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The National Archives are looking for volunteers to decode old pension records

The National Archives is looking for cursive readers to help decode pension records from the Revolutionary War. About a year ago, the National Park Service reached out to the Archives to ask that agency to transcribe the pension records in advance of the country’s 250th birthday in 2026.

Doing that helps make all the words on a page searchable in the Archive’s catalog and helps provide public access to those records. In this project, volunteers are also able to share the stories they uncover during their transcribing.

The Archives has also featured the pension records of African-American veterans of the Revolutionary War. With The Show to talk about this project is Suzanne Isaacs, community manager for the National Archives Catalog. 

 

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: Suzanne, your agency is not doing this work alone, right? You're inviting and encouraging citizen archivists to take part in this transcription process, right?

SUZANNE ISAACS: This is a volunteer project and anyone can join us. And we ask you if for this project, if you can read cursive, we need you. There are lots of other projects if you don't read cursive, and I can talk about those later. But if you can read cursive and would like to come and try online to transcribe a page or more. Every little bit helps. And what we like to say is when you transcribe, you help unlock history.

BRODIE: How similar or dissimilar is Revolutionary War cursive to what, you know, most Americans have learned in school, to the extent that, that we're still learning it?

ISAACS: What I find with these is that it's just a little sloppier. We're getting affidavits from all over the country basically. Let me explain a little more of what these records are. So, there was a call for, for Revolutionary War soldiers to apply for, for pensions, and many times the soldiers had lost their discharge papers. There are stories they'll say in their affidavits. There was a house fire, there was a flood, I moved several times. Even one time there was someone who said his naughty children ripped up the paper. So without that, they have to try to prove their service. And that's where the exciting stories come in because they tell somebody their story. And it's a, it's a written affidavit that is then submitted and it tells the story of what they did during the war. Where they were, when they started, how long they were there, what battles they fought in, and they really love to throw out if they've ever seen George Washington. If they and they saw George Washington, they will make sure that it is mentioned because I think they think that's a good way to prove that they were, that they served.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, so what kind of response have you gotten so far? Like, do you have a small, mini Continental Army of transcribers and cursive readers ready to do this?

ISAACS: We do, we have a couple of thousand people who have, who have volunteered and they have transcribed about 30,000 pages, which is amazing, but there's about 2.5 million pages. So we're a long way off and we need everybody's help. And I bet some people are thinking like, why can't computers just do this work and they can. But sort of. We have optical character recognition, OCR. You might have heard of that. And the catalog is able to use this to increase searchability of the records. But our records are very, very difficult because they, they, first of all the records in the National Archives are over the course of a couple of centuries. So lots of different variety and the kinds of records you'll find. They're odd sizes, they could be folded, torn. The ink could bleed through to the other side. Some are handwritten with gorgeous handwriting, and some are handwrit and that are not so gorgeous. Some are type written and some are a combination of a form and then handwritten. So in the end, we find that human eyes are just much better at checking this out and transcribing than, than a computer at this point.

BRODIE: Is there somebody overseeing this or checking the work to make sure that people, I'm not suggesting people are doing anything malicious, but I mean, you know, you stare at a screen for long enough, your eyes tend to play tricks on you, right?

ISAACS: So our program is a little different from others. We use more of a Wikipedia model, which means that anyone can go back and make an edit and fix it and make it better. We don't count something as finished or closed. You can transcribe any record in the National Archives catalog. And at this point, I think we have 270 million pages.

BRODIE: I'm wondering if you find any of the language in these, these documents confusing? I mean, take apart the, the penmanship, but just so some of the language, I mean, people talked differently back then than they do now.

ISAACS: Yes. The, I think the biggest issue is the spelling. There's a wide variety of spelling. A lot of the, the veterans will talk about the Battle of York and General Cornwallis and I have seen many variations on how Cornwallis is spelled. So, that's part of it. But again, we're transcribing what we see, we're transcribing how it's spelled and, and, and that's all part of the record.

BRODIE: So, have you seen any really interesting stories or has anything really kind of cool been uncovered yet based on these records?

ISAACS: We, we look at this survey that we ask people to fill out if they find something neat. And then we also look at the transcripts, my colleague and I, to see what kind of stories are in, in these pension files. And we have found a bunch of really neat things. We highlighted the pension files of African-American soldiers. They either identified themselves as, in many ways, they would call themselves a person of color or through extension, extensive research, the Daughters of the American revolution have come up with a list through their research of who fought in the in the Revolutionary War and they were a person of color. So we use that list to help us find records and we found some really, really neat stories.

So, so as I mentioned earlier that often discharge papers have been lost over time. So they have to kind of tell the story of their service to prove that they should earn a pension. So London Hazard was born into slavery and he was sent to fight as a substitute soldier many times by his slaver, Godfree Hazard, especially when people in his, the enslaver's family were drafted. So he fought many times in the place of many people. And London Hazard was freed from slavery six months after the war ended and he was granted a pension.

Nimrod Perkins, he enlisted as a drummer on board the ship Diligence Galley for three years. And he received a Virginia military land warrant for 100 acres after the war. He also received a pension.

Anthony Gilman, who describes himself in his affidavit as a man of color, he enlisted as a fifer and he was taken by the British as a prisoner and then sold as a slave. And about a year and a half later, he was able to escape and Anthony Gilman fought in the Battles of Harlem Heights in Monmouth. And he also received a pension.

But those are just some of the stories that people can find and they're finding new things every day.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.