WVGP presentation on Middleway Conservancy digitization project

A presentation and workshop on digitizing and maintaining papers and records from the founding of Middleway in 1795 to present times will be held on Friday, November 30. The event, a joint project by the Middleway Conservancy Association and the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission, will be at 7 p.m. in the Grace Church Parish Hall, 112 East Street, Middleway. Admission is free and refreshments will be served.

The two organizations agreed in June that the archives of the Middleway Conservancy merited scanning and adding to the county’s historic documents data-base, known as the West Virginia GeoExplorer Project. These archives include Civil War-era correspondence, Middleway Town Council minute books, and records from local businesses as well as personal papers of residents. In September a grant was received from the WV Humanities Council for the project, and the project is underway under the direction of Bill Theriault and Brad Wiles. Completion of the project’s first phase is expected to be in March 2013.

The presentation will explain how the WV GeoExplorer Project database works, what is being done to digitize Middleway Conservancy’s records, and the forms of research and educational opportunities that the Project will make possible. Brad Wiles will demonstrate the computer digitization process and the research capabilities of the Project. Members of the public are invited to add any historic documents relating to Middleway and to share their knowledge of the community’s history. The original documents are copied and returned intact to their owners. One possible use of the data is to create a virtual Historic Middleway. This would show visually how the village changed through time with maps that link to photographs, Census records, newspaper articles and the archived records. This will require considerable work on the part of the Conservancy and the WV GeoExplorer Project.

For more information about the presentation and the project contact Bill Theriault, WV GeoExplorer Project (wmtheriault@myactv.net). For more information about the Middleway Conservancy Association, contact Peter Fricke (peter.fricke@frontiernet.net).

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Full Metal Jousting in Jefferson County?

Have you watched ” Full Metal Jousting” on the History Channel? According to their website:

“A maverick group of fighters competes for top honors in the most dangerous competition in history. Far from the contrivances of the Renaissance Fair, this is authentic, full-contact jousting, with two competitors on horses charging towards each other at 30 miles an hour. Gone is the traditional armor, replaced by state-of-the-art protective gear. Each week’s episode features full-contact trials and preparations that will ultimately determine the champion-king of the joust.”

Surely, we never had anything like that in Jefferson County, West Virginia? Well, to paraphrase one of our recent Presidents, it depends on how you define the word “jousting.”

Before the Civil War, a gentler form of jousting, known as “Ring Tournaments,” was very popular among the social elite of the area.  In these competitions, “knights” on horseback charged at full-gallop over a course toward suspended rings. Using a long, fine-tipped lance, the competitors had a limited time to complete the course and “spear” the rings. If you missed a ring, you were out. During each phase of the competition, the rings got smaller and the competitors fewer, until only one was left.

During the Civil War, Confederate cavalrymen put their jousting and foxhunting skills to good use, often out maneuvering their Yankee competitors, who lacked the Southerners’ decades of practice and  whose horses were often reluctant to jump fences. Armed with pistols and sabers, these competitors were certainly involved in “full metal jousting.” In this case, the winner usually got to fight another day and the loser was dead or in prison.

After the war, the ring tournaments reappeared, often with less pomp than the antebellum competitions. These contests sometimes became a friendly way for northerners and southerners to compete without killing each other.

To read accounts of local ring tournaments, type “tournament” in the Text field of the Search Bibliography function on the West Virginia GeoExplorer website. You will find more that fifty sources, many of them fully transcribed. For newspaper articles appearing before 1870, you can also read the original newspapers by going to Browse Resources | Newspapers and clicking the link to a specific issue.

(Post by Dr. William Theriault)

First-hand account of Jackson’s Valley Campaign

June of 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, a succession of maneuvers and battles occurring throughout Virginia that temporarily turned the tide of the Civil War in the Confederacy’s favor and secured Jackson’s legendary status. As in many battles of the war, Jefferson County played a key role in the Valley Campaigns by virtue of its location. Situated on the lower (northern) tip of the Valley at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Jefferson County was part of a strategic buffer area between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains stretching southwest to Rockbridge County.

In late March 1862, Union forces mobilized at Harpers Ferry and began moving up the Valley toward Winchester, initially defeating Jackson at Kernstown. However, Jackson’s audacity in battle created such a stir that Union leadership rearranged their strategic approach to the defense of Washington D.C. and their planned assault on the Confederate capital city of Richmond.  Control over the Valley’s agricultural assets and transportation routes resulted in a state of constant conflict throughout the war, but Jackson’s campaign stands out for its impressive string of victories after Kernstown – his only loss during the entire war.

