“[T]he life of a Husbandman”1: Visualizing Agricultural Data from George Washington’s Financial Papers

by Prajeeth Kumar Koyada
February 24, 2017

As a student analyst for The Washington Papers, I have the opportunity to work on a variety of interesting tasks. One of these tasks includes figuring out how to make George Washington’s documents more accessible to the public.

For Washington’s financial records, this is especially important. While the records detail Washington’s purchases, and thus his belongings, it is difficult to gain deeper meaning from the records in their raw form. We could look at each document line-by-line—discovering that Washington bought twenty bushels of corn one day in 1790 and then sold four pounds of beef the next—but we do not gain any broad historical insight from such information. In order to see meaningful patterns and trends, we must look at the data as a whole.

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Complicating the Enemy: Samuel Roukin on Turn: Washington’s Spies

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
February 10, 2017

SamuelRoukin

Samuel Roukin is used to strangers coming up to him and saying, “I hate you.” And he loves it. Roukin has portrayed the villainous John Graves Simcoe on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies for three seasons, and the British officer is a character fans love to hate. “My job is to humanize,” says Roukin. “That means it’s working.”

Roukin studied history in his native England before moving to the United States a year prior to joining the cast of Turn. Unsurprisingly, the American Revolution was not a part of his curriculum. “In England, as a kid, you don’t get taught about the Revolution,” he says. “It didn’t have the same impact.” So, upon earning the role of Captain Simcoe, the actor sought to gain a deeper understanding of the era. As events appeared in the script, Roukin would delve into them using secondary and primary sources. He examined documents about the war and asked questions about everyday life of the era. “The Washington Papers was a source where I could pull out directly relevant documents,” he notes. In December 2016, he visited The Washington Papers offices for further insights into the documents. But on Turn, his job is to make the past come alive again, and research is only one part of making that connection. Once the cameras began rolling, the history books were set aside, and Roukin began creating a real person for the audience.

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The Simplicities and Intricacies of Indexing

By William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
February 2, 2017

Bill's blog postDocumentary editors strive to make their products as accessible as possible. Systematic transcription facilitates reading by converting handwritten manuscripts into printed pages. Numbered notes explain obscure references or allusions in the texts. Introductions and editorial essays draw larger connections or present rich background information. The index, however, arguably stands as the most important feature of a documentary work as far as providing access. Even users with no interest in the principal historical figure easily can find new, potentially useful items on people, places, and subjects.

But something like the modern book index appeared only in the late seventeenth century, and it was not until the later nineteenth century that an alphabetical index became a customary addition to any substantial publication.1 As with so much else over the past few decades, technology has eased the process of creating an index. Gone are boxes of cards and painful hours hunched over while recording, sorting, and alphabetizing the entries. Inputting data remains a tedious task, but the purely clerical dimensions of the endeavor now take seconds rather than days or weeks.

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More Than Meets the Eye

By Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
January 24, 2017

The common adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is often adapted into tale, the most popular of which is “Beauty and the Beast.” The timeless story opens on an old beggar woman seeking shelter from the storm at a prince’s castle. The prince, though noble and handsome, is also cruel and unkind. He dismisses the ugly old beggar woman, unaware she is a powerful sorceress. The sorceress transforms into her beautiful self and warns the prince not to be deceived by outer appearance. To instill this lesson, she turns the prince into a horrific beast, placing a curse upon his castle that can only be broken when he finds someone who will reciprocate his love despite his beastly appearance. Following a period of prolonged self-reflection and caring for others, the prince finally breaks the curse. This tale has engaged audiences across the world, blossoming into a beloved romance and children’s bedtime story. But the theatricality of “Beauty and the Beast” might divert the audience from its moral.

While searching for newspaper articles about Martha Washington, I came across a similar story in the Alexandria Gazette.

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A Documentary Dilemma: Editing the Farewell Address

January 17, 2017

Senior Editor David Hoth’s guiding principle in documentary editing is to display the evidence without influencing a reader’s conclusions. His current focus, George Washington’s Farewell Address, complicates that principle. This document is included in Presidential Series volume 20 and arguably is one of Washington’s most significant contributions to the institution of the U.S. presidency. Hoth’s research into its preparation led him to suggest that we “cannot assume what has always been assumed” of this document.

