Today’s blog was written by genealogist Renée K. Carl
As a genealogist with a background in cultural anthropology, I relish the research project that allows me to put information about a family into the context of the times. When a genealogist in Canada put out a call for assistance on a project regarding his ancestor’s role in the War of 1812, I took up the challenge, as he wanted to know who his ancestor was with, what he was doing, where and when events happened, in other words, anything and everything I could find.
The War of 1812 was, in many ways, a naval war. Many ships were captured by both sides, and the United States and Great Britain both employed the use of privateers to expand the reach of their navies. The warring countries also had to create a system with which to hold and exchange the many prisoners that resulted from the capture of vessels. Men, known as agents, worked in various port cities to secure the release and exchange of prisoners. The system needed careful record-keeping to track prisoner exchange, which eventually resulted in a document that is located in the Registers of British Prisoners of War, 1812–1815 (NAID 1807650) series, from Record Group 45 Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library.
The researcher in Canada asked me to find the names of all the 25 men aboard a British-flagged merchant vessel captured by the US Navy. The prisoner registers are in two volumes, with the first volume much larger than the second. Entries 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.
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. He was taken to New Orleans and on 29 July 1813, “Sold for the Benefit of the Captors.” Seven men were also sold on 29 July 1813 in New Orleans: James Baptiste, Thomas Clarke, Bristol Clarke, Sharper Forbes, Ranter Forbes, Thomas Forbes and Prince William Henry.
Upon careful examination, it seems that this sheet might have once been bound in the volume, but time had made the paper brittle and it was now loose. There were several other, similar sheets also in the back of volume one, but still bound. There remained one essential difference between the sheets: the slaves listed on the other sheets specifically mentioned that they had been delivered back to an agent.
So many questions. Who was J Beerce? What drove his decision to save this document? On that list of 47 men, why were some men marked Black, others Negro? How was it determined that some men were slaves? Were these men slaves from British colonies in the Caribbean? Were they escaped American slaves? How was it determined that certain men would be sold? And to whom were they sold and could their fate be traced?
As the list of questions in my mind grew, I took a deep breath at this research project that I didn’t know existed, but that I couldn’t pass up. I also realized that I needed to stop thinking like a genealogist and start think like an archivist, and think about the documents in the context of the Archives and the record group in which they were found.
End page prisoner tally detail (NAID 1807650)
The two volume register is almost certainly a copy of other lists. On the last page of volume one the same Mr. Beerce stated “This catelogue [sic] of British Prisoners of War has been completed as far as I could find materials in the office.” Signed, 9 May 1818. That would account for the semi-alphabetical order, and lack of date order. It might also explain why some letters of the alphabet ran over to the second volume. That the register is a copy quite likely explains the 47 men on a separate list at the end.
New questions arise: from what material did Mr. Beerce make the list? Who was Mr. Beerce? In what office did he work? Could any of those papers still exist? Would they have more information on these men? If so, where would I find the papers at the Archives?
[This blog is the first in a series as Renée Carl explores and shares her research on this document]