Our Own Oddities

Sometimes researchers find documents that are fascinating but do not fit within the relevant topic of research. Similarly, in writing abstracts, I sometimes found unique images which have no overarching connection to any themes for articles.  Here, however are some of these documents.  But beware: they lead you down the rabbit hole into warrens far from your stated goals!

For example, the traditional surveys and reports can, at times, become a lobbying tool, rather than a factual one.  In a seemingly standard report of a survey to establish a railroad from Portland, Me. to Lake Champlain, (LLMC #41518), civil engineer William L. Dearborn digressed to discuss the economic growth of Great Britain and France.  He noted that the prosperity of Great Britain was due in large part to the construction of roads since the Revolutionary War, and contrasted its earlier dependence on foreign ships and imports to the current situation in 1840.  Likewise, France had also expanded its internal improvements since the reign of Louis XIV, in order to meet the commercial expansion of its “long rival Kingdom on the other side of the channel” (p. 30 of the report).  The author then went on to effectively chide Maine for not expanding in light of the strides made in both countries, as well as those by other states and cities in the United States.  This report not only presented the facts, but persuasively argued for Maine to join the economic expansion.

Sometimes the document is so brief but intriguing that the reader tries to investigate to ferret out more details.  Take, for example, LLMC #42167, a congratulatory note following the undated marriage of Maria Antonia de la Guerra and Cesareo LaTaillade.  So who was this couple? Why was this announcement preserved at the University of California Library at Berkeley?  Thanks to Wikipedia (after checking variations of names), some information was located.  Cesario Armand Lataillade (1819–1849) was a French trader who arrived in Santa Barbara in 1841. In 1845 he married Antonia María de la Guerra (1827–), the fourth and youngest daughter of José de la Guerra y Noriega, who was an early settler in California.  He was granted Rancho Cuyamo (and obtained yet another section of it), all in Santa Barbara; his widow and children were allowed to keep these land grants after the cession of California to the United States.  While none of this information is necessarily part of the original document, curiosity led to a better understanding of why this wedding announcement was significant.  

However, the actual reason for its preservation might be found in the sender’s signature: “D[on] Guadalupe Vallejo y Señora.”  Vallejo was a California general, statesman and public figure before and after the transition of California from a territory of Mexico to part of the United States.  His importance resulted in the city of Vallejo being named after him. Ultimately, this very small congratulatory note provided interest in two historical figures.

In other instances, the seemingly insignificant part of a standard report may the most interesting.  In LLMC #00736t, an Arizona Board of Education record book from 1879-1887 contained numerous manuscript policies and general material regarding education.  However, nestled within the rather dry discussions and decisions regarding education in Arizona were several tests for teacher applicants.  These graded questions were provided to County Boards to determine the best candidates.  One standardized test included a grammar question such as “Pluralize: Larynx, Madam, Billet-doux, Abc, Formula;” and a mathematical question which required the applicant to “reduce to the simplest form the following: 3/4 divided by 4/3 x11/2 -1/9  ÷ .6.” Although undoubtedly most researchers on this site could ace the history questions,[1]  some of the other teacher applicant questions might prove challenging.  Happily, this researcher did not have to work through “What is the value in paper money, of 6 months interest on a $300 bond, the interest payable in gold at 6 per cent per year, and the premium on gold at 12 per cent?” in order to obtain this position!

The uncharacteristic behavior of a group of people can also draw one’s attention.  In LLMC #00450t, a series of reports detained the massacre of 120 people from Arkansas at Mountain Meadows, in Utah Territory, in September 1857, and the fate of seventeen surviving children, orphaned in the massacre.  The reports were printed in 1860, which was submitted to the governor of Arkansas, and concluded that Mormons, with assistance from Indians, were responsible for killing these people who were on their way to California.  One report indicated that near some of the burial sites was a cross with the inscription, “Vengeance is Mine: I will repay Saith the Lord.”  Whether the Mormons were moved by fear or pending war hysteria in the Utah Territory, additional research indicated that only one person was convicted and executed for this atrocity.  It appears that vengeance did not occur through the criminal justice system. 

However, sometimes the justice system had its own odd moments.  For example, LLMC #42299 contained sixteen documents regarding the 1815 case of the United States v. Major General Andrew Jackson.  On December 16, 1814, Jackson declared martial law, after the capture of New Orleans in the War of 1812.  A local judge attempted to intervene over the controversy of military law, was arrested and banished from the military jurisdiction.  However, following the lifting of martial law, after Jackson heard of the official end of the war, the judge issued a summons for contempt and ultimately fined Jackson $1,000.  Despite the support of fellow officers regarding his decisions and actions, Jackson paid the fine.  Apparently, in this instance the judge had his vengeance. 

Sometimes a minor section of a document may draw one’s interest.  For example, the Rocky Mountain News (LLMC #00866t), Colorado's oldest newspaper, contained an interesting political notice.  While the July 2, 1864 edition had a plethora of advertisements and notices, a modest campaign advertisement for Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson stood out for both its simplicity and historical content.  Placed on the second page between the newspaper’s banner and slogan for freedom and the governor’s notice for a constitutional convention, were the simple words: “For President, Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois. For Vice President, Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee.”  The sheer simplicity makes it an oddity particularly when compared with today’s political commercials and signs.

Finally, some images remain forever shrouded in mystery, never to be solved.  For example, the Kentucky Gazette, January 3, 10, and 17, 1789 editions (LLMC #42227), offered a $10 reward for the return of a deserter named Michael Burk who belonged to the 1st United States Regiment.  As reported by Lt. William Kersey, Burk apparently left his regiment at Limestone on December 13, 1788 and the notice of the reward was prepared the following day.  Running only three weeks, there was no further information regarding him nor the reward after the January 17, 1889 edition.  Why did this five feet, eight inches, twenty-seven year old man leave the army?  Did someone claim the reward? Did he escape home? Did he regret his decision and return? Given that this reward amounted to almost $300[2] plus the cost of this notice, was he important, or was this standard for deserters?  However, a mystery will remain, despite any supposition as to Burk’s fate. 

These examples are merely a small sample of the interesting details of events and people in the Early State Records collection.  Peruse a sample to see if you can find a historical gem which takes you from your day-to-day research to the land of oddities!

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here* as well as a grant award from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).  LLMC is digitizing 2000+ reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 48 states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many hidden documents, such as the manuscripts, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 


[1] For example, a “Under what government were the following States first settled: Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, California, and Texas?” “

[2] https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1789?amount=10