Published date: 24 August 2012

The War of 1812 features prominently in the history of the United States, especially in this bi-centenary year. But it is much less well-known in the UK, overshadowed by events closer to home.

In the US, the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the National Archives and Records Administration are collaborating in a major project to digitise pension files from the war, but every conflict has two sides, and there are also many records in The National Archives. Audrey Collins looks at some of them; the men who took part in the conflict, including many prisoners on both sides, and a wealth of background material.

Audrey Collins is a Family History Specialist at The National Archives, and she has been interested in genealogy for over 25 years. She speaks at many genealogical events, in the UK and overseas, including several major conferences in the United States. As a result she has developed a particular interest in records held in the UK that will be of use to American researchers.

Author: Audrey Collins Duration: 52:49

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Thank you. The War of 1812 from the British side. This is not going to be a partisan speech on how the British won because who won that war is still very much a matter of contention – I’m not going there. But every year has its own significant anniversaries, and this year being the bicentenary of the War of 1812 is a very big deal in the United States. In fact, two years ago the Federation of Genealogical Societies started off an appeal to raise funds to preserve the pensions of the War of 1812. And, from their press release they actually put it rather well why this is so significant to Americans. So:

‘The War of 1812, often referred to as America’s Second War for Independence, significantly shaped this country’s identity, both internationally and domestically. Many remember the War of 1812 as the war that gave us the Star Spangled Banner, and the burning of the White House. Some of the great leaders of our country, including three presidents, took part in this conflict. Nearly 300,000 men served including members of at least 18 Native American tribes.’

The significance of the war was, people have said that before that war, they would say ‘the United States are,’ and then afterwards ‘the United States is.’ – 13 colonies still didn’t agree on absolutely everything, but they were a nation. America felt it was a nation from then on.

So this was the start of preserving these pensions of which there are many, many thousands of documents. There are more than 7.2 million documents, 180,000 files at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington. So you can see what a very, very significant event this is.

Now, an American friend of mine – a genealogist friend, who specialises in military research and is particularly interested in this period – said to me a few years ago ‘War of 1812, what do you Brits call it over there?’. And I had to break it to him gently that, well, for the most part, we don’t really call it anything at all! He took it very well, I have to say. And the reason is that it was part of a much bigger conflict from where Britain was sitting.

There is an argument you could say that the whole of the Napoleonic war period was the first true world war because the British and the French were fighting each other all over the place. They were fighting mainly in Europe, and over most of Europe. They’d also been fighting in India, North Africa, and, by this time, in the West Indies and now in the North American colonies.

For the first two years of the war… it was the War of 1812 but it actually went on until 1815, even though the peace treaty had been signed in 1814. No Twitter, no internet, no telephones, so the last major battle of the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans, was actually fought after the war had ended. It’s just that nobody knew that. So it was a very strange war in all sorts of ways.

And from the British point of view, this was a bit of a sideshow. Understandably enough, the big enemy was Napoleon and the French. And France being our nearest neighbour (it really is only a very short distance across the Channel), I’m sure it feels a very long way for people who are crazy enough to swim it. But really, in terms of getting on a boat and crossing the Channel, it’s a near neighbour. And the threat of invasion was very, very real. So Britain is always going to be a lot more concerned, first of all about its home and the threat just a few miles away across the Channel, and then secondly, it’s going to be concerned about looking after its own colonial possessions.

So the War of 1812 was really almost two wars, if you like. Now, it takes two to make a quarrel. And as well as the 300,000 Americans, give or take, a lot of other people were involved. Well, the British Army, obviously, and the Navy, and the Royal Marines, and then a whole lot of merchant ships and privateers, and well, a merchant ship is a privateer depending on your point of view, really. I think the idea is that you refer to the other side’s merchant shipping as privateers, that seems to be the rule. And then there were a number of civilians – people who were just unfortunate. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught up in it.

Now, I’m mainly going to be talking about records here in The National Archives, and goodness knows, we’ve got plenty of it. Although…as a war, it doesn’t register very, very high on our radar – we say 1812, we think of the 1812 Overture. Or, for the really geeky genealogists among us, you might think ‘oh, Rose’s Act for the better keeping of parish registers,’ but that really is a bit extreme.

But whatever it is, the War of 1812 probably does not loom very large. But, because it involved the Army and the Navy and the Marines, and so on and so on, we at The National Archives have a lot of records relating to it, although if you do a catalogue search or a website search for ‘War of 1812,’ you’re not going to find anything. You have to know a little bit about the background or the context to make any sense of finding records.

