Discovering little-known facts about Richmond just got easier, thanks to a Library of Virginia Internet project.
Signs of the Times
Around 1792 a stranger from Connecticut wandered into Richmond to see a businessman named George Pickett. It's likely Pickett regretted what happened next.
Pickett owned a large mercantile business, Pickett & Pollard that dealt in Western lands. Unbeknownst to Pickett, that's exactly what the Yankee was after. Upon meeting Pickett, the stranger offered him a variety of items for trade. But Pickett refused. Then the Yankee pulled out a few casks of Madeira wine.
After tasting the wine, Pickett was impressed. He had little money, so he offered some Western lands in Ohio instead. After some bickering and negotiations, the two men made the exchange. Pickett thought he'd gotten a steal, but the stranger confessed to previously surveying the land. He said he came to Richmond for the purpose of trading for the land and wouldn't part with it for five times of what it cost him.
That land went on to become the first settlement in the Northwest Territory, and Ohio's first town, Marietta, Ohio. About 150,000 people now live in its greater metro area.
Such little-known Richmond anecdotes are among the 70,000 pages of historical reports that were recently put online by the Library of Virginia's Digital Library Program team. The work-intensive project, an effort to put historical materials on the Web, allows users to search for hidden bits of information on any Virginia topic.
When done correctly, a search can yield fascinating results. For instance, the Half-Way House, a 1760s tavern less than 10 miles south of Richmond off Route 1, was also the headquarters for the Union Army of the James during the Civil War. And it turned out to be the central point in the battle of Drewry's Bluff on May 16, 1864. The Army used the barroom as a doctor's office, and