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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

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 12, 2012 4:00 am

    A very nice blog and very nice summary of the issues and joys of using period newspapers for research. Have you folks tried using older county and town histories? I’ve found they sometimes yield great stories and vignettes, even if they are hard to verify.

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