And I do sound like a stuck record, but I always have to remind people when they’re searching that we’re not a library; we’re an archive. We don’t have records arranged neatly according to subject. We have things arranged according to the government department or agency that created them, or collected them. So, for any given subject, you’re going to have to look in a lot of different places. And sometimes that’s easy to do, and sometimes it takes a little bit of creative imagination.

Now, there is an awful lot that I’m not going to cover because it was quite a lot of war, it’s quite a lot of records. But I want to show a little bit about what you might be able to find out about individuals on the British side, and what some people may be more surprised to find, we have an awful lot of records about individuals who fought on the American side.

Now, I’ll start with a fairly obvious one, which is the Army. There was a lot of regiments of the British Army, probably something in excess of 30, who fought in the War of 1812 or the War of 1812-15 in North America. Now, for the first two years of the war – in fact, a bit more than two years – most of the action was taking place in what is now Canada because that was the priority for the British Army. Well, the real priority was defending Britain and defeating Napoleon in Europe. And at the end of 1814, that was achieved, and Napoleon was cooling his heels on the Isle of Elba before he figured out how to escape.

So, Britain could then turn its attention to this troublesome conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Now, when my friend asked me about this and I said it really didn’t register very high, I went and had a look at a history book I happened to have. It’s a full volume, Short History of the English People, but there does seem to be an awful lot about Scots and Irish and colonials in there, but they still call it ‘English’ without a trace of irony. And, in this full volume history, something called ‘The American War’ gets a couple of pages. And this is, I think it’s a late 19th century publication…at the very latest it will be an early 20th century one, and I should have checked on the date before, but it’s…1894, there. It says:

‘England’s…’ (Note ‘England!’ It should say ‘Britain,’ but it says here ‘England’. So I have to read this) ‘England’s triumph over its enemy was dashed by the more doubtful fortunes of the struggle across the Atlantic. The declaration of war by America seemed an act of sheer madness, for its navy consisted of a few frigates and sloops, its army was a mass of half-drilled and half-armed recruits, while the states themselves were divided on the question of the war, and Connecticut with Massachusetts refused to send either money or men. Three attempts to penetrate into Canada during the summer and autumn were repulsed with heavy loss.’

And it does actually go on to say, with some fairness ‘but these failures were more than redeemed by unexpected successes at sea’. Now that really, really hurt Britain. The Royal Navy being defeated! So, it goes on and it gives a bit of an account of the war. But the short version is that the fighting was mainly taking place in Canada because that was the priority to defend the remaining British colonies in North America.

Once Napoleon was safely under lock and key, an expeditionary force was sent, and this was quite an interesting lot. There were various soldiers there – there were Royal Marines, there were bits of the Royal Artillery, including the Rocket Brigade, I believe. So, this new expeditionary force was sent out to see to these wretched former colonials. And that’s when they, the British Army, went and made a terrible mess of Washington. As I said earlier on, I don’t feel so bad about burning the White House because if we hadn’t burnt it, they wouldn’t have had to paint it white and make it all lovely and shiny and iconic to cover up the scorch marks. But I do feel a bit bad about burning the Library of Congress.

So, it’s only for the very later period of the war, and really the war was pretty much over by the time the troops got there, it’s just they didn’t know it. It’s only in that later period that you actually get fighting in what is now the United States, and honours were even really, I suppose because the British went and trashed Washington and burnt it and did an awful lot of serious looting and damage. It was not a glorious episode, but the Americans got their own back at the Battle of New Orleans. And they even wrote songs about it. Although this, of course, was the battle that took place after the peace had been signed.

So, you may well have a soldier ancestor who served in that war and you may have assumed that they were in the Peninsular because that’s where an awful lot of the British Army was. But it is just possible he may have been in one of those regiments, or units, or the Rocket Brigade that was sent out to North America right at the end of 1814.

And, one of the things that I’d always recommend you to do in your searching – you’ve got a soldier or sailor ancestors – don’t just be satisfied with finding something like this [shows image], his pension record. These are nicely online in FindMyPast, and they’re very easy to get, and the record series is WO 97, and these are soldiers who left to pension. But don’t be satisfied with that. If you go through all the musters, you find out a lot more information about what your soldier was doing day by day, because you may not get that information on the pension record. And certainly in these very early ones, they don’t have anything like as much information as the much later ones.

