Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Pensions for Soldiers' Widows: Congressional Attitudes During the 19th Century

Congress, as caretaker for the nation, has always revered and honored those soldiers who served their country. The Readex digital edition of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set can be used to reveal the ways in which Congress' attitudes toward what was appropriate changed during the 19th century.

In 1828, Congress passed a bill for the relief of certain surviving officers and soldiers of the Army of the Revolution. As a result, Captain William Anderson was granted a pension for life. Upon his death, in 1830, his widow petitioned Congress to continue the payment to her. The answer of the Committee on Pensions was unequivocal1:

"The title of the act itself seems to indicate the intention of Congress to confine its benefits to the 'surviving officers and soldiers.' No provisions were made for the widows of deceased officers or soldiers."

"It is to be presumed, from the resolution, that Captain Anderson, during his life, received the benefits and liberal provisions of the act; and the committee are constrained to say, that the petitioner has of course received more of the bounty and liberality of the country for the services of her late husband than the widows of officers whose husbands died previous to the passage of the act."

In an act passed in 1836, Congress established the rule that the widow was entitled to a pension if the soldier had served after the marriage. The rules were relaxed in 1838 to allow a widow the pension for five years that would have been allowed for her husband had he lived (however, this lasted only until 1844).

Pensions for Soldiers' Widows: Congressional Attitudes During the 19th Century


Serial Set, Breakfast of Champions: Setting the Table for Librarians

Although the "U.S. Congressional Serial Set" is an extensive collection of documents that makes the history of the United States come alive, many librarians have been reluctant to highlight this resource at the reference desk or in their library instruction classes. Until a few years ago, the Serial Set had been available only in often-fragile printed volumes and in microfiche with limited indexing, which made identifying and then finding relevant materials challenging, even for experienced librarians. In this article, I will describe how a new Web-based edition of these historical U.S. government publications became available at San Jose State's King Library.

Formed by a unique collaboration between the public library of San Jose and San Jose State University, King Library serves the diverse research needs of students, faculty, staff and the community. Prior to this merger, the San Jose State University Library was the designated federal depository for San Jose. However, most inquiries for federal resources came from the University's faculty and students. For example, history and political science students were often required to analyze the evolution of U.S. legislation and policy.

Since the merger, our academic librarians have become aware of the public community's research interests. For example, the California Department of Education has provided social studies teachers with a new set of frameworks that incorporate the use of primary sources to develop historical literacy concepts (California, 1997). As a result, students from local high schools have started to visit our library to find primary resources for their social studies assignments, many of which could effectively utilize the Serial Set.

Serial Set, Breakfast of Champions: Setting the Table for Librarians


Transcontinental Railroad Construction and Chinese Laborers in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Readex's ambitious digitalization of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set has provided unprecedented and convenient access to a mountain of valuable source materials. The abundant and wide variety of information contained in the Congressional Serial Set serves many different disciplines, including Asian Studies and Asian American Studies. The contribution that Chinese laborers made to building the transcontinental railroad is one of the many interesting topics documented in the Set.

In 1845, a proposal for building a transcontinental railroad was presented to the Congress. The significance of having a transcontinental railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific was first presented from a military perspective: "It would enable us in the short space of eight days (and perhaps less) to concentrate all the forces of our vast country at any point, from Maine to Oregon, in the interior or on the coast."[1] The railroad would also favorably affect American life in terms of both passenger and commodity transportation. "Such easy and rapid communication, with such facilities for exchanging the different products of the different parts, would bring all our immensely wide-spread population together as one vast city, the moral and social effects of which must harmonize all together as one family, with but one interest — the general good of all."[2]

Transcontinental Railroad Construction and Chinese Laborers in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part III: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

On the heels of the release of his second report, John C. Frémont was sent out again to map a better route through the Sierras to California. This time he took with him 60 well armed men and perhaps secret orders to act as he thought best if hostilities with Mexico seemed imminent.

This third expedition, his final government-sponsored expedition of exploration, quickly segued into the Bear Flag Revolt, which he essentially instigated and led. At its successful conclusion he was appointed Provisional Governor of California by the American commander on the spot, Commodore Stockton of the U.S. Navy, but eventually fell prey to a jurisdictional dispute between the Army and the Navy. In August 1847 he was taken into custody by one-time friend, now bitter enemy, General Stephen Watts Kearny and taken back to Washington under arrest to await court martial in the fall of that year.

