Conrad Weiser, Indian Affairs Agent (1696-1760)

Johann Conrad Weiser lived in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s and is mostly known for his role in shaping the history of colonial America through his work as an “Indian affairs agent.” He lived quite a busy and remarkable life, although perhaps everyone who crossed an ocean to live on a continent entirely unknown for most of their culture’s history is worth marking more than once.

His father was part of a group of German immigrants to North America who swore loyalty to the English crown, a fealty that Weiser would enthusiastically maintain. When he was 16 his father made an agreement with a local Mohawk chief and sent young Conrad to spend a winter with the tribe, learning their language and customs. Weiser would later move to Pennsylvania and begin working for a series of governors, in theory as an Indian affairs agent, helping to prevent violence between Native tribes and colonists and brokering land “sales,” but in reality doing much more. During the French and Indian War (or the North American part of Seven Years War, depending on your geographical perspective) he was a lieutenant. He commanded an underfed but fierce militia of colonists while still maintaining diplomatic relations with the Six Nations, a united group of Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras). He also helped to found Reading, Pennsylvania and Berks County, and was Berks County’s chief judge from 1752 until 1760. In addition to his civic duties, he was a teacher and minister in the Lutheran Church, although he spent a few years living at the Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County.

Now that I’ve introduced you to Conrad Weiser, I’ll let some of his records speak for themselves.

This notebook appears to contain notes that Weiser kept during a meeting with Six Nations representatives sometime around 1750. The handwriting — he was usually much neater — suggests that he was writing this as it happened or shortly thereafter. He was one of the first (or possibly the first) colonist to recognize the importance of wampum belts in strengthening diplomatic relationships, and here he describes being presented with one:

We give you this belt of wampum to wear about your neck as a token that you are our friends that have been at our counsel fire. (Vol 1, Page 22)

In this item, Weiser argues to his friend and secretary to the governor of Pennsylvania, Richard Peters, that all tribes should be given warning long before their land is sold and be given adequate time to leave it before European settlers move in. But ideally, he adds, land should only be bought and sold during visits from the Six Nations’ chiefs and only with their consent. These opinions seem less than moderate to us, but his sympathy for the local tribes would eventually lead to accusations of disloyalty and of his being a traitor to the English crown. Throughout the correspondence in this collection, Weiser makes references to lies and rumors being spread about him, and is eventually forced to defend himself against charges of disloyalty and in one instance, against an armed mob.

(Vol 1, Page 19)

In this account of a hostile meeting between Weiser and a gathering of townspeople, he describes how they react when he first escorts a party of Native men safely to lodgings for the night (guarding them from a large, angry throng) and then tries to draft volunteers for a militia. The townspeople are riled after hearing rumors that a colonist was murdered by a Native American man, so the meeting quickly escalates to threats of violence.

They began, some to curse the Governor; some the Assembly; called me a traitor of the country, who held with the Indians, and must have known this murder beforehand. I sat in the house by a low window, some of my friends came to pull me away from it, telling me some of the people threatened to shoot me. (Vol 1, Page 34)

Given Weiser’s staunch support of the English crown, the final item in the collection was a bit of a surprise to me. This letter was written well after Weiser’s death, from James Biddle, a friend of the family to Weiser’s son, Samuel Weiser. The letter is unfortunately damaged and missing some of its right hand side, but the sentiment comes through clearly. Biddle is warning Samuel Weiser that Great Britain is no longer the trusted, benevolent protector that it was only decades ago.

Our old parent Great Britain seemes bent upon treating us rather like slaves than child[ren] and has thrown aside all affection & love for us. They are bent upon making us hewers of wood & drawers of water… (Vol 2, Page 213)

Biddle closes his letter with a final warning: “… Sammy if there is a cloud gathering about America… unless our different legislature in America all join and keep constantly on the watch. It is a dangerous time and all America must be watchful of Great Britain as they certainly want to make slaves…”

This collection offers a surprisingly varied view into this period in Pennsylvania history. In addition to correspondence, it also includes muster rolls, lists of men who died in conflicts with French forces, receipts and expenses for diplomatic trips, and depositions for cases Weiser heard as a Berks County judge (including testimony of domestic violence,  accusations of slander, and a colonist alleging that a Nanticoke man sexually assaulted his daughter).