And I picked this one out. I thought it was quite a good name for a conflict in North America: John Adams. And, if you’ve got really good eyesight, you will be able to read that John Adams, Private John Adams, was born in the parish of Philadelphia. And yes, that is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

I wasn’t really expecting this but I found when I started looking, quite a number of men who were born in the United States, and when it was the United States – men who were born after 1776 or even after 1783. So they were definitely, definitely Americans, but serving in the British Army. There are not huge numbers of them, but I thought it was quite interesting that there were any at all because one of the great bones of contention, one of the reasons for the war – certainly what Americans will tell you – was the Royal Navy pressing men into service who were Americans, and the Royal Navy claimed that they were not Americans. And, well they may be, they may not have been. And lots of historians – proper historians – have researched and argued about this in print, with footnotes and references, and if you want to know all the ins and outs of the war, go and read one of their books, don’t listen to me because I don’t know a huge amount about that side of it, but I do know about records relating to individuals.

And this man I thought was quite interesting, that he was an American born in Philadelphia, and he joined the British Army. And what I thought was particularly interesting was that he actually enlisted in Waterford. I was thinking perhaps he went, you know, he joined in Halifax or somewhere else in Canada. But no, he was in Ireland, and I’m not quite sure how he got to Ireland, but he was not alone, there were quite a number who did this, but there’s a nice little PhD for somebody somewhere.

The other interesting thing about this man that you may be able to see from the bottom of the same page, where you have his physical description, is that he has ‘black hair, black eyes, and black complexion.’ So he was African-American. And, again, he was not the only one. So, I picked this, just because it was interesting, but there are any number of these for English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish soldiers, particularly an awful lot of Irish. So if you have a soldier ancestor who was serving around about that time, it may be worth finding out if he fought in this rather ‘unwanted war,’ as my history book refers to it somewhere else.

And this is an example [shows image], it doesn’t show the man or the other document, but this is an example of a different regiment. John Adams was in the 104th regiment, this happens to be from the 85th, for no particular reason, but this was a regiment that served in the War of 1812, and this is the muster and pay list. And it can take you quite a while to go through all of these but it’s definitely worth doing because you do pick up little bits of information. You get all the little petty infringements, the drunk and the disorderly and the minor illnesses and so forth that you may not get on a service record, particularly on those early ones, and you can see exactly where people are.

And there you can see – you’ve got the list of men – it actually starts with the senior NCOs, and then it goes down through the ranks, and then when you get the privates, you get pages and pages of those. So it’s quite easy to follow your man through because at least the really big list with the privates, they’re in alphabetical order, so they’re fairly quick to find. But that’s the sort of thing – it’s not difficult to do, but it can seem a little bit tedious, but it is definitely worth doing because you will pick up little nuggets of information you might not get anywhere else.

Now, if your man was an officer – and I’m sure not everybody is like me and descended from the ‘riff-raff’ or ‘the scum of the Earth’ or whatever it was Wellington called his own army – tracing officers is different. There are good records for officers but they’re kept quite differently to the records for ordinary men, but…this man here, and I’m afraid I don’t know how to pronounce his surname because I’ve never come across it before, it’s G-l-e-i-g. He was born in Scotland, so I’m guessing it was a Scottish name, but as a genealogist I know to never assume.

And, he was actually not in the Army for all that long. He served as a junior officer, then he left and he went into the Church. And he also became a writer. And he wrote a narrative of the campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans under Generals Ross, Pakenham and Lambert in the years 1814 and [18]15. So, as far as he was concerned, it was 1814 and [18]15 because that’s when he went out… in fact with the 85th regiment.

And the book – you can actually download that from Google Books. I didn’t put a URL on there because it would have been about a page and a half long! So the way to find it is to go to Google Books, go to the advanced search and in the field for the author’s name, just put in his surname because it’s so lovely and rare, you only get a few results. And they’re all for other books that he wrote. So, that’s how you can get an account of that particular campaign – a contemporary account. And if you had someone who served in the Army, that would definitely be an interesting thing to read. I don’t suppose your ancestor will be mentioned in there by name, but if you really want a blow-by-blow account of what was going on, that would be an excellent place to go.