In January 1848, despite a valiant and vigorous defense, Fremont was found guilty of mutiny, refusing a lawful command, and conduct prejudicial to military discipline. He was ordered dismissed from the service. President Polk rescinded the punishment, but declined to overturn the conviction itself. Feeling ill treated, Fremont resigned his commission in protest.

It is interesting to note that all of the related court martial materials, none of which were congressional in nature, appear in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set because the President collected them and submitted them to Congress in the form of a message (S.Exec.Doc. 33, 30-1). This is a reflection both of the importance of the underlying issues and Fremont's continued popularity in Congress and among the public.

Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part III: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Exploring the Explorers: Government-Sponsored Expeditions in the 19th Century

The nineteenth century was the last great age of exploration on the earth. …American exploration, in particular federally sponsored exploration, began in the nineteenth century at an advanced level as the beneficiary of the developments in the arts and science of exploration of proceeding centuries, but developed some special characteristics of its own.
– Spy Out the Land [1]

In the 19th-century, the United States government spearheaded hundreds of exploring expeditions throughout America and around the world. To record the many works published about those trips, Adelaide R. Hasse—the first Superintendent of Documents librarian—compiled Reports of Explorations Printed in the Documents of the United States Government [2] in 1899. This bibliography is not only a "who's who" of 19th-century explorers but also a travel guide to the many places the government sent these expeditions, including the Amazon, the Arctic, Japan, Mexico, Mississippi River, Yellowstone and many other locations. This article will provide tips on finding a few of the fascinating works cited by Hasse and published in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1980 and other Archive of Americana collections.

Adelaide R. Hasse (1868-1953) Superintendent of Documents Librarian (1895-1897)Adelaide R. Hasse (1868-1953) Superintendent of Documents Librarian (1895-1897)

Exploring the Explorers: Government-Sponsored Expeditions in the 19th Century


Following the Trail of a Deep South Massacre

Recent access to new scholarly databases has enabled me to pursue an unfinished story I had encountered during my research about the Colfax Massacre of 1873, a racial conflict arising from the Reconstruction-era politics of Louisiana. In particular, I hoped to learn more about a curious document I had turned up in the course of my inquiry into the life of William Smith Calhoun, a Radical Republican scalawag and planter whose tremendous family estate included the town of Colfax, where Republican blacks met disaster in battle with a White League or Ku Klux armed force.

Calhoun had played a key role in an 1869 challenge to the outcome of the previous national election, in which one of his neighbors, Michael Ryan, had been seated with the Democratic Party minority in the House of Representatives. I learned as much the old-fashioned way, at the New York Public Library, in a bound volume of nineteenth-century pamphlets that included a privately printed compendium of Michael Ryan's brief to the House of Representatives. Reading cautiously but still stirring a cloud of debris from its pages, I gleaned mostly biographical details and marveled that the otherwise obscure Calhoun had offered linchpin testimony that resulted in Ryan's removal as the Representative of the 4th Louisiana Congressional District.

Following the Trail of a Deep South Massacre


Indexing Congressional Publications: The Grasshopper's View

Representative Alexander Hamilton Stephens, 1812-1883, and U.S. Senate Librarian, Alonzo Webster Church, 1829-1909, though on different sides of the aisle and separated by almost two decades in age, had at least one thing in common besides being Southerners, Georgia natives, and graduates of the University of Georgia: a deeply held concern about the indexing of and access to U.S. Congressional publications.

In the Jan. 19, 1880 report "Indexing the Publications of Congress" (H.Rpt. 128, 46th Congress, 2nd Session), Stephens noted that his recent reports from the Committee on Rules have "had the effect of calling the attention of members to the real nature and importance of index-making…and developed an appreciation of the fact that the want of a proper system of indexing has detracted very greatly from their value and use." He then went on to say "the application of a uniform system of indexing, based on well-established principles, would enable the compilation of general indexes at stated periods hereafter a matter of very little trouble and expense."

Stephens also focused on the practices, current at that time, of indexing the Congressional Record, which were making access to the Record far from easy. He quoted one index entry which begins "That the rules of the Last House of Representatives shall be the rules of this House until otherwise ordered, with the following amendments thereto; namely: Rule 76 shall be amended so as to read as follows…" and then the entry goes on for another 660 words making a total entry of 690 words. From that exaggerated case Stephens drew the conclusion: "Measured by the standard of Sir Henry Thring, that 'an index is perfect in proportion as it is concise in expression,' we doubt if a more extreme example of what an index entry should not be can be found in the history of index-making since the art of printing has been practiced."

