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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.

Student Rebellion and the Class of 1870

Class of 1870 Outside of Old West, Courtesy of Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections

When I was initially assigned the class of 1870 I must admit I was a little disappointed.  As someone with a keen interest in military history, I was hoping to get one of the Civil War-era classes, as the events of the war would have been pertinent to its members at the time, but sadly this was not the case.  Nevertheless, I looked through the 1870 class roster, did some quick searches of a couple individuals on the college archive’s online database and went in to take a look at some documents a day or so later.

Having done some archival research on Dickinsonians my previous year, my first instinct was to check for a class of 1870 yearbook.  Fortunately, I was extremely lucky; although the college didn’t start printing the Microcosom (the name of Dickinson’s yearbook) until 1890, the class of 1870 had created one after the fact in 1903.

I began by investigating the senior information pages.  Initially, I had the idea that I would focus my project around the railroad boom during this period, as I knew that  the intercontinental railway had been completed in 1869.  I found several individuals who went on to work for railroad companies or in other railroad-related financial ventures, as well as a few others who caught my eye; namely Edward R. Johnstone, a reporter on the Indian Wars, and Philip Rawlings, an ex-Confederate who served under General Jackson.

After scanning through the senior profiles, I next made my way to the class history section, which was written by several members of the 1870 class.  While reading and taking notes, I came across one short paragraph in particular that grabbed my attention.  In it, the author briefly mentioned the “‘Great Rebellion’ of the Sophomore and Junior classes” in 1870.[1]  Incredibly intrigued by the idea of a student rebellion on campus, I immediately decided to take a look into it.

Frustratingly, the class history provided no more information than the classes that participated in the rebellion and the year it took place, the latter of which had to be discovered through the document indirectly.  I then approached the archivists in order to figure out where I could find more information.  I was directed to the published history of the college, as well as the president’s papers  and minutes from both trustee and faculty meetings.  It was here that I discovered a much more comprehensive overview of the event.

The student rebellion of 1870 (there have actually been several over the course of the school’s history) was in response to faculty not allowing Sophomore and Junior students to attend the celebrations in Carlisle on April 26th, 1870 over the ratification of the 15th Amendment.  In defiance of their professors, the students went anyway and received “500 minus marks” as punishment.  This appears to have been rather harsh, because it caused an uproar among the two classes of effected students.  The faculty attempted to rectify this by adjusting the number of “minus marks” given on a case-by-case basis, but to the students it appeared to be done at random and simply made the situation worse.  The sophomores and juniors then decided to boycott their duties (classes, etc.) and, as punishment, the entirety of both classes were suspended indefinitely and made to return home.  After much back and forth, the suspension was lifted on May 16th after an appeal from the student committee.[2]  Below is my transcription of the appeal, which was found handwritten in the faculty minute book dated 1869-1879:


To the faculty of Dickinson College                                                                                          May 16, 1870


Whereas it is evident for that there have been misunderstandings of communications made by the faculty to the students, and whereas we have shown as we think a proper spirit since our suspension; and whereas we are satisfied that in the matter of minus marks the faculty will, on a proper and [illegible] consideration of our complaint, do us justice.

We respectfully request that you will repeal the penalty of suspension now in force  against us in order that we may resume our relations with the College, and attend our duties as usual.

J. L. Shelley

J. H. Shopp

D. K. Watson

D. J. Mayors Jr.

Members of Council

Fortunately, a transcription from the minute book, as well as a printed copy of this message, can both be found in the archives.  The correct transcription is below:

May 16, 1870

To the Faculty of Dickinson College, Gentlemen:

Whereas it is evident to us that there have been misunderstandings of communications made by the Faculty to the Students; and whereas, we have shown as we think a proper spirit since our suspension; and whereas, we are satisfied that in the matter of minus marks the Faculty will, on a proper and full considerations of out complaint, do us justice.