This is another very useful resource that we have: the Army List [shows image]. The Army List is very heavily used. We have the bound volumes on the shelves here, but we also have a set which is online. And, these are on our digital records, which you can download free. And this particular copy is something we had on microfilm for a long time and wasn’t all that much consulted, but I think this is wonderful because this is actually the War Office copy; it’s not a normal, printed copy. You can see here that you’ve got the printed page with, in this case, the officers from the 85th regiment, and Mr Gleig is on there somewhere.

But there’s lots of annotations, but not just on the printed page, but on the blank page opposite, and that’s how these army lists are throughout. You have a printed page and a blank page. It was the working copy for the War Office. So if you’re interested in the Army List, in particular for finding out details about officers, you can see that this is annotated as it goes along.

You can see someone there has crossed out ‘killed,’ and then other people who are promoted, so they’re crossed out as lieutenants, and then they’re described as being captains, and you’ve got all the promotions and the new appointments on the other page. So, I’m not a military historian, I’m really not interested in military history, but I think this is just brilliant. So, this is somewhere else where you can find out about what was going on, and you can look at the dates there, these handwritten annotations of when people were promoted. You can see when it was and it was in autumn 1814, in the case of most of the entries on this page.

So, that’s a resource. It’s actually in a record series WO 65, and you can search for that using our catalogue, Discovery. And you search on…our online records – the digitised records – and you can find that. If I have time at the end, I will show you how that works. But there he is, there’s our officer, and a whole lot of other officers there. Unfortunately, army lists at this time don’t give you the locations of the regiments – they do much later on – but it’s still pretty interesting.

And this is back to the muster and pay list. We saw the page that had the, all the NCOs and the other ranks, and this is a page which shows all…the stoppages for the officers, this is their mess bills. And our man, GR Gleig, there he is, there, so the officers do appear in there. Muster lists by the way are very interesting to look at, not just for finding your man, muster by muster, but the supplementary pages can often be useful. You will often get lists of the people who joined during that period or who were off on a detachment somewhere, or whose name needed to be recorded for some accounting reason or other. So that’s a nice example of the muster that you’ve got the officers and you’ve got the men on there for different reasons.

Now, so that was a bit about the Army. But of course the Navy also had a big presence, especially since the American Navy was proving so unexpectedly troublesome. And, like the Army, the Navy kept musters as well. Now, most of the Army musters are in the series that I’ve listed there, WO 12. That is relatively straightforward. There are lots of other useful supplementary records.

With the navy, it’s a little bit more complicated. But in principle, you get the same kinds of documents. You have musters, you have ships’ musters, and there are slightly different types of those, and some of them will list literally every person on board a ship. If it’s a victualling muster and they need to know the names of every single person, the number of people there, because they need to be fed. You will not just get the ship’s complement, you won’t just get the officers and the sailors. You will get any Royal Marines that happen to be there. You will get soldiers, or any other random passengers, and you may even get some prisoners.

So, Navy musters need to be looked at a little bit more carefully. And if you can find one which lists every single person on board the ship, you may find a lot more there than you bargained for, so just because your ancestor wasn’t a sailor, doesn’t mean they won’t necessarily be on a ship’s muster. So, that’s another thing that’s useful to look at.

As well as musters, of course, ships have logs, and again there are different kinds of logs. There are captains and masters’ logs, and my very favourite, the surgeons’ journals. These are absolutely terrific. You can see from that [shows image]. I’ll be astonished if anybody can read that because I’m standing really close to it and I can’t read it. But that’s a surgeon’s journal and these are in the series ADM 101. And these are exactly what they say. This is the reports made by the surgeons of all the instances of injuries and sickness on board, who these people were, what was wrong with them, as you can see in a lot of detail. Now, if you want to look at that, read that, one of these, you will probably need a medical dictionary and a strong stomach. And you probably don’t want to do it just after you’ve eaten, either. But it does go into quite phenomenal amount of detail.

Now, one of the things on there that you will not be able to read is in the left-hand column where you get the names, and each one of these entries is for one single person, so you get a whole lot of casenotes – many, many lines, there. The first two there are on this ship, which is the Shannon…are American prisoners. So, if they were ill or sick, they still had to be treated – even if though they were enemies and you might not like them very much, but if they had something catching, you would probably wanted to cure them. And then a bit lower down there is a private from the Royal Marines.

