Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 come to CHNM

The Center for History and New Media and the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University are pleased to announce the award of a grant from National Historical Publications and Records Commission to bring the innovative electronic archive Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 to Fairfax. Ultimately, the project will make more than 50,000 documents from the first decade and a half of the War Department’s history available to researchers, teachers, and students free of charge in a fully-searchable online database.

In the young nation’s early years, the War Department controlled more than 70 percent of the nation’s budget, was the largest consumer of fabric, clothing, food, medicine, and weapons in the country, and provided pensions to veterans, widows, and orphans. Nearly all the contact that early Americans had with their new federal government was through the War Department, making the records of the office a kind of “National Archives” of the young nation. Unfortunately, those documents were destroyed by fire in 1800; for years, scholars believed the entire collection to have been lost.

Mason’s involvement with Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 continues more than a decade of work reconstituting and archiving those records. That effort began at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania with the acquisition and digitization of copies of the War Department’s files that had been scattered across hundreds of repositories and archives. Over the course of several years, staff at ESU located copies of the files destroyed in the fire and converted them to digital images. Staff at CHNM are now in the process of entering sophisticated data about each of the documents into a database that will finally make these digital images fully searchable. The Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 are expected to make their first appearance online in 2007.


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