These papers document a period of time in United States history from which relatively little written material survives. But more interestingly, they describe the interactions between colonists and Native peoples from the point of view of a man who was sympathetic to but complicit in their systematic  exploitation.  Weiser’s papers surprised me with their sincerity — the genuine respect that he has for the Native men and women and the seriousness with which he takes his responsibility to them come through in his letters. This is undoubtedly one of the most historically and socially important collections that I’ve had a chance to work with as a processing archivist, and I’m especially glad that because it’s part of the DCA2 project, it will soon be available online to more users than could access it through the Historical Society’s reading room.

[November is Native American Heritage Month. For more information, images, audio and video resources, and materials for teachers, visit]

Rights and Reproductions, or “R&R” for those in the know

William Penn, chalk portrait by Francis Place

Since starting at HSP in July as the new Rights and Reproductions Associate, I’ve handled lots of orders for digital reproductions of HSP materials and permission to distribute these materials in books, exhibitions, and other media.  Processing R&R orders provides a great front row seat to HSP’s unique and diverse materials, not to mention the cool ways in which patrons are using our historical artifacts.  While some materials are perennial favorites with patrons (Francis Place’s chalk portrait of William Penn is especially popular among textbook publishers), here’s a snapshot of MY favorite (and sometimes less well-known) R&R materials from the past two months:    

Not long after I began working at HSP, I received a request from Christie’s New York for a copy of a watercolor of Harriton House by William L. Breton.  Built in 1704 by a Welsh Quaker, Harriton is located in Lower Merion and is best known as the home of Charles Thomson, “the Sam Adams of Philadelphia.”  A Philadelphia merchant, Thomson became the first and only Secretary to the Continental Congresses and, in April 1789, traveled to Mount Vernon to inform George Washington that he had been elected the first President of the United States.  Over 200 years later, a carved mahogany side chair belonging to Charles Thomson was featured in Christie’s September auction of American furniture, folk art, and decorative arts and the watercolor of Harriton House was used as an illustration in the auction catalog.

Charles Thomson's Residence Harriton in Lower Merion

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is perhaps best known for its colonial and early American history holdings, but we also have many collections of compelling twentieth-century materials.

WPA poster of William Penn House


One of my favorites is the Work Projects Administration posters collection, which includes over 900 examples of works by Federal Art Project artists from the 1940s. While the Work Projects Administration was a federal program, it spawned many state and local subsidiaries, among them the Pennsylvania Art Program.  Accordingly, while the subjects and styles of the artworks in the poster collection are diverse, many are also specific to Philadelphia and feature such local landmarks as the Philadelphia Zoo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"Defense Steel" by Horatio C. Forjohn

The color and style of these woodblock prints notably contrasts with the charcoal shades of more well-known WPA artworks like Horatio Forjohn’s “Defense Steel,” which will be published in a forthcoming volume on industrial art.


Sometimes the best history is personal history and two recent reproductions requests follow that mantra.  The first order was for a digital copy of Thomas C. Simpson’s personal cashbook; a nineteenth-century merchant, Mr. Simpson emigrated from Northern Ireland to Norristown and the cashbook has helped his modern-day descendants in England unravel a piece of family history.  “Family” was also the watchword for a young bride and groom, who ordered a copy of Samuel Carpenter and Hannah Hardiman’s 1684 marriage certificate from HSP’s Isaac Cooper Jones collection of marriage certificates.  Descendants of Samuel and Hannah, the couple plans to display the certificate at their wedding and have their relatives sign it, just as the Carpenter and Hardiman families did in 1684.  It is these connections between past and present that make working at HSP so rewarding and make R&R a great opportunity to share our collections with patrons far and wide.

