History Detectives: Carlisle Edition

As a PBS kid, I often watched the TV show History Detectives, which showed a team of historians tracking the stories of objects and families. It was one of my first introductions to history as a real career, and the history detectives were one of my inspirations when choosing to become a student of history. Because of this experience in childhood, I was delighted when assigned as a part of my historical methodology class to become a history detective myself. The journey began in my History 204’s class’ first visit to the Dickinson College archives, where the wood paneled walls and cases of rare books and artifacts made me feel like a real historian. That moment of discovery drew me into archival research, and my independent research visits only strengthened my resolve.

First Visit: Newspapers

On our first trip as a class we mostly worked with facsimiles and transcriptions, but when I returned to the archives on my own I was treated as a truly independent researcher, responsible enough to handle originals. I had as my general topic of research the election of 1840, and decided to turn to newspapers as my first source. Unfortunately, few newspapers from 1840 are available in the College archives, but I did read two telling articles from 1844, one on the Cumberland County Whig Convention in Carlisle and one on President Tyler’s withdrawal from the 1844 election.

The one newspaper source which was available from 1840 was actually a transcription of a speech by Dickinsonian Democrat James Buchanan on the folly and hypocrisy of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. This speech provided interesting insight into the Democrats’ view of their opponents, itemizing the many specific policy differences between the two parties.

Example of 19th century newspaper                    Courtesy of Library of Congress

These three sources all demonstrated the idiosyncrasies of newspapers at the time, namely the lack of organization and bylines as well as the small size of print. Luckily for me, the Dickinson archives provide finding guides for all of their resources, which in the case of newspapers often index the article in that edition which relates to Carlisle. Without the page and column numbers for the coveted articles I would never have found the piece on the Whig convention, for it was hidden in the fifth column of the third page. In the 19th century, articles were not organized into specific topic. With this work being in fact a printed letter, it was listed simply under “personal correspondence,” a non-descriptive title that does little to guide the reader. As such, without the help of the finding guide it would be necessary to browse every newspaper from the time period in the Dickinson archive, a tedious and most likely fruitless task.

Second Visit: Letters

On my second visit to the archives I decided to turn my focus from newspapers to personal writings, thinking (correctly) that the College might have more letters than newspapers from the given year. In preparation for my trip I searched the archive website for many terms, including “class of 1840,” “election of 1840,” “William Henry Harrison,” and “John Tyler.”  Through this search I came across the collection of Isaac Wayne’s papers, and though I had never heard that name before I decided to dig deeper.

Wayne was in fact a member of Dickinson’s class of 1792, and by the time of the 1840 election he was a retired farmer in rural Pennsylvania. Despite this, he was still considered to be an important member of the Whig party, and the Dickinson archives many of his documents related to political goings-on. One of these, which excited me greatly when I came across its entry online, was the letter from Wayne written in 1840 to a General Harrison, presumably the presidential candidate himself.

Letter to Harrison (pg 1 of 4)

This letter[1], dated April 27, looks at first glance like the archetype of the dream archival find. Hidden in a folder with many other papers, it appeared like a beam of light in the form of distressed parchment–or at least that’s how it seemed to be at first. Upon further inspection, I made the disappointing discovery that the letter was completely illegible. After a frustrating and eye-straining twenty minutes, I finally gave up the ghost on this particular document as incomprehensible to one untrained in the art of deciphering terrible handwriting.

Disappointed but determined, I continued going through Wayne’s other papers, and was happy to find one in a hand other than his own. In the same box as the letter to General Harrison was correspondence from Henry Evans[2], a man with beautiful, pristine handwriting. I began the letter eagerly, quickly drafting my transcription, but unfortunately the missive revealed little of the political climate at the time. It was simply an invitation to speak at the Whig convention, something that might be useful to one studying Isaac Wayne specifically but which did little to illuminate how Carlislians or residents of Cumberland County felt about either candidate.

My last attempt for this particular archive visit was a document in which I had little hope: another piece written with the puzzling penmanship of Isaac Wayne. It was described as a “Draft of a resolution in favor of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.”[3] I requested the file ready to work even harder to decipher it, but to my elation Wayne did in fact try to make this resolution, a much more official document than the previously studied letter, presentable.

Written on one remarkably well-preserved page is a record of both Wayne’s and his fellow Whigs’ feelings towards their presidential candidate which, though not specific, do give the impression of passionate support and enthusiasm. What the document lacks in policy details it makes up for in flowery and powerful language, which matches the tone of a campaign which used slogans and songs to reach the hearts as well as the minds of the people.




            That the people of the United States were happy and prosperous until the sources of their prosperity and happiness were assailed [line illegible] thus was a gloom over [one word illegible] afraid the nation which nothing short of the substitution of both men and measures can dispel.


            That we will use our best exertions to [one word illegible] the election of William H. Harrison and John Tyler to the Presidency and Vice Presidency of the United States, firmly believing as we do, that under their auspices our national affairs would be placed in such a [one word illegible] ultimately to ensure great and memorable blessings to our beloved country.


            That whatever may be the result of the general or special election between this period and the election of the Electors for the President and Vice President of the United States in November next we will not relax our endeavors to afford a successful [one word illegible] to the Whig electoral ticket


That we approve of the call for a general county convention to be held at Westchester on the 9th of June for the purpose of forming a more efficient organization of the friends of Harrison and Tyler; and to bring into consideration arrangements for the approaching general election. We therefore have appointed the following named persons as Delegated to represent the Township of Easton in said Convention–


Though my research question has not yet been fully formulated, let alone answered, these visits to the archives provided invaluable experience in both how to successfully locate documents when beginning research and how to move on when a source isn’t all you had hoped it would be. I look forward to diving deeper into the archives and finding out more about this topic, in addition to possibly exploring other aspects of the class of 1840.



[1] Isaac Wayne to General Harrison, April 27, 1840. Collection of Isaac Wayne MC 2001.11, Box 1 Folder 2, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[2] Henry Evans to Issac Wayne, April 21, 1840. Collection of Isaac Wayne MC 2001.11, Box 1 Folder 6, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[3] Draft of resolution in favor of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler [in Isaac Wayne’s hand] – 1840. Collection of Isaac Wayne MC 2001.11, Box 1 Folder 7, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

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