One of the many volumes in the West Virginia GeoExplorer Project book collection is Four Years in the Saddle, a “diary of recollection” by Col. Harry Gilmor (1866) which includes a section on his activities serving under Jackson during the Valley Campaign.  Gilmor casts himself as a dashing and heroic figure, relating anecdotes about his fighting and shooting prowess and seeming to relish the prospect of engaging the enemy.  However, his reverence for Jackson is clear; in one passage Gilmor describes a religious service given by Jackson’s adjutant Robert L. Dabney the morning after the Battle of McDowell:

I watched him closely, and saw not a muscle change during the whole service. The sturdy soldiers, browned in many a hard-fought field, were lying around on bunches of hay, taken from the stacks nearby; and although an incessant skirmish fire was going on, all listened attentively, with every eye fastened upon the great chief. Few have I ever seen with such unflinching nerve, and it was his iron will that won for us many a stubborn fight… Fear had no lodgment in that man’s breast.

Other books, articles, and printed contemporary resources can be found on the West Virginia GeoExplorer website in this sample listing or by searching the database.

Harpers Ferry NHP Announces Partnership with WV GeoExplorer

From a National Park Service News Release (June 1, 2012):

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Harpers Ferry Historical Association are formalizing a partnership with the West Virginia GeoExplorer Project.  The park is digitizing some microfilmed newspapers with funding provided by the association.  Many of these digitized collections are historic Virginia, now West Virginia, newspapers that are of interest to researchers and are not readily available in digital format.  These microfilmed papers are part of the non-circulating library located at the park and managed by the park’s Museum Management Program.  This new partnership will allow the park to have a location to post these valuable research tools for easy access.

The GeoExplorer Project created an innovative geographically-based web resource for exploring the history, culture, and architecture of West Virginia. Jefferson County has served as the starting point for project efforts, which will later be expanded to encompass the rest of the state.

“I am excited to be able to enter into this partnership,” says the park Museum Curator Michael Hosking. “We have many resources at the park including the museum collection and the park library and a small staff dedicated to preserving and providing access to it.  This partnership will enable us to have the digitization funded through a grant by our non-profit Historical Association and then utilize the volunteers and infrastructure of the West Virginia GeoExplorer Project to make these digital files available to anybody with interest on their website.”

As part of this partnership, the GeoExplorer Project is actively looking for other copies of the Harpers Ferry Free Press, the Constitutionalist, the Spirit of Jefferson, and the Virginia Free Press to help fill in missing, damaged, or poorly microfilmed copies, making a complete set of these newspapers.  They will eventually transcribe and link the original scans to these transcriptions for anybody to access through the web.

“This is a win-win situation for everybody” Hosking says, “the Association is fulfilling its mission by helping make these resources available to the public, the park is able to get these resources out of the drawers and make them readily available for all that are interested without appointments or formal requests, and the GeoExplorer Project is increasing their database of Jefferson County related documentation for its other partners.”

For additional information on the park and research policy please visit the park website at http://www.nps.gov/hafe and go to the collections page.  For more information about the Harpers Ferry Historical Association and their mission please visit http://www.harpersferryhistory.org.

Great Balloon Ascension at Shannondale Springs

In antebellum Jefferson County, the months of July through September were known as the “sickly season,” when diseases like cholera, dysentery, and scarlet fever were most prevalent. The causes and cures for these ailments were not discovered until after the Civil War, but many city dwellers believed such scourges could be avoided by imbibing the mineral waters available at the Shannondale Springs resort in Jefferson County, Virginia.

The summer of 1853 was worse than usual, and attendance at Shannondale Springs soared. For many who resided there for the season, the Springs social amenities were just as important as its medicinal benefits. Hunting and fishing, musical performances, and fancy dress balls were just a few of the distractions available for those who came to take the cure. That summer they were to be treated to something special — a balloon ascension by “Mr. JOHN WISE, one among the greatest aeronauts that any
country has yet furnished….”

This time the advertising copywriter was not exaggerating, for John Wise was truly recognized as the premier balloonist in the United States at the time.
Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1808 to a working class family, John Wise became interested in ballooning as a teenager, and constructed his first balloon at age 27. Ballooning was an expensive and dangerous profession, and Wise financed his passion by performing at county fairs and special events, such as the one scheduled for Shannondale Springs.

More than just an entertainer, Wise used these events to conduct scientific experiments on balloon flight. In 1838, he developed a balloon that functioned as parachute if punctured, and his design saved his life the same year when the balloon he was flying ruptured at 13,000 feet. Wise also pioneered the use of a drag line to stabilize the balloon in flight and the use of a rip panel to release gas.

