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Searching for the First Draft of History: Lessons About the War of 1812 in Stacks of Old Newspapers

April 15, 2012

Havre de Grace Paper in the collection of the Harford County Historical Society

Local papers have brought up-to-date information to residents of Havre de Grace since the early 1800s.  But on that day in May 1813 when the British stormed into the fishing village, almost completely destroying it, there wasn’t a local weekly to tell people about one of the biggest stories in the annals of the town’s history.

As buildings smoldered and shocked residents started cleaning up the devastated place, readers around the nation turned to city papers out of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and elsewhere to see the headline grabbing intelligence.Those urban broadsheets, snatching all the reporting they could from letter writers, stage-coach drivers, militia officers, and other eyewitnesses, told subscribers about the outrageous warfare that came to the one small community on the Chesapeake Bay.  Those journals, often called the first draft of history, captured the alarming story as word spread slowly throughout an apprehensive region.But in the town another five years passed quickly by before citizens had a local source printing news.

Beginning in 1818, editor William Coale kicked off a long tradition of local broadsheets with the Bond of Union, recording the goings on, the adventures and events, and the details of life on ink and paper.  In 1820 the publisher moved the operation to Bel Air, according to the Library of Congress.As papers concentrating on the attractively situated village started publishing it was a point in time when people still recalled those frightful memories.  It was just as if it was yesterday that they’d lived through the harrowing assault by redcoats.  So the adventures, events, actions, and dangers of that unforgettable Sunday came up periodically in remembrances, on anniversary dates, and when aging defenders passed away.  Plus those old papers are full of advertisements for business, real estate and much more offermg insights into that era from long ago.

Two decades later old-timers still eagerly shared first-hand accounts when the Susquehanna Advocate started publishing in 1839.  As the 19th century moved along, the municipality had papers such as the Madisonian and Harford County Weekly Advertiser, Harford County Times, , Democratic Ledger, Havre de Grace Republican, Independent Press, Electric Light, and more, according to the Library of Congress.

In constructing the annals of these times, the War of 1812: Havre de Grace Under Fire committee has been delving into these and other old newspapers, conducting research and culling insights from fascinating sources.  Project participants have spent untold hours at microfilm readers staring at the aging old film as well as rummaging through issues filed deeply away in special repositories.

The researchers also used the products of city publishers to glean the happenings that dangerous spring nearly 200 years ago.  While much of that undertaking called for using microfilm, there is a revolution going on with newspaper research, involving the digitization of newspapers.  Lots of data are now just keystrokes away and valuable information describing the attack and the damage was found.  In this area, many of the major papers from populated centers are now available online, but one company is making great progress with Maryland’s rural county papers.  Genealogybank, the e-content provider, is digitizing Bel Air papers and  some issues from the Harford Gazette and General Advertiser,  National American, and Southern Aegis are available online.  The scope of these offerings will grow in the months and years ahead, making research in old serials so much easier.

Those old newspapers help tell the story of the time when warfare came to the Havre de Grace’s shore as the committee chronicles and presents those days.  Buried deeply inside the untold number of pages published through the 19th century are stories of the attack, defense, and damage; enemy relics of war uncovered a generation later; anniversary observances of the attack and bombardment;  and the passage of old defenders.

Newspapers, as journalists often say, are the first draft of history.   The preliminary accounts of complicated events are rarely the final ones as editors and reporters face the challenge of gathering information during difficult wartime conditions while also rushing to meet the printer’s deadline.  Nonetheless, these colorful and engaging sources provide a glimpse into another time as we triangulate new gleanings with other manuscripts.

Nearly two hundred years later, the project has pulled out those dusty, untouched issues while also squinting to read microfilm and online digital content.  Thank goodness those broadsheets were worth hanging onto and weren’t crumpled up and tossed away like we generally do with our daily papers.   We’ve found them in many places, including the Harford County Historical Society, Library of Congress, Enoch Pratt Library, History Society of Delaware, Maryland Historical Society, and the American Antiquarian Society.  While the project has been engaged in this exciting search for papers published in Havre de Grace, Harford County researchers have a very strong collection of county papers at the historical society in Bel Air.

If you’re involved in some research of your own in Harford County, don’t forget to check out the source that chronicled the past day in and day out.

1848 Havre de Grace newspaper on microfilm at the Harford County Historical Society

1848 Havre de Grace newspaper on microfilm at the Harford County Historical Society

Event: Search for the USS Scorpion Thurs, March 22

March 14, 2012

Join us at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum (100 Lafayette St., Havre de Grace) on Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 7 p.m. Assistant State Underwater Archaeologist Troy Nowak, from the Maryland Historical Trust, will speak about the search for Commodore Joshua Barney’s flagship. This lecture is FREE!

A blog about the search can be found here:


Wondering about the HdG and State 1812 celebrations?

March 14, 2012

We have had some questions about why Havre de Grace is commemorating a War of 1812 event in 2013, and how our town’s activities tie into the statewide War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration. I’ve broken it down here for you.