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George Washington’s First Victory

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
January 9, 2017

“It is with the greatest pleasure I inform you that on Sunday last, the 17th Instant, about 9 O’Clock in the forenoon, The Ministerial Army evacuated the Town of Boston, and that the Forces of the United Colonies are now in actual possession thereof. I beg leave to congratulate you Sir, & the honorable Congress—on this happy Event, and particularly as it was effected without endangering the lives & property of the remaining unhappy Inhabitants.”

General Washington sent this notice to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, from his headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 19, 1776. The long siege of British-occupied Boston was over. The letter was one the general had long hoped to send: his first victory dispatch to Congress. He had taken command of the Patriot army surrounding Boston in early July 1775, and he had dedicated all his effort since to achieving the result he reported to Hancock on March 19.

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What I learned from keeping an eighteenth-century correspondence in the twenty-first century

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
December 22, 2016

I understand that to many of our readers, the idea of writing handwritten letters to a friend is not so much a fun challenge as it is a (very recently) outmoded form of communication. But as someone who grew up in the computer age and spends most of her work hours reading and transcribing Martha Washington’s letters, I was inspired to write some of my own. I also hoped keeping a correspondence would provide me with a glimpse into the culture and practicalities of letter writing in the eighteenth century.

And so, I decided to write a letter every week for about a month to my friend Rachel, hoping this would help me reach a deeper affinity with Martha Washington and her correspondents.

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A Mount Vernon Democracy: The Popularized Image of George Washington’s Home

By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
December 10, 2016

More than just a man, George Washington is a symbol of our revolutionary spirit and democratic principles. Lydia Brandt, architectural historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, studies Mount Vernon, his home, to explore whether it holds similarly iconic status. In her new book, titled First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination, Brandt surveys Mount Vernon’s memory in the American imagination. Recently, she sat down with us to reflect on the results of her investigation.

Brandt’s interest in the subject was sparked when she began to notice replications of Mount Vernon. Soon after, friends affirmed her hunch, by finding Mount Vernon elsewhere: “People used to send me photos and postcards of buildings that looked like Mount Vernon.” But it was not until she began tracking all the various examples that she saw a pattern. The house had become a revered symbol, much like George Washington.

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Success!: Why the Supposed Ship on Which George Washington Sailed to Barbados Is Probably the Right One After All

By Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
December 8, 2016

Paul Sandby, View of Carlisle Bay, Barbados, with Ships and Boat, c.1820. Pen and ink drawing. Yale Center for British Art.

Paul Sandby, View of Carlisle Bay, Barbados, with Ships and Boat, c.1820. Pen and ink drawing. Image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art.

William Fairfax, first cousin of Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, had a son-in-law in the Barbados trade. John Carlyle, a Scottish-born Alexandria merchant, married his daughter Sarah Fairfax in 1747. George Washington was related. Lawrence Washington, his elder half-brother, married Sarah’s sister Ann in 1743. She and her husband resided at Mount Vernon, where George often stayed.

William Fairfax was the superintendent of Lord Fairfax’s estates in Virginia and a powerful landowner in his own right. He resided at Belvoir, only a few miles from Mount Vernon.1 Teenage George Washington frequented the house and found a patron and mentor in Fairfax. Why the invalid Lawrence decided to sail to Barbados in the fall of 1751, and George decided to accompany him, had much to do with the influence of William Fairfax. Fairfax was related by marriage to the eminent Clarke family on the island, with whom the Washington brothers would spend most of their time. It was Fairfax’s connection with Carlyle, however, that likely prompted when and how the Washingtons got to Barbados. He owned a ship, and she was about to set sail.

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“Strongly Attacked”: George Washington Encounters Smallpox

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
December 2, 2016

It may have started with a headache and a fever, or just a general feeling of malaise. It could have struck after a night’s rest, when his morning routine of rising from bed was painfully curtailed by a severe backache unlike any he’d experienced before. A chill running throughout his body—abnormal in the extreme heat of the tropical climate of Barbados—could have been the first signal that something wasn’t right. However the illness chose to first present itself, within a few days a rash appeared on his skin. Less than two days from their emergence, the eruptions grew and spread, covering his entire body.1 George Washington was only 19 years old. He was on an adventure in the West Indies, and he had smallpox.

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