Marriage certificate of Samuel Carpenter and Hannah Hardiman

Interested in purchasing high-quality digital scans of HSP materials? Contact us at or visit for more information on our Rights and Reproductions service.  You can also view already-digitized materials online in HSP’s Digital Library.

Dad humor of the early 1900’s

Phase two of HSP’s Digital Center for Americana Project is well underway. This project has the same broad goals of processing and creating digital access to collections as the pilot phase did, but this time around the focus is on ethnic history collections rather than the Civil War. The collections in DCA2 all come from families and individuals who were immigrants to the Philadelphia area, or groups which documented the lives of those immigrant families and communities. These collections span over 300 years (from the late 1600’s to the early 2000’s) and represent people and families from Germany, Sweden, France, Japan, Korea, Greece, Italy, and various nations in South Asia, Africa, the Middle East. All of these collections are receiving some kind of digitization and will be available for you to access via HSP’s digital library in the future. Collections will either be entirely digitized or we will digitize a selection of images that best represent the content of the collection.

One of the first collections to be processed was also one of the most charming I’ve ever seen. Charles A. Quinn was a postal worker in Philadelphia in the early 20th century who kept himself busy in his off hours by photographing his growing family, developing the photographs himself, placing them in an album, writing captions for every photograph, and hand painting decorations for the album pages.

Charles A. Quinn family album

Charles Quinn and Ann Weber's courtship

The album begins during the courtship and engagement of Charles and his wife, Ann Weber, and documents his family throughout the growth of their two daughters. By the end of the album, the youngest Quinn daughter is graduating from secondary school, quite the sophisticated young lady.

Charles A. Quinn family album

Now comes the baby. "Here I is -- Mother!"

But it isn’t the breadth of the album that I find so appealing – it’s how much of Charles Quinn’s personality comes through in the photographs, decorations, and captions. This was a man who adored his wife and children, and demonstrated it by spending years carefully creating a representation of their happy life together. You can see his affection in captions like the one under a photograph of his betrothed, who coyly poses for him, hand under her chin: “Here we have the lady in a likely pose.” Or in shots of his infant daughter laughing for the camera: “Here I is — Mother!” and “Is dinner ready, Muvver?” Or in a photo of his daughter with her schoolmates on their graduation from secondary school: “Surely no school worries here!”

Charles A. Quinn family album

School days

This is corny, dad humor circa 1910, which I’m inclined to think (after processing this collection) is the best kind.

(The entire album is not yet digitized as of the date of this post, but some images are available via HSP’s Digital Library. When digitization is completed, the entire album will be accessible by following the same link. View the finding aid for this collection here.)

These American Lives

With part two of the Digital Center for Americana project underway, collections coming up the digital library pipeline include family album watercolors and oral history sound recordings that provide unique glimpses into Philadelphia family life, as well as how family life changes when individuals leave their country of origin for Philadelphia.

Najma Davis shares her first impressions of America.

Given the role that genealogy plays here at HSP, family history and ethnic heritage are especially fitting highlights, as they also tap into the question of how genealogy exists for recent immigrants and those that have been displaced against their will. Indeed, not all materials are delightful or even pleasant.

Among the massive linear span of the Chew family papers, three boxes in the collection document plantation activities and slavery in the North. Folders filled with bills, lists, and receipts seem dull and repetitive until they build context for human holdings. In the document below, the sale of “a Negro girl named Sarah” is chillingly ordinary.

The going rate in 1754? Thirty-two pounds and ten shillings. And the cost for impertinence? 15, 25 strokes, likely depending on the whims of your overseer.

Not all of the settlers or immigrants who arrived in America came for or received a better life. The stories in these collections include those openly shared as well as those, if we’re lucky, will be extracted by dedicated researchers. Some of them may evoke familiar themes, but history is always best when tangible. This project reminds us that each story comes with a name attached.

Telecommuting History

Archives, like nearly all fields, are being forced to do more with less.  Coupled with the denizens of the internet growing desire for more content at a more rapid pace and we have quite the dilemma.  Luckily, there are still a few tricks about that can help to lessen both of these trials plaguing cultural institutions.  The most recent of which I was able to experiment with was the usage of long-distance interns.

