Officers, Congress, Judiciary, etc. The indexes cover the years Wolcott was in office, but evidently registers from those years did not survive. Hmm, sounds like at some point I should make the trip to Washington to see these registers and indexes in person. I love learning new things!

Digitizing the Wolcott papers is being funded in part by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

A Who’s Who of the Early Republic

Working with the papers of Oliver Wolcott Jr. really is like reading a Revolutionary War/Early Republic who’s who, as I mentioned in my previous post about our grant-funded project. I keep running across letters to or from the likes of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster. Continue reading

George Washington’s Slave

Every once in a while I get a reference question that reinforces just how important our manuscript collections are. A woman from Vernon asked if we had the letter to Oliver Wolcott, Jr.  in which George Washington mentioned a runaway slave.  After a bit of searching, and using the finding aid to help guide me, I found it. I had no idea that this letter existed, although it has been published numerous times.

In the letter, dated 1 September [1796], Washington asked Wolcott to make some inquiries about a young slave girl who ran away from Philadelphia and was last seen in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The slave girl was the personal servant to Mrs. Washington, and he stated that they had raised her like a daughter and hence could not understand why she would want to run away. A transcription of the entire letter (3 pages) can be found in the book George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal, available online through Google Books.

Washington wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury, Connecticut resident Oliver Wolcott, saying he was sending a description of a runaway slave girl. Ms Wolcott, Oliver Jr.

Washington wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury, Connecticut resident Oliver Wolcott, saying he was sending a description of a runaway slave girl. Ms Wolcott, Oliver Jr.

Wolcott's letters were at one time pasted to slips of paper that were then bound into a book-like form. The strip is very visible here.

Wolcott’s letters were at one time pasted to slips of paper that were then bound into a book-like form. The strip is very visible here.

Wolcott’s papers arrived at CHS in 54 bound volumes plus several boxes of material, much of it gathered by a grandson of his, George Gibbs. On the first page of the letter illustrated above you can see a volume and item number written in the upper left corner. That mark was made when the volumes of correspondence were dis-bound, thus preserving the”original” organization.

Wolcott served as Secretary of The Treasury in 1795 and was later elected Governor of Connecticut. As I saw in once article I read about Wolcott, what the Adams family is to Massachusetts,the Wolcott family is to Connecticut. The Oliver Wolcott Jr. Papers is an extensive collection and shows just how important Connecticut was to the formation of the United States in the years just after the Revolution. Ask for the Oliver Wolcott Jr. Papers finding aid in the Research Center if you would like to begin exploring Connecticut’s early Federal period history.