We respectfully request that you will repeal the penalty of suspension now in force against us, in order that we may resume our relations with the College and attend to our duties as usual


J.L. Shelly

J.H. Shopp

D.K. Watson

D.J. Myers, Jr.

Members of Committee


A Particularly Painful Example of 19th Century Penmanship, Courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections

As one can see by the several errors in my transcription, interpreting handwriting from the 19th century is often no easy task.  That short section alone took me around half an hour, and further transcription of more notes from the same meeting proved to take even longer.  Minutes are especially difficult, as the writer is generally trying to keep pace with the discussion, leading to ample use of abbreviations and poor penmanship overall.  The photo on the right shows one particularly bad example from the minutes, and is supposedly meant to say “commencement”.

Getting back to my research, there was some other information in the Dickinson history book that also caught my attention.  Firstly, it mentioned a mixed reception of the 15th Amendment within Carlisle.  Although there was celebration, the book stated that several newspapers referred to it as the “darky amendment”.  Also, there was mention of signs being waved about the persecution of Dr. McClintock, whose name is on one of the college’s dorms.  A quick search on the House Divide Project website led me to a PDF that explained the story of Dr. McClintock and a riot that occurred in Carlisle in 1849 partially on his behalf. I also found mention in the 1870 yearbook history that two students, the Mercier brothers, joined the KKK in Virginia.

Although I had made progress, I was left with several major questions:  Were the statements about the Mercier brothers true and, if so, how did they interact with both other students and faculty on campus?  How was Dr. McClintock “persecuted” and why did it cause rioting?  How was the 15th Amendment received in Carlisle?  Were there any serious debates on campus regarding the 15th Amendment, especially considering the Confederate/Southern background of several of the students in the class?

Ultimately, after my first round of research I’ve been left with more questions than answers; however, I am confident that many of these riddles will be solved in upcoming trips to the archives and other locations, such as the Cumberland Valley Historical Society.  Most importantly for this early round of research, however, I have nailed down a topic:  the 1870 Student Rebellion and the mixed reception of the 15th Amendment in Carlisle, PA.


[1]  Class of 1870, The Dickinson Class of 1870, 1903, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, pp. 113.

[2]  Dickinson College Faculty, Sophomore & Junior Suspension Appeal Petition and Remission of Suspension, 1870, RG 2/7, President’s Papers 1.1.2, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

The importance of context through John Lewis Gaddis

John Lewis Gaddis is a professor of history at Yale University, the recipient of multiple writing awards and a distinguished author. Motivated to display the importance of historical consciousness, Gaddis wrote the book The Landscape of History. In this book, Gaddis argues against multiple fields of social sciences while providing insight to historians about stronger research and analysis methods. This book is a combination of writings and lectures performed by Gaddis. By using relevant modern examples, Gaddis is able to argue against forms of social science while promoting different forms of historical thinking.

One of Gaddis’ main points in this book is focused on the importance of causation. Gaddis argues that it is important when writing or thinking about history to consider the context that led to an event. When doing so, an important distinction to make is “the distinction between the immediate, the intermediate, and the distant”. Thereby, this distinction groups events contextually and explains the events’ relevance. For example, the first group, immediate, is simply whatever occurred at the time of the event. These distinctions are important because historians must be careful when providing context. Gaddis contextualizes this by explaining the historical context of the Pearl Harbor attack. “It would make no sense, for example, to begin an account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with the launching of the planes from their carriers; you’d want to know how the carriers came to be within range of Hawaii”.2 When providing context, it is important to not use one of the three groups distinguished above. An example of too much immediate context is exemplified with the Pearl Harbor attack. Providing too much intermediate and distant context is also a mistake. When searching for causation of an event, Gaddis describes a “principal of diminishing relevance”.3 He describes this principal as “is it that the greater the time that separates a cause from a consequence, the less relevant we presume that cause to be”.4 In theory, it is possible to tie the true causation of every event back to the Big Bang. However, this principal states that the farther back in time one goes to look for causation the less relevant it is. This principal is helpful when looking for the causation of an event, which Gaddis thinks is extremely important.

