Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Devil in the Details of the Single Source

Every newspaper reporter knows that a single source is not enough confirmation for a story to go to press.   Those who research the clothing and equipment carried by specific military units in America during the second half of the 18th century have also learned to be skeptical and wary of the single data point.  Some defer to a Rule of Three: at least three independent primary sources from this time period, understood in proper context, to substantiate a material culture hypothesis.

Sometimes, however, a  single source appears to be the sum total of the evidence available.  For some elements of 18th century material culture - uniform clothing, flags and other related textiles - surviving examples with known provenance that can be tied with confidence to a specific issue for a specific unit are extremely limited.  Still, it pays to dig as deep as possible and follow the source material.

Even artifacts collected from a site where the circumstances of their loss are well known are not
Artifacts from Lake George, including a New=Jersey
marked musket butt plate, displayed at Fort William
Henry, Lake George Village, New York
always conclusively connected to a particular unit.  The musket parts and accoutrements that have been collected from the waters of Lake George off Sabbath Day Point almost certainly belonged to either New Jersey or New York Provincial soldiers who were ambushed and slaughtered there in 1757, but some of these might only have been issued to one of these units and not the other. 

New Jersey Provincial Colonel John Parker wrote in a note at the bottom of a return of stores in 1757 that

    "I think the men had better have pouches
     instead of powder horns as they are
    always loosing the ball they have in their pockets.
    The pouches if approved of to be made after the
    form of the Royal American
s" ¹

There is no confirmation, though, that such pouches were ever procured, and therefore no way to conclusively link a cartridge pouch of this type that was found in the waters off Sabbath Day Point to the New Jersey Provincials. If that level of detail matters to the researcher, the data in this example may be is strong but more evidence is needed.

3rd New Jersey Regiment 1777
as interpreted by Lt. Charles M. Lefferts
in Uniforms of the Armies in the War of the
American Revolution, 1775-178
3 (1926)
The same problem exists when we read too much into a deserter description. Often a notice of desertion printed in an contemporary newspaper is the only clear documentation that we have for the clothing worn by a soldier in a particular unit. Even when there appears to be further confirmation, it needs to be weighed carefully.

Notice was placed in a newspaper on June 9th, 1777, for example, that a private who deserted from Captain John Ross' Company of Elias Dayton's 3rd New Jersey Regiment wore

"a blue regimental coat, faced with red, spotted jacket and blue breeches" ²

Better still, this desertion corresponds with a well documented issue of blue coats with red facings procured specifically for Dayton's regiment from Continental stores forwarded from Massachusetts to Peekskill, New York.   Charles M. Lefferts based his 1926 illustration, at left, on the description of that one deserter from Ross's Company.

It does not follow, however, that the jacket and breeches worn by this deserter were standard issue for Ross's company at this time, let alone Dayton's regiment.  The 3rd NJ did receive issues of both items of clothing in 1777, and in considerable quantity, but an analysis of clothing issues and returns for the New Jersey regiments by historian John Rees reveals that far more overalls than breeches were provided to this regiment.  Furthermore, there is no solid evidence that blue was a preferred or prescribed color for the unit's breeches.  We know that this one deserter wore this combination, but only the coat seems to be the uniform standard for the 3rd in 1777.   Not that this has stopped some researchers from reaching a broader conclusion.

Units might have one type of uniform and equipment authorized,  somewhat different items requisitioned and disbursed, and more evidence from contemporary newspaper accounts and deserter notices that describe them yet another way.  The New Jersey Provincial Regiment, for example, that formed for service in 1758 had the following uniform authorized by the Provincial Assembly:³

                      "...A blue Coat after the Highland Manner, lappell’d and cuffed with red, one pair
                      of Ticken Breeches, and one Pair of blue ditto, of the same Cloath of their Coat,
                      one Check Shirt and one White ditto, two Pair of Yarn Stockings, two Pair of Shoes,
                     one Hat to each Man bound with yellow Binding, one Blanket, one Knapsack, one
                     Hatchet, one Canteen, one Kettle to five Men; a Pair of white Spatterdashes and One
                     Hundred Grenadiers Caps for One Hundred of the said Soldiers, and Two Hundred
                     Falling-Axes for the whole Regiment