This past spring semester I worked with professor Jeff Cohen of Bryn Mawr’s Growth and Structure of Cities program and two of his students, Ariel Rosenstock and Cindy Spalding, on a project utilizing HSP’s David J. Kennedy Watercolors collection and our recently launched digital library.  The idea behind the project was to have Ariel and Cindy further describe Kennedy’s watercolors based on their digital surrogates, which were digitized in toto as part of the Digital Center for American project, and add in georeferencing information so patrons of the digital library could compare the view and surrounding location Kennedy painted to that of contemporary times.  You can see an example of this completed work in the item level record for “Friends Meetinghouse after Breton;” one of several records that Ariel and Cindy were able to update for this project.

One of the enhanced record from this project

Traditionally such a task could only have been completed by having the interns work on site.  Now, however, the internet and tools that run either on the web or that connect to a centralized database make the necessity of coming into the archives to do your work a thing of the past!  When the Kennedy watercolors were digitized they were added to our digital library with only a minimal amount of description; title, artist, call and collection numbers, and dates.  Once the materials were digitized and online I was able to work with Ariel and Cindy to train them in using our digital asset management system, Collective Access, and start filling in additional information and corrections; inscriptions, attributions, controlled subject terms, wikipedia linking and the geo-locating information to name a few.

One of the screens our distance-interns saw while enhancing records

Though the project was a success, it was not without its hiccups.  Cindy notes some of the issues she experienced:

…We encountered problems due to ongoing work on the database and programming of the software and security, which at times prevented our being able to login, to sort the images according to call #, and at one point we lost the ability to see the inscriptions that had been transcribed from the images…We were also slowed by the research to geo-locate the 19th century images, which in many cases did not correspond easily to a 21st century map. To do this research we used 19th century maps on the website. I also utilized other online tools, such as historic Philadelphia directories available from and other sources…These searches helped me to pin down locations that were sometimes erroneously located by Kennedy, or were nebulously described in the inscriptions…

Additionally, the work we had anticipated as the most time consuming for  Ariel and Cindy was not nearly as lengthy as other aspects of the project :

Initially, we were concerned that the subject tagging would take extra time to add, but that proved not to be the case…The geo-locating and other research were the most time-consuming aspects of the project. I spent on average 15 to 20 minutes to complete the work on one image, but in a few instances, it took up to 1 hour.

Overall, however, we were all pleased with the results and the experience:

Cindy: I think the pay-off was a high level of correctness and completeness of information for each image, and it was this work that was the most rewarding part of the project… On the whole, I think this was a rewarding project that helped us to hone our research skills, and also let us be involved in the process of bringing an important part of Philadelphia history to online researchers.

Ariel: The internship has been a wonderful learning experience— providing an opportunity for me to implement and expand my academic knowledge, while gaining a critical introduction to the “digital humanities”.  In particular, it exposed me to the digital technology methods that have become crucial today in capturing, cataloguing, and sharing our historical, cultural, and artistic memory. The flexibility in having a remote internship was convenient and unique.

There are refinements to be made to distance internships just as there are with any new workflow or methodology.  However, I feel the potential pay off with such work to be great.  Both for the students in the many online-only archives programs who need experience, and the archival institutions who would love to enhance their collections through improved metadata and error correction.   Hopefully, following the creation of some video tutorials to make training easier, I will be able to continue projects such as the one with Ariel, Cindy and Professor Cohen and eventually expand it to other software we use, such as Archivists’ Toolkit, which could also be worked with in such a manner.

The Path to the Civil War

Though I’m now working with more recent materials, I couldn’t resist one last Civil War-related post as we approach the 150th anniversary of the war.

Much attention will be placed on the anniversary of the start of the war: April 12, 1861, the date that Confederates opened fire on the federal Fort Sumter in South Carolina. But obviously tensions had been rising for years before that final breaking point.