Based on causation, Gaddis presents another idea in The Landscape of History which is “the point of no return.” Gaddis describes the point of no return as, “the moment at which an equilibrium that once existed ceased to do so as a result of whatever it is we’re trying to explain”.5 In other words, the point of no return represents a change in events that disrupts the peace that was once had. This process, Gaddis explains, is much like the paleontological principal “punctuated equilibrium” “rather, long periods of stability are “punctuated” by abrupt and destabilizing changes”.6 The idea of no return is one that relies a lot on context. For one event different people could argue that there are multiple points of no return. For these scenarios, Gaddis advises to return to the principal of diminishing relevance, “that gives us license to emphasize some of these over others”.9 Basically, the principal of diminishing relevance states that possible causation events that occur father away, or more distant, are not as relevant as events that are closer to the actual event.


1 John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 95.

Gaddis, 95.

Gaddis, 96.

Gaddis, 96.

5 Gaddis, 99.

Gaddis, 96.

7 Gaddis, 99.

Timeline of Commencement Orations at Dickinson College

Link to the timeline of commencement speeches: Timeline

Information about the timeline:

The goal of this timeline is to explore the changes of commencement orations throughout the history of Dickinson College. With information the Dickinson College Archives website, I was able to find dates from almost all of the commencement’s at Dickinson College. The website also listed as to whether or not student orations were given at the ceremonies or not. After looking at all of the entries from 1787 into the 1800’s a pattern grew.  Out of the first seven entries in the archives, about commencement ceremonies, only one showed a commencement ceremony that did not have every student give an oration. However, from 1850 until 1919 there was only one ceremony in which every student  gave a speech. The trend showed that student orations happened at all commencements, just not every student gave one. There were five dates that stood out as particular examples of what commencement speeches looked like at Dickinson College.

Wednesday, September 26, 1787

This was the first commencement at Dickinson College. Student orations were a large part of this graduation process as eight of the nine graduates performed orations.

Thursday, July 8, 1852

The Commencement of 1852 shows an example as to what these ceremonies looked like. Of the 21 graduates, 10 students gave orations. The topic of said speeches covered a wide range of  topics but mostly focused on examining social issues of the time  period such as the economic class divide and political justice.

Thursday, June 25, 1863

The Commencement of 1863 was the first ceremony, in the Dickinson College Archives, that does not have record of a student oration. There was a heighten concern about the Confederate involvement in the area so the ceremony was shortened.

Friday, Jun. 20, 1919

Celebrating the end of World War One, this commencement ceremony was coined the “Victory Commencement”. This was also the first time since the Civil War that a graduating student did not give a speech at the ceremony. The tradition of student orations ended here as from this point onward the outside people have the speeches at Dickinson College Commencements.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The most recent graduation showed that student orations did not make a comeback. The speaker was Governor Thomas Wolf.

Works Cited:

Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections. Timeline. Dickinson College.

Dickinson College Student Commencement Orations


Over the years Dickinson College Commencement Ceremonies have been celebrated with the presence of student speeches. This practice is one that was heavily practiced during the 18th and 19th century. In fact, all students at one point were required to give a speech at commencement. By examining the Dickinson Class of 1852 it became clear that these speeches focused on topics of social injustices. They provide information about what the students were learning and issues to of what they were concerned with.

Student orations from the class of 1852 are examined in more detail here.

There is a timeline of commencement ceremonies at Dickinson here.

If you are interested, there are more historical thinking ideas found here.

About me:

The purpose of this post is to examine the commencement process throughout the history of Dickinson College. The target audience is anyone who is interested in learning about Dickinson’s history or commencement ceremony’s of the past. I am currently a sophomore at Dickinson College, with a history minor.


Gallery of Photos

This gallery consists of photographs from various primary sources including a letter, newspaper articles, and a commencement speech.