New Jersey Provincials
Jersey Blues 1758
by Don Troiani
This sounds like a complete and comprehensive description, but there are other data that need to be taken into account.  According to research by Scott Lance of Tenbrook's Company, New Jersey Provincial Regiment (recreated), when that historic unit marched North on its way to the frontier the men were evidently wearing stockings without white spatterdashes, and breeches different than those initially authorized.  The New York Mercury described their uniform as 

"blue, faced with red, grey Stockings, and Buckskin Breeches

Moreover, Scott's review of accounts submitted by Colonel John Johnson reveal that the commander of the New Jersey Provincials was compelled to purchase additional breeches because the regiment was short of this article, along with paying for thread buttons for ticken breeches.  There was difficulty securing arms and accoutrements, too, so those cartouch pouches preferred but probably not procured in 1757 were probably not available in 1758 either.   According to standard orders issued to General Abercrombie's forces for this campaign, the New Jersey Provincials would have cut down their hats with yellow bindings,  and added leggings in either red, green or blue woolen cloth procured from Albany by their officers for that purpose.

The inescapable conclusion of these sources taken together is that the men of the New Jersey Regiment in 1758 looked considerably different in the field than they did when their uniform was first authorized.

Sometimes, even multiple sources for the same uniform can be interpreted with different results.  Consider another unit from the French and Indian War period: Captain Hezekiah Dunn's company of New Jersey Frontier guards.  This ranger unit organized for the winter campaign season of 1757-1758, and unlike other Frontier Guard companies before them,  Dunn's men had an authorized
Scott Lance of the Recreated
New Jersey Ranging Company

                       one good Blanket, a half thick Under-Jacket, a kersey
                       lapell’d Jacket, Buckskin Breeches, two check Shirts, two
                       pair of Shoes, and two pair of Stockings, a Leather cap
                       and a Hatchet"
One of these men was advertised as a deserter after the unit had traveled to Albany, and his description is the basis for a number of recreations of the Dunn's Ranger company, from painting guides for tabletop miniature wargaming pieces, to a high end toy soldier produced by Wm. Britains Company, to the uniform worn here at right by Scott Lance.

      DESERTED from Perth-Amboy, the 20th Instant, JOHN MAGEE
the Company of RANGERS Whereof HEZEKIAH DUNN is
     Captian (sic), Said MAGEE is about 5 feet high, 45 years of age
     Red fac'd, had on when he went away Provincial Clothing, viz.
     a Grey lapell'd Waistcoat, and an under green Jacket, a Leather
     Cap, and Buck-Skin Breeches...

This is a very interesting description.  Both the authorized uniform and the deserter clothing refer to a lapelled jacket or (sleeved) waistcoat as the outer garment.  During the 1750s, each of these articles would have had skirts coming to about hip length, about the same as short coat or coatee length during the 1770s.   Going by the deserter description, Magee's waistcoat was probably grey and had lapels, rather than being of some other unknown color with grey lapels.  Is it enough to form an opinion of the uniform of Dunn Rangers, then, or do we need to follow the Rule of Three?

It turns out that there may be another colonial newspaper description of a New Jersey Ranger coat.   I came across two possible references to it in newspapers published in 1769, over a decade after Dunn's Rangers undertook that winter campaign.  The coat is is described as part of the clothing worn by a runaway slave from Newark New Jersey.  The second of the two descriptions does not identify it with the Rangers at all, but the first one does.

