Volume 4 • Issue 2 2006 fall Home
Saving America's Treasures ... One Document at a Time
Photo of pieces of tea stained pages with writing on them
Account of Naval Battle at Red Bank on the Delaware River, 1776
In February 2005, the State Archives commenced a three-year project—The American Revolution in New Jersey: Preserving our Documentary Heritage—to conserve some of the state’s most significant documents concerning New Jersey's pivotal role in the national struggle for independence. Nearly $700,000 has been dedicated for the repair of a large body of unique, eighteenth-century manuscripts, through a grant from Save America's Treasures—a public-private partnership of the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation—and matched dollar-for-dollar by the New Jersey Public Records Preservation Fund.

The Revolutionary War collections are among the State Archives’ top conservation priorities, given ongoing historical and genealogical interest in the American Revolution, the age of the records, and the dire need for stabilization.  As the nation celebrates the 225th anniversary of the War for Independence, we celebrate New Jersey’s preservation of our priceless documentary heritage. The State Archives’ proposal received a top score from Save America’s Treasures, making it not just a New Jersey priority, but also a national priority for archival conservation.

The project involves professional conservation treatment of over 5,200 leaves of war-period documents. Chosen both because of their poor physical condition and importance of informational content, these manuscripts represent only six percent of the State Archives’ holdings of wartime records. Collectively, they describe New Jersey’s revolutionary activities from several perspectives. Militia reports and communications document the progress of the war, while quartermaster general’s papers demonstrate how the troops were supplied and supported. Court minutes, oaths of allegiance and records of the Council of Safety—a body created to promote loyalty to the patriot cause and punish collaboration with the enemy—reveal the social and political struggles within New Jersey’s population. Other manuscripts describe the personal and economic losses of New Jersey’s citizens, and legislative and judicial efforts to deal with the many challenges faced by state and local government.

The desperate need for treatment of these records is quite evident from the document pictured in this article. Found in the commissary general’s records, the document is fragmented, stained, and embrittled from the inherent acidity of the paper, and the damage is exacerbated by the effects of adhesive tape. Without conservation, this eyewitness account of a naval battle in the Delaware River would soon be lost to historians. But despite the poor condition of the paper, the words written upon it still breathe life into an event 230 years ago: “the galleys drew up very Close to the Ships and a Smart dreadful firing there was such as my heart and eyes Recoild.” The writer continues, “who Can behold this unnatural Scene but with horror, oh when where and how will this unhappy Contest End.”

Far beyond paper conservation, the Save America’s Treasures project will aid historical research on the American Revolution in New Jersey. After treatment, it will be possible for the State Archives to improve public access to these collections through microfilming and scanning, exhibits and website presentations. The project will expand opportunities for a wider community of scholars, genealogists, teachers and students to use these materials than ever before.

The project has also strengthened the State Archives’ overall collection management and conservation programs. To plan and monitor the complicated work involved in treating thousands of manuscripts, the State Archives staff has developed new systems to review and select documents for treatment, track them as they are conserved, and evaluate the results. The new procedures and databases will serve as models for future conservation planning and implementation.

State Archives Collection Manager Ellen R. Callahan administers The American Revolution in New Jersey: Preserving our Documentary Heritage with assistance from collection management staff, under the direction of Joseph R. Klett, Chief of Archives. The project was recently featured in Save America’s Treasures: Preserving the Legacy of our National Experience—a published report of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities—and at the Fall 2006 Meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference in Morristown. For more information, please visit http://www.njarchives.org/links/sat.html.