War of 1812 Talk by Christopher T. George: Cockburn Attacks Havre de Grace. Bel Air, Wednesday, February 8, 2012, 7:30 P.M

February 8, 2012

 Admiral Cockburn burning and plundering Havre de Grace, May 3, 1813.  The printmaker William Charles put the wrong date on the print, June 1, 1813! Courtesy Brown University Library, Providence, Rhode Island.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012, 7:30 P.M. Historical Society of Harford County Headquarters, 143 North Main Street (at the corner of Main and Gordon Streets), Bel Air, Maryland. Sponsored by the Archeological Society of Northern Chesapeake (ASNC). No Charge. Talk is at 7:30 P.M. ASNC will hold a business meeting at 6:30 P.M.

Christopher T. George
Author/Reseacher on the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake Bay

Christopher T. George gives a lively, illustrated presentation on the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake, placing the war in this region in the context of the whole war. George examines issues leading up to this misunderstood war and the roles played by Great Britain’s Royal Navy, President James Madison and others. He takes a close look at major strategic events in the Chesapeake, including the British blockade of the East Coast, the destruction of Havre de Grace, British Major General Robert Ross’s burning of the public buildings of Washington, D.C., the Battle of North Point, and of course Francis Scott Key and the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry. High school and adult audiences. Requires screen, laptop and LCD projector for Powerpoint.

Christopher T. George is the author of Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay published by White Mane in 2001. He is the founding editor of the Journal of the War of 1812 and coordinator of the National War of 1812 Symposium series held each fall since 1996. See

See my War of 1812 blog at where I today discuss the model of Havre de Grace that is being built for the Bicentennial of the British attack on the town.

Scale Model Takes Havre de Grace Back to the Day Before the War of 1812 Came to the Town

January 30, 2012

A group of volunteers has been working for nearly a year on a scale model of Havre de Grace as it existed the day before the British raided the village in May 1813.   This afternoon, R. Madison Mitchell (Mitch), one of the modelers, took time out from shaping the exhibit to discuss the handiwork of his team with a group of visitors.  They’ve worked from old maps, land records, tax assessments, newspapers and more to accurately recreate the place as it peacefully existed the day before the enemy attacked.

Painstakingly, the group has built, in miniature, the port at the top of the Chesapeake.  It was a small place with about 250 residents and 50 homes when the British savagely stormed into the fishing village on the morning of May 3, 1813, the enemy almost completely destroying it.  After taking possession of the place and “plundering the stores of all worth taking they set fire to the two taverns,” 19 dwelling houses, and 21 stables and outhouses, besides all the craft and stages near the town, one newspaper reported.  “The British have laid in ashes the beautiful village of Havre-de Grace!  The war has now come to our own doors,” another declared.

Despite the rampage and the devastation from the flames, it recovered.  Fortunately, few American communities have had to rebuild from such devastation at the hands of an invading foreign force, according to the National Register Nomination.

Week after week, the miniature layout, occupying a space in the Visitors Center, has grown as the landscape, roads, waterfront, buildings and other elements were designed, shaped, and placed.  It’s all going to be there, from the homes to the ferries and the markets, fisheries, and docks.  Too there are the nearby woodlands and pastures, as well as the structures nearer the waterfront.

This is one of the initiatives undertaken by the six heritage museums of Havre de Grace and the City to tell the story of what happened when the British raided the town during the War of 1812.  While modeling still needs to be done, the photos below shows you the handiwork by Mitch and this fine group of skilled hobbyist and craftsmen, as it comes along.

The excellent work by the team carefully creating and placing the miniatures is going to make a valued exhibit as people visit Havre de Grace to learn more about the War of 1812 in the months and years ahead.  It’s located at the Visitor Center in Havre de Grace, which is open M-F 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  The public is welcome to stop by to see the exhibit as it progresses.

Three Upcoming Lectures

January 18, 2012

Plan to join us for our last three lectures of the War of 1812 Lecture Series:

Thursday, February 16, 2012, 7 p.m.
Researching Free People of Color in Harford County
Reggie Bishop, Genealogist
Location: City Hall, 711 Pennington Ave, Havre de Grace
Co-sponsored with the Lock House Museum’s Shank Lecture Series

Thursday, March 22, 2012, 7 p.m.
Search of the USS Scorpion: Recent Investigations of the War of 1812 Chesapeake Flotilla
Troy Nowak, Assistant State Underwater Archaeologist, Maryland Historical Trust
Location: Maritime Museum, 100 Lafayette St., Havre de Grace

Thursday, May 17, 2012, 7 p.m.
Havre de Grace and the War of 1812
Christopher George, Author, Terror on the Chesapeake
Jeffrey Korman, Manager, Maryland Department at Enoch Pratt Free Library
Location: City Hall, 711 Pennington Ave, Havre de Grace
Co-sponsored with the Lock House Museum’s Shank Lecture Series

January Lecture: Heroes and Villains of 1812: A Look at the Personalities in the War of the Chesapeake

January 4, 2012

David Healey, local author of 1812: Rediscovering Chesapeake Bay’s Forgotten War, will present an engaging talk at the Havre de Grace Library on Tuesday, January 17 at 6:30 p.m. He will look at the personalities of the War of 1812 – both the “heroes” and the “villains” of the conflict.

Date: Tuesday, January 17, 2012, 6:30 p.m.
Location: Havre de Grace Library, 120 N. Union Ave., Havre de Grace
Topic: Heroes and Villains of 1812: A Look at the Personalities in the War of the Chesapeake
Speaker: David Healey, author