Indexing Congressional Publications: The Grasshopper's View


Around the World in 80 Documents: 19th-Century Publications on Europe, Africa and Asia in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Not only are American government documents not just about American government, they aren't just about America. Asked to highlight the U.S. Congressional Serial Set's richness for exploring the wider 19th-century world, I immediately thought of the fictional Phileas Fogg and his 1872 bet that he could travel around the globe in 80 days. I challenged myself to find remarkable and relatively contemporaneous documents on every country that Fogg visits in "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1873), Jules Verne's classic adventure novel.

Phileas Fogg, accompanied by his man servant Passepartout, departs London on October 2, 1872. Passing through France and Italy by train with little comment, Fogg leaves for the East on the steamer Mongolia from Brindisi on October 9. The steamer crosses the Mediterranean, transits the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and deposits Fogg in Bombay on October 20. He travels across India by train and elephant. On October 24 he and his rescued Indian noblewoman depart Calcutta on the steamer Rangoon, which takes them to Hong Kong after a brief stop in Singapore. The party is briefly separated at Hong Kong. Fogg travels on to Shanghai by a rented vessel, reuniting with Passepartout in Yokohama.

From Yokohama Fogg departs for San Francisco on the Pacific Steamship Mail Co. on November 14. In New York Fogg just misses his December 11 connection with a Cunard liner and rents another vessel to carry him across the Atlantic to Ireland. From there, following some final misadventures, Fogg travels back to London. With this quick summary of Fogg's itinerary, we can now try to mimic his course with Serial Set publications.

Around the World in 80 Documents: 19th-Century Publications on Europe, Africa and Asia in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Planning a Government Documents Instruction Program: A Strategic Approach to Outreach

Everyone who has worked closely with government information knows that fascinating details hide behind such dry titles as the "Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology" and "U.S. Congressional Serial Set." To uncover the valuable information in materials published by the U.S. government, including congressional reports and hearings, most users require orientation and even some civic education. The importance of understanding the purpose and significance of most government documents is equally true for information buried on CD-ROMs or in online databases.

Many government information specialists turn their knowledge into a passion for outreach, promoting the treasures in their realm to library users who may not know that government information is exactly what they seek. In academic libraries, instruction is one way to promote government information to students and researchers who need it. However, in an organizationally complex university setting, it can be particularly difficult to identify which classrooms or groups to speak to. While responding to instruction requests from individual instructors benefits a specific group of students, relying exclusively on this approach assumes that everyone who needs instruction knows that you are available and willing to help. A proactive approach to instruction can dramatically increase the number of students and faculty who use and value government information.

A good first step toward developing an effective instruction program is to become familiar with the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. 1 These standards not only provide a common vocabulary with other instruction librarians, but also help clarify what students can learn from government information about being better researchers.

Planning a Government Documents Instruction Program: A Strategic Approach to Outreach


Commodore Vanderbilt: Patriot or War Profiteer?

When I set out to write a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a man known by the informal title of "Commodore," I faced one mystery after another. Even though he was one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in American history, he conducted most of his operations in secret. He left no diary, no collection of papers, and carried out many transactions orally, without committing them to paper. But perhaps no period of his life was more bewildering than the Civil War.

Congress bequeathed a gold medal upon the Commodore for donating his largest steamship (the Vanderbilt) to the Union navy—but he did so only after leasing it to the War Department for many weeks, until the bill reached $300,000, nearly a third of what it cost to build. He refused to take any compensation when he organized a massive flotilla to transport an expedition to New Orleans led by General Nathaniel Banks—yet the press was scandalized by stories of decrepit, unseaworthy vessels that he hired for the fleet. It was said that Vanderbilt used an agent who extracted outrageous commissions from shipowners, suggesting the Commodore had received some of the gains as well.

Was Vanderbilt a noble patriot, or a war profiteer? Most histories of the period that mention him list him as an example of the latter, alongside men who sold the government rotten shoes and shoddy uniforms that fell apart in the first rain. Yet Vanderbilt named two of his sons after national heroes (William Henry Harrison and George Washington), and seems to have taken great pride in his country.

Commodore Vanderbilt: Patriot or War Profiteer?


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