But the surgeon’s journals are absolutely wonderful. Now, some of these are indexed. This is the other caveat when you are using archives, is that we have an awful lot of wonderful, wonderful information in documents where the description that you get in the catalogue is extremely brief. There are others, however, that have been catalogued to a great level of detail. And there are a lot of records in these various admiralty classes that have got very good indexing in the catalogue. This is going on all the time, so it is often worth going back and searching again – there is nothing wrong with doing a Hit-and-Hope search – putting a name in and seeing if something comes up. And, particularly in these ADM classes, there are so many cataloguing projects going on that if you repeat that search again after a few weeks, maybe after a year, and you may find things that weren’t there before because, trust me, you should see, there are lots of people sitting in the staff reading room with their heads down, typing like fury, and getting a lot of this stuff catalogued. But the surgeons’ journals – and if you can stand it – make very good reading.

[Shows image] This is another page from the same journal, and it is just a list of American prisoners. It doesn’t tell you anything very much about each of them, but it is a list of names, and sometimes a list of names is better than nothing. And there are pages and pages of these. I think this particular ship had about 90 or so prisoners on board, but there’s lots and lots of records there and for one of them – this one is relatively readable, and it isn’t too, too disgusting. I mean, you’ve got smallpox: ‘smallpox of the confluent kind.’ I don’t know what that is, I’m quite happy to leave it at that and not find out any more. But that’s quite a note about an American prisoner called Nicholas Noble, and it did have a, well, a fairly happy ending. He recovered ‘gradually’. Of course I don’t know what happened to him after that, but at least when he was sick, he recovered from his smallpox.

But although those records – that list I just showed you – doesn’t tell you a very great deal about the American prisoners, we do have some records that do. Series ADM 103 has got lots and lots of information about prisoners. Some of them are French, as here, and American, and various other nationalities. But there is an awful lot about them. The series actually covers a much longer period than just the War of 1812.

And, again, this is a large document. Nobody without the eyesight of a hawk would be able to read any of it, but you can see that there are a lot of column headings there. And for each of these men, you do get a tremendous amount of information. You get the man’s name, you will usually get his age, his rank, birthplace, and a physical description, marks or wounds, in fact, probably a bit more information than you will often get on a service record for someone serving in the Army or the Navy.

And then, details about what happened to them. On this particular page, there is a column that says ‘dis’ (which is short for discharged), ‘dead,’ or ‘run.’ And the abbreviation – all of these ones are ‘d’ for discharged – but what you will usually get is ‘d’ for discharged, ‘dd’ means ‘discharged, dead,’ and ‘r’ means ‘run’, ie, deserted, or escaped, in case of prisoners, escaped. So a tremendous amount of information there about lots and lots of prisoners, and although these are not indexed by name on the catalogue, they are indexed.

We have a wonderful range of things here sometimes called ‘additional finding aids.’ And one of my very favourites is the additional finding aid for this part of ADM 103. And it’s in this big, red book – this is the series list for ADM 103. The series list itself takes up a few pages, but most of this volume, which I’m telling you is very heavy, so probably about three inches thick, it’s lists of names. It’s an index of names.

And these are abstracted by…Captain Ira Dye, an American. Retired from the US Navy, died in 2006, but at some point, and I’m not sure when, he spent a long time here, or possibly even in Chancery Lane, if it was long enough ago, I don’t know. And he prepared this wonderful index, which we used to have on computer printout (that thin, stripy paper with the notches at the side, so anybody who worked in an office in the 1970s will be very familiar with that). This has actually now been put into proper, sensible paper, but we’ve only got it in paper form.

He produced this index, and there was a very good explanation of how to use it in the front of the book, and a breakdown from some of the figures, which was very, very interesting, and it tells you about the sort of information that you’ll get in there. And that’s an example [shows image], that’s just the top half of the first page, showing some men starting with ‘A.’ He has a code number – you need to translate that using the instructions in the book.

He also, I notice, uses the American way of expressing dates, in number form, which is month, day and year. Oh, well! [laughter]. I’m inclined to forgive that because this is just a fantastic job of work. [Audience member asks: ‘did that happen after the war?’] I have no idea exactly when he did this but…[Audience member: ‘I meant the change of month and day?’] I have no idea. He did this wonderful, wonderful piece of work, and we have a paper copy of it.

I have found that there is a small number of microfiche copies. I think there is a set of microfiche in the Bodleian Library, and I searched on WorldCat, which searches across libraries worldwide, or very, very many of them are in North America, and there do seem to be a few copies in some American libraries. But other than that, this index is not the most accessible thing in the world, although it’s very accessible when you’re here.