                         [May 22nd, 1769] 8

                         Run-away, from the Subscriber, living at Newark, New-Jersey
                         on Wednesday the 17th Instant, a Negro Nan named Benjamin
                         but it is likely he will change his name; he has a Mold on his
                         Cheek, has a down-look, of a Yellow cast, a Lively fellow, and 

                         is about 5 Feet 9 Inches high: had on when he went away, a
                         short Ranger's Coat, grey or blue, and a red Watch-coat.
                         Whoever takes us and secures the said run-away, so that he may
                          be had again, shall receive five Dollars Reward, and all
                          reasonable Charges, paid by
                                                        - Nathaniel Richards

There is no other detail offered about the coat in this runaway ad, as if merely saying it was a Ranger Coat was description enough.  The second description appears several months later, when Benjamin ran off a second time.  As a result, we cannot know for certain that the coat he wore then is the same as the Ranger Coat.

                        [October 2, 1769]

                        Run-Away, on Sunday night the 17th inst. from the subscriber,
                       living in Newark, New-Jersey, a Negro man, named Ben; he is
                       considerably upon the tawney (sic) colour, (it is likely he may
                       change his name, as he is a crafty Fellow,) he is about 30 years
                       of age, 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, well made, has a hair-mole on
                       his cheek, and lost two of his foreteeth, walks very quick, some-
                       thing stooping forward; Had on, and took with him; one blue
                       broadcloth short coat with white buttons, a nankeen laced
                       jacket laced behind, two check and two tow shirts, two pair of
                       tow trousers, one pair of wollen (sic), one pair of worsted
                       stockings, two pair of pumps, and a short gun, brass mounted,
                       and a piece of brass along the upper part of the barrel, almost
                       as far as the sight...

Neither coat is described as a jacket, though the short coat reference is consistent with a 1750's sleeved waistcoat.  There is no mention of lapels.  The blue or grey color is compatible with the coat in the Magee deserter description, especially if it were an old coat (as this one must have been, with no Ranger companies authorized in New Jersey after 1760).  One of the descriptions mentions broadcloth, not kersey as was authorized for Dunn's company in the fall of 1757.  Perhaps broadcloth is what they got.  Even with these new data points, there are more questions than answers.  Such is the nature of academic inquiry and one of the reasons that peer review matters.

Did Nathaniel Richards have a personal connection to an old Ranger Coat worn by his slave Benjamin?  Did Benjamin wear that coat when he ran away that second instance?  Were there other Provincial coats issued to other New Jersey Ranger companies aside from Hezekiah Dunn's in that single winter campaign? 

Here we encounter another peril that comes with finding additional data: the opportunity for a tantalizing new detail to sidetrack rather than refocus the initial inquiry.  What about that odd short barreled musket with the brass scope? Was Nathaniel Richards the same man who was later counted among the Loyalists from Newark?  There may be an even more important story in the experience of the slave Ben, who was still running at the end of 1769 - this time in a gray surtout coat - after breaking out of jail in Albany where he had been confined as a runaway.  Someone needs to follow up on those details too, even if it is not the focus of this research.

That is why we document our sources, even the single ones, and another good reason for sharing them.


1 John Johnson's Account with N.J., for Troops, 1757-8.
Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey Vol. I.;  Extracts from American Newspapers 1776-1777; W.S. Stryker, editor; Trenton: 1901: page 396.
Acts of the General Assembly of the province of New Jersey 1753-1761 New Jersey Archives, 1st series, Volume 8: 167
4 New York Mercury June 12, 1758
5 References for these general uniform adaptations include a General order of June 30th, 1758, recorded in the Orderly Book of Colonel DeLancey’s New York Provincial Regiment, and the Journal of Lemuel Lyon of Connecticut.
6 New Jersey, General Assembly.  Votes and Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Province on New Jersey. Aug. 19-Sept. 23.  Woodbridge: Parker, 1757, New Jersey Archives, Colonial Wars File, Trenton
7 The New York Gazette or Weekly Post Boy #780, January 2nd, 1758, New York Public Library
8 The New York Gazette & Weekly Mercury #917, May 22nd, 1769
9 The New York Gazette & Weekly Mercury #936, October 2nd, 1769

No comments:

Post a Comment