These photographs exhibit Henry Harman’s letter to his father in which he discusses academics and his enjoyment of Dickinson’s academic benefits. (Photographer- Greg Parker, at the Dickinson College Archives)


The above photograph displays an article in the Carlisle Herald and Expositor. This article examines the reflections of the Southern students at Dickinson after it became known that a professor, John McClintock, was arrested for participation in the 1847 slave riot. (Photographer- Greg Parker, microfilm)
The above photograph displays an article in the Carlisle Herald and Expositor. This article examines the reflections of the Southern students at Dickinson after it became known that the police arrested a professor, John McClintock, for participation in the 1847 slave riot. (Photographer- Greg Parker, at the Waidner Spahr Library)
This photograph of an article in the Carlisle Herald and Expositor reveals continuation in the efforts to create a treaty to end the Mexican-American War. (Photographer- Greg Parker, Waidner Spahr Library)
This photograph of an article in the Carlisle Herald and Expositor reveals continuation in the efforts to create a treaty to end the Mexican-American War. (Photographer- Greg Parker, at the Waidner Spahr Library)
This screenshot of a portion of John Andrew Jackson Creswell's 1848 commencement speech demonstrates his knowledge of international politics. (Photographer- Greg Parker, Dickinson College Online Archives)
This screenshot of a portion of John Andrew Jackson Creswell’s 1848 commencement speech demonstrates his knowledge of international politics. (Photographer- Greg Parker, on the Dickinson College Archives online website)

Effect of Political Environment on Dickinson Students

The eighteen forties were a tumultuous time for the United States. Different events affected the Union. These events ranged from James Polk’s inauguration, to the Mormons’ conflict in Illinois, to Texas’ admittance into the Union, to the Mexican-American War, to slave riots. Did these issues have any affect on college students from that era, specifically students at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania? To answer that question, this post examines the Mexican-American War through a wide lens, while analyzing slave riots through the zoomed in lens of an 1847 slave riot in Carlisle.
This post contains various interactive links to examine the affects of those events. Special features of this post include:

  • Discussion of perspective with relevance to how and why historians “zoom” and the possibility of student ignorance to national events
  • Comparative timeline with national events side by side with Dickinson events
  • Photo gallery of various primary sources used in this project


Did National Events Fail to Have Influence?

The ability to zoom in and out of different historical topics to understand their effects seems to convincingly argue that the political climate of 1845-1848 had an effect on Dickinson students of that era.  However, not every student was interested in the politics of the United States.  Henry Harman penned a letter to his father less than a month after Texas sent its constitution to the United States Congress.  In this letter, he discusses his successes in the classroom in his first semester at Dickinson.  He continues to discuss his enjoyment of reading the vast array of books in the library, including the Koran and pieces of literature by Hume.  He concludes with a request that his father send him his compass and scales from home (Harman, 1846).  Seemingly far from his mind is the state of the Union, especially the trials and tribulations of Texas’ quest for statehood.

Furthermore, the 90 students from the South who gave their approval and support to Professor McClintock in the midst of his run in with the law, created an interesting news story.  These students, most of whom presumably came from slaveholding households, were faced with a predicament in McClintock.  Immediately following news of his arrest, there was a false report (made false by the Carlisle Herald and Expositor) of Southern students creating demands directed towards the college and Professor McClintock (“The Slave Riot,” 2;3-4).  These 90 students wanted to set the record straight and demonstrate their affection of Professor McClintock.

Thus, it appears that national issues only affected Dickinson students if they had personal stake in the topic.  Henry Harman presumably did not have any personal stake over the admittance of Texas into the Union.  However, the 90 students who expressed their support to Professor McClintock wanted to exhibit their thoughts of him and their support of the greater Dickinson community.


Harman, Henry Martyn, to Andrew Harman, Carlisle, 3 January, 1846, Edwards Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

“The Slave Riot.” Carlisle Herald and Expositor, June 16, 1847, 2;3-4.