Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The National Archives - Good News/ Bad News

A page from the
Revolutionary War Pension File
of Abner Poland, Jr of Essex, Massachusetts

Last weekend we were in Washington DC, and at the top of my list of things to do in our capital city was to visit the National Archives.  If you read my blog story from last October, “Did George Washington Sign Here?”  http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2010/10/amanuensis-monday-george-washington.html  you will know that I was questioning the authenticity of George Washington’s signature on a document found amongst some Revolutionary War Pension papers.   My 5x great grandfather, Abner Poland, Jr. of Essex, Massachusetts, had a pension application file that included a piece of paper with General Washington’s signature.  It’s hard to tell if it’s a rubber stamp, an engraved signature or the real thing, from an image on Footnote.com   so I was determined to see the real document someday.

I announced my desire to check out the document at the National Archives on a discussion board on Facebook for genealogists.  Several genealogists told me to “go for it!” and to drop by and see the “real thing”.   Not one experienced genealogist told me that the National Archives were not as accessible as I hoped.  When I emailed the National Archives directly, I was told that the Revolutionary War pensions were only available to view on microfilm.  These are the same images I had seen at the Waltham, Massachusetts regional NARA, and the same images I had seen on Footnote.com

Not quite believing this news, I emailed the authors of “NARAtions”, the blog by the staff at NARA http://blogs.archives.gov/online-public-access    John at NARA sent a very thorough explanation to my comment and he was also nice enough to privately email me.  It was the same explanation as I had previously received from NARA.  The Revolutionary War pensions were not available for viewing except on microfilm.  I was disappointed that a trip to Washington wouldn’t show me anything different than I could see at home!

Still not quite believing this, I made a printout of the one page from Abner Poland’s file that had George Washington’s signature.  This is the image you see above.  I carefully read the instructions on line concerning visits to NARA (all researchers must obtain a research card photo ID, no folders, notebooks, personal possessions etc. in the research room, etc. etc.) and prepared myself for our visit to Washington DC.

Hubby and I went through the security at the research entrance, which is not the tourist entrance that leads to the rotunda where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are displayed.  We signed in, obtained our photo ID research cards, read the power point presentation on regulations and rules, and we began to ask LOTS of questions.  We made it past several staff members, not to the research room but to the office labeled “Finding Aids”, and past several more layers of staff members until we were seated across a table from Archivist DeAnne Blanton.

I showed Ms. Blanton the photocopy of Abner’s document, and we had a very interesting discussion about Revolutionary War documents, and their value to the nation as some of our earliest records in the National Archives.  Usually, like I had been told via email and blog comments, these records are not available to the public except as microfilmed images, because of their fragile condition.  However, Ms. Blanton was also curious about the document since it was signed by George Washington, and a type of document she had never seen before.  After much back and forth, discussion and explanation, she said she would pull Abner Poland’s file for us.  However, she also warned us that most of the records had been searched for valuable documents with things like George Washington’s signature.  If an archivist had previously seen this signature, then the record would have been replaced by a photocopy and the original would be placed in “The Vault”.  Anything in this ominous sounding vault would be strictly unavailable to anyone.  We crossed our fingers and she went off to find the file.

Ms. Blanton came back empty handed and said to us “Good news/ bad news!”   The good news was that George’s signature was authentic.  It was not an engraved facsimile or filled in by an amanuensis.  The bad news was that since it was authentic, it was now “in the vault” and unavailable.  Ms. Blanton then gave us quite an interesting story about the document.  I had previously thought it was given to Abner  Poland, Jr. as a certificate to accompany his Badge of Merit, but it was actually his discharge papers.  He had given these papers with George Washington’s signature back to the government as part of his pension application.  Had Abner decided at that time to keep this particular paper as a souvenir it might have been lost.  But since it had been carefully preserved in Washington, DC, it had survived 200 years.
Good News/ Bad News- It was an authentic Washington signature, and thus a very valuable document.  We were still unable to see the paper because it had been removed for special storage, but we now had quite an interesting story and history to tell about Abner Poland, Jr., a farmer from Essex, Massachusetts who gave away his most valuable possession to earn a Revolutionary War pension.  It was not a lost morning at the National Archives.  Even though I did not see Abner’s document, I now know more about it than I had ever previously imagined.


This is carved into the wall
by the research entrance to NARA
Washington, DC
 Read this blog post by "Dear Myrtle" on all the details of researching at the National Archives, how to prepare, what to expect, and more at this link: http://blog.dearmyrtle.com/2011/04/myrts-day-at-archives.html 

UPDATE! -  read a new blog post for some good news from NARA, who read this blog post and sent me an interesting email message on 8 April 2011.... http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2011/04/national-archives-they-read-my-blog.html

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Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

12 comments:

  1. Great story! I'm glad your trip to the National Archives was a productive one even if they wouldn't let you see the original document with George Washington's signature. It's still kind of cool knowing the signature is real and that it's "in the vault."

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  2. That's great Heather! Just goes to show that things might not always be as bad as they first seem. What an interesting piece of history to add to your family.

    Lucie

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  3. Really interesting, Heather, and a good lesson about not giving up in the quest for more info!

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  4. Excellent! Keep asking questions, tenacity! BA BA BOOM!!

    Well done Heather!

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  5. So very interesting. I am not sure I would have been so philosophical about the results, I would have wanted to see that paper. But it is a great story.

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  6. I suspect had you just "dropped by" you'd not have gotten the answer to your question about the authenticity of the signature. Three cheers for doing your prep work! And what a fabulous bit of history for your family.

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  7. It sounds as though on balance the good news was better than the bad news was bad!

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  8. Excellent work, Heather. It just shows that persistence pays off, and how approaching a repository from different angles can have different results :-) Jo

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  9. Very interesting, we all learned something here. I'm wondering what made you think it was an original signature in the first place? Because his signature seems to be on everything. Nice work, glad you kept at it.

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  10. Great story, Heather! Wish I had read it earlier... It would have been fun to hear more about your adventures in D.C. I enjoyed meeting you and your husband at NERGC. What a great guy. Hope to catch you at another event.

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  11. Wow, just reading this now. Great story Heather!

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