In the summer of 1853, Wise was accumulating the money and experience needed for his most spectacular project. The Spirit of Jefferson noted that he “… contemplates a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in a Balloon, and should his efforts at Shannondale Springs, on the latter part of this month be crowned with success, who can say that he will not receive from the county of Jefferson, the necessary impetus to enable him to triumph over all his former difficulties. He has made 159 ascensions, and we feel very confident his ascension from Shannondale may now be set down at the 160th.”

The date for the flight from Shannondale was set for September 1, and Wise spent much of August in Baltimore, where he constructed a balloon ” of the largest class, containing upwards of five hundred yards of silk.” His 17-year-old son, Charles, had been born into ballooning and assisted his father at many of these events. For the Shannondale flight, John Wise had planned to follow standard procedure, which was to ascend with one or more prominent companions amidst flags and fanfare, release the tether that anchored
them to the ground, drift off a few miles, and descend. Then he would return to the launch site and regale spectators with his exploits.

But on this particular day his plans changed, for he let his son make his first solo balloon flight. Charlie’s account (page 2, column 2) of his voyage appeared in the next issues of the Spirit of Jefferson and Virginia Free Press along with his father’s reason for his decision:

To the Editor of the Spirit of Jefferson:
Having made arrangements with Capt. G.W. SAPPINGTON, to make a Balloon ascension from the Springs on the 1st day of Sept., it was generally understood that I would ascend myself, and such was originally my intention; but my son CHARLES, aged 17 years last June, who has accompanied me three different times on aerial excursions,
being very solicitous to make the voyage by himself, and the day being very calm, I gave
him the Balloon and started him off alone.
He made a beautiful ascent — satisfactory to every person assembled at Shannondale,
and he gives you the history of his voyage in his own words. I would embrace this favorable opportunity of saying that I have been pleased — nay delighted, with every living soul I came in contact with since sojourning at the Springs, and in all my dealings with Capt. G.W. Sappington, proprietor of Shannondale, I found him a gentleman of the true Virginia stamp. He provided for the occasion on a liberal and expensive scale — determined to make every one comfortable and happy within the circle of his sphere, to the fact of which a host of visiters will bear honorable testimony, and will, I am satisfied, with myself, always recur to Shannondale with pleasant emotions.
JOHN WISE.

John Wise’s plans for transatlantic flight crashed in 1857 along with the balloon he was building. However, in August 1859 he made the first airmail delivery in the U.S. from Lafayette, Indiana to Crawfordsville, Indiana. Both John and Charles Wise joined the balloon corps during the Civil War, where the father explored uses of balloons for map making and aerial surveillance. John Wise’s career came to a dramatic end on September 28, 1879, when the balloon he was manning disappeared in high winds over Lake Michigan. The body of his companion, George Burr, was recovered, but John Wise and his balloon were never seen again.

You can follow Charles Wise’s balloon journey in S. Howell Brown’s 1852 map of Jefferson County, available at The West Virginia GeoExplorer Project main website. Ehud Turner’s property is located in the upper right portion of the map. Original sources and photographs related to Shannondale Springs can be viewed by searching the database on the same website.

(This post is a shortened version of an article written by Dr. William Theriault)

WV GeoExplorer at the APUS Eastern Panhandle Colloquium

On March 10, 2012, WV GeoExplorer Project Director William Theriault lead a panel discussion at American Public University System’s Colloquium on the History, Identity, and Heritage of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. You can view the discussion below. APUS University Archives has also created a Panhandle research and history resource on their Campus Guide Website.

Blogging the WV GeoExplorer Project

Welcome to the West Virginia GeoExplorer Project Blog – a companion to the recently launched GIS-based resource on West Virginia history.  Information on the project can be found on the WV GeoExplorer homepage and the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission website.

The purpose of this blog is to provide the following:

1. News and updates on the project, including additions to the existing stores of data, records, and publications, as well as enhancements to search functionality and site tools.

2. Selections from the materials contained within the project databases to help spark and sustain dialogue between contributors, researchers, project administrators and others interested in the history, culture, and geography of West Virginia.

3. A forum for volunteer support, outreach, and recruitment since the project is non-profit and entirely dependent on the work and expertise of volunteers.

In other words, this blog is part showcase and part tool – designed to build a community of practice and help inform the project as it continues to evolve.

Check back for updates on the WV GeoExplorer Project and please feel free to join in on the conversation.