So, you can just tell by that first half of the first page, and we’re only down as far as David Abbott, that’s a lot of names. And we’ve got ages, state where born, the ship where they were captured or – wonderful names, there, the Rattlesnake, the Thrasher, the Frolic, the Vivid – and then their rank and the date when they were captured, so it’s a fantastic amount of information. And as he says in his introduction, there is often a lot more information in the record itself than is in the index, so it’s very well worth looking at. And, of course, you would probably see groups of men who’d all been captured together, been on the same ship. But, that’s a wonderful thing.

Now, another thing that the Navy kept records of – and you will only get this when they are actually at war, or doing some ‘policing action,’ well you could call it, kindly: prize money. If you’re on a Royal Navy ship and you captured somebody else’s ship, the prize money got divvied up among the whole crew. Obviously, the captain and the officers got bigger shares, but everybody got something. And this is in series ADM 238…you can look up on the index if you know a ship that your ancestor served on, whether or not it was in this particular war or not. It’s quite easy to look it up on the catalogue, and see if there are any prize lists.

So, you might find that your sailor ancestor maybe got a bonus of something like, well 9/6. That’s quite a lot of money 200 years ago, not to be sneezed at. And, you have a record there [shows image] – this is just one sample page – and this is just for ordinary seamen there. And a couple of these here are marked as ‘unclaimed.’ And, with two of them, you can see exactly why it was unclaimed because there is the big capital ‘R,’ which means they are ‘run,’ ie: deserted. So, they decided that their freedom from the Navy was worth more than the 9/6 prize money. But that’s the sort of record that you might not automatically think of looking in.

And, of course, it also has the names of the ships that were captured. So, if your ancestor was on the American side, it might be worth looking just to see if they were involved, or if their ship was involved, and if their ship was captured, then maybe they were taken prisoner. So, somebody whose fate you did not know of might fetch up one of our many, many records of prisoners, French and American prisoners.

And they ended up all over the place; some of them were in the West Indies, which made a lot of sense because the British had a very large presence in the West Indies, but equally, a lot of them were shipped home. There were lots of American prisoners in Dartmoor, for example. If you look in detail at the listings for that series ADM 103 that has all the prisoners in, you will see that some of them are arranged according to location and some of them are according to the nationality of the prisoners. There are actually a lot more records than men because if a prisoner was moved, a new record would be started. So…I think there were about 9,000 prisoners altogether, I think was Captain Dye’s estimate. That’s an awful lot of Americans, and it’s an awful lot of information, and I bet that most Americans wouldn’t have thought of looking in our records to find their American ancestors.

We do have American researchers here, researching this war. I know because we’ve seen them. And…there are plenty of books being written that cite sources here. But I think your average American family historian is probably not very aware of these records.

Now, that was something about the people in the services. And I mention the Army and the Navy, but obviously you have people who are in the Royal Marines, as well. No Air Force, though – at least, I don’t think so! I don’t think they even had the balloons by then. So, those are the records that you might want to look at. Don’t think ‘War of 1812’, think ‘who might have been involved in it?’ People in the Army, people in the Navy, people in the Royal Marines and so on.

But, of course, I also mentioned merchant shipping and civilians, and people on merchant ships were civilians, as well. And people get caught up in wars. Merchant…shipping is often very difficult to track down because, certainly in this period, there’s not really any reason why the government should know very much about merchant shipping. It’s before we had the Board of Trade wanting people to be registered for this and that.

So, merchant shipping doesn’t have a nice one-stop-shop like the fabulous records that the Admiralty kept for absolutely everything. But, merchant ships do crop up if they are taken as prizes, and as they are enemy ships, there would probably be referred to as privateers because, rather than ordinary, innocent, law-abiding, going about their business, merchant shipping. So, you may find references, and these would be in something like Colonial Office, or Foreign Office.

Now, Colonial Office, you think ‘well, why might it be Colonial Office because the United States was very definitely not a colony then.’ No, it wasn’t, but this extract here [shows image] is from Colonial Office correspondence for Barbados. And this particular one – I could have picked any number of things, there’s lots and lots of letters about all sorts of things – this is about an unfortunate American gentleman called Eli Magruder. And he had been serving his country. He had been serving as some sort of diplomat or attaché in ‘the Brazils’. (I though there was only one Brazil, but I’m prepared to be corrected on that.) I mean that’s what the correspondence says.

And, he was down there, and he didn’t much like it, so he decided to head back home towards the United States. And, logically enough, he passed through the West Indies. Well, it’s right on the way. And there was always a great deal of business to be done. If you didn’t die of yellow fever, there was a lot of possibilities for making money, so there was a tremendous amount of trade and business, you know. If you were prepared to take the risk, you could make serious money. And I think that’s probably what Mr Magruder decided: ‘this is a better place to be.’ So he stayed there and he was some sort of trader [or] merchant, it’s not entirely clear. ‘Agent’ for this and that. And… he was doing just fine, and then of course when his country waged war on our country, he suddenly discovered he was an enemy alien. So he got himself rounded up and there was a great deal of correspondence about him and lots of other people (I picked him more or less at random). I thought it was rather a good name, but there was lots and lots of correspondence about individual cases.

And they do figure people exactly like this…a civilian who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I thought this was a nice example because it’s in Colonial Office correspondence. You will get the same sort of thing, I’m sure, if you start looking at Canada, which was obviously still a colony, as well. And, you get all the people who are just the casualties of war, not the physical casualties, but the financial and legal casualties of war. So that’s a series that is worth looking at, and it’s not the only one.

When I said you find records in all kinds of records series, there are the obvious ones, the Army and the Navy. But there are all kinds of other series, no matter what you’re looking for – doesn’t even have to be this period, doesn’t have to be about a war, doesn’t have to be foreign – Treasury is always worth a look.

Nobody can do anything unless the Treasury let them have the money, so you would be amazed just what fetches up in Treasury records. And I have found quite a lot of things by doing catalogue searches. Bearing in mind, of course, that these records are not catalogued to the nth degree, so I’ve done, kind of, pot-luck searches. But if you actually look in more detail, and think about it harder, you will probably find a very great deal more.

But just the stuff I’ve found in catalogue searches turn out to be amazing, and the other one is Probate. Now, not all probate records are in the PROB series, but you will find things like the wills of people who were normally resident in England and Wales, but who died overseas. Regardless of where they lived back in this country, or how much money they had, their wills are always going to be proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, and not in a local court. So, you will find in there the wills, very often, of soldiers and sailors.

So if you had a soldier or sailor who was involved in that conflict, you might find their will in the PCC. Very many of these men come from families that you would not expect to leave wills, and their landlubber brothers on a similar level of income probably didn’t. But soldiers and sailors are more likely to have left wills, and they will…be in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

We also have series in Admiralty collections in ADM of deceased sailors’ wills, so that is something else that is worth looking at. Foreign Office, well I’ve already mentioned. I haven’t gone into that in detail, but if you look in the Foreign Office, once America/United States became an independent country, it became the responsibility of the Foreign Office rather than the Colonial Office, so we have lots of records to do with the correspondence between the two countries and the diplomatic relations. Now an awful lot of this is high-level stuff – it’s government-to-government negotiations, but again you will still get correspondence down to…a lower, personal level. You will get correspondence about individual cases. You never quite know what you’re going to find in Foreign Office, and it’s often worth having a look.

Treasury Solicitor’s another favourite of mine. Not so much in there, but it’s one of those series I always like to have a look in. And I had done a couple of catalogue searches to justify putting this in, but…this is where you get legal arguments about the status of somebody who is in, again, probably a civilian caught up in some part of this conflict, whether it’s an American in Britain, or a British person in America, or some unfortunate person like Mr Magruder. All sorts of things might be in there.

Maps: I haven’t put a series down for maps because we have maps in many, many different series. Lots of them have been extracted from records from War Office, or Foreign Office, and then taken out – physically taken out because they need to be conserved and kept differently. We have a number of maps which were folded up within smaller written documents, and they’ve now been taken out, and are stored flat, and we have lots and lots of different maps series.

The good news is, though, that anything that is a map, does have ‘map’ as part of its catalogue description. So, no matter what series it’s in, if you do catalogue searches (say for a particular place, within a date range, and just put the word ‘map’ in your search), that will find any maps that we know about. There are still going to be maps that are hiding in documents that we haven’t found yet, but there are many, many that have been taken out, and I’ve certainly seen some very nice ones.

They’re rather difficult to photograph because they’re extremely big, and they’re not easy to photograph, even with the nice camera stands that we have. You still can’t get the camera up high enough, but they’re absolutely wonderful to look at. And some of them are quite small-scale maps covering a wide area. But others are down to really detailed maps, or plans, really, of military encampments; down to a tremendous level of detail; showing individual buildings in quite a lot of detail. So, that’s something that’s always worth looking at if you have an ancestor who served in a particular place, there may be a plan of that particular fort. And if your ancestor was on the American side and you have found out that they were taken prisoner, and were held in a particular fort, then that’s going to be of interest to you, though for slightly different reasons.