South Carolina had seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860, and six more states followed before President Abraham Lincoln took office in March 1861. All of that (and much more!) happened on the watch of Lincoln’s predecessor: President James Buchanan.

Buchanan’s papers are here at HSP (collection 91), and I had a chance to work with them as my first project with the Digital Center for Americana pilot project.

The collection spans the entirety of Buchanan’s lengthy legal, political and diplomatic career, including his service as Pennsylvania assemblyman, U.S. representative, minister to Russia, U.S. senator, secretary of state, envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain, and finally president of the United States.

I’d guess that those last few months of his political career were among the most stressful.

Some evidence of the turmoil is obvious in the collection, like these notes Buchanan took listing each state’s secession:

Buchanan's notes on secession

On the reverse, Buchanan added one more state that seceded after he left office: Arkansas.

But other evidence is more personal.

For instance, Buchanan saved a copy of a personal letter that he wrote to Varina Davis in January 1861. Varina’s husband was a U.S. senator from Mississippi, and the family left Washington after his state seceded. (Of course, soon after, her husband Jefferson became president of the new Confederate States of America.)

Washington 20 January 1861

My dear Madam,

I deeply regret that the servant yesterday on account of the session of the Cabinet, did not inform me that you had come to bid me farewell. Had I been aware of your presence nothing should have prevented me from seeing you. I have [kept?] many agreeable hours in your society & cherish for you the warmest and most respectful regard. The troubles of these unfortunate times may prevent us from meeting again; but wherever your lot may be cast I shall ever feel a deep interest in your prosperity and happiness.

From your friend,

James Buchanan

Buchanan's letter to Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis

Reverse of Buchanan's letter to Davis, where he notes that it is a copy

After the end of Buchanan’s presidency, he retired to his Lancaster, PA, estate, Wheatland. “The troubles of these unfortunate times” largely fade from view in his papers. Just two letters in the collection mention the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln, including this letter written to the former president on April 15:

You can read the full finding aid for the James Buchanan papers here.

Women’s Views on the Civil War

Our processing work for the Digital Center for Americana pilot project is winding down. Over the last year, we’ve processed, conserved, described, and selectively digitized 51 collections at HSP that have ties to the Civil War.

We worked on the papers of President James Buchanan, Treasury Secretary and Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, General George G. Meade, Alexander H. Stephens (vice president of the Confederacy), and many others.

We also processed collections that provide insights into women’s views on the war, especially the Wister and Butler families papers (collection 1962) that I wrote about last month.

In that collection, researchers can learn more about what women like Fanny Kemble, Sarah Butler Wister, and Frances Butler Leigh thought about the war and its aftermath.

But the collection also offers interesting Civil War-era commentary from family friend Jeannie L. Field Musgrave.

A few of the images of Jeannie Field Musgrave saved by her friend, Sarah Butler Wister.

Jeannie was the daughter of a prominent New York Republican, David Dudley Field (1805-1894), and a lifelong friend of Sarah Butler Wister. She wrote to Sarah about her views on the war, and relayed pieces of the military and political information that her father had received through his political connections.

Jeannie also popped up elsewhere in the collection, among the papers of William Rotch Wister. She wrote to him on June 30, 1861, and included a ribbon favor she had made:

Keep the favor, my dear Mr. Wister, until you are tired of it, or of what it is intended to represent, devotion to our flag, whether you can show that devotion in the field or not. Women are so powerless in these stirring times that each one of that unhappy sex feels eager to do her little [part] toward exciting the patriotism and stimulating the efforts of those who can do anything for our country.

I am very sorry that any difficulties should have intervened to prevent your taking your troops to the war, for though I do not doubt that you will serve truly the cause of liberty wherever you may be, still I like to see all who are not tied at house by that troublesome anchor, a wife, going forth to do battle for it . . .”

The finding aid for the Wister and Butler families papers is now available online.

UPDATE: To learn more about HSP collections that provide insights into women’s lives during the Civil War, visit our online guide.