[Shows image] One incredibly useful source, which I used to find some of the things that I alluded to in this talk, is a volume in Lists and Indexes. (I realise that Roman numerals actually don’t work terribly well in the Arial typeface – they look very silly. They work much better in Times Roman. But I put it in Roman numerals because that’s how it appears on the spine of the book.) Now, Lists and Indexes, which this is one, we have these, we’ve got a number of copies of these – the whole run of them in the library, and we do have a few others, as well. (This one sits close to the desk of a colleague who’s on holiday this week, put it that way!)

And this, Volume 53 in Lists and Indexes, is a tremendous source for War Office and other military records. And it’s arranged by topic, and very often that topic is a place. So you can look at, for example, as I did ‘North America,’ and ‘North America’ is divided into different time periods. So I looked at the one that is post-1783 after we recognised America’s independence. And there are just some tremendous documents in here. Most of them are in War Office series, but not all of them.

There are some that…are in, again, Colonial Office and Foreign Office, even some of them that are in Home Office, but it’s a tremendous source. If you’re looking for absolutely anything at all to do with the military – any period, anywhere, really, but I found it extremely useful for finding a number of documents – some of them have lists of names in, and some of them don’t. But, if you have a…wider interest, and you’re interested in the conduct of the war and the background, then that’s a really useful book. And if you’re doing family history, it’s very, very good for context, and also for giving you some clues as to documents that have got lists of names in – mainly in War Office series. And I don’t think I would have been able to find anything like the number of things I have found. (I’ve got lots that I still need to follow up – I’ve got a photocopy of some relevant pages there with lots of yellow highlighter things…that’s on the to-do list with about 183 other things.)

What you really need to do is look for guidance. Don’t think ‘War of 1812’, think of the kind of person or the kind of record that might be relevant. I’ve given you some suggestions there with some of the series. But, what you really should do is look in the general guidance. That will explain to you what can be quite a complicated business – it’s a fairly long guide and this stuff’s all free, so it’s worth going to before you spend money on books.

The Admiralty kept fantastically detailed records, and an awful lot of those are in an enormous series called ADM 1. A series that is…letters and then ‘1’ is often a really, really big series. And the way into it, in the case of the Navy…is to use the subject and name indexes in ADM 12. And these are the indexes and finding aids that the Navy created for themselves. It is not a five minute job explaining how that works, but if you’re really interested in naval history, then that is something that you would do well to get to grips with. And that is how you will find a lot of things.

There are some printed digests as well that will help you a bit with that. But it’s what I call ‘the archival two-step,’ where you’ve got a series of records, and then you’ve got the index or the finding aid that was created to go with them. And unless or until the original records get the full-on digitisation treatment, the way into them is to look at the manuscript index’s digest and what-have-you first, and then find your way into them. There’s quite a number of series do that, not just the Navy, but that’s probably the biggest and the most amazing.

So that’s some guidance where you can find out about these subjects, and you can repeat the process, you could go and look at Army and find out all about what the Army was doing, how to find musters, how to find records for individual soldiers and so on and so on.

And for the other series that I mentioned…look for how to search in Colonial Office correspondence. You can also, when you’re here, ask my colleagues who are on the military and naval or the, what we call ‘diplomatic and colonial teams’, who know about these records way better than I do. And there is an awful lot there that you can learn for yourself.

But the key is don’t think ‘War of 1812’. Think people, think places, get to know and love the new catalogue. It will be worth the effort. And remember that some things are catalogued in great detail, and some things aren’t. And sometimes the things that aren’t catalogued in very much detail have got some amazing stuff in. You just need to work a little bit harder to find it. And I’m sure there are all sorts of wonderful goodies in there about the War of 1812 that certainly that I haven’t found, and probably some things that nobody’s found. So order stuff up. Have a look at it. You might be the one to make the discovery.

Thank you very much for listening, and I’ve actually finished with a minute to spare. That never happens!

Transcribed by Abigail Teece as part of a volunteer project, April 2015

  1. 26 August 2012
    3:57 pm

    Barbara Dawes

    Wonderful talk, clear and easily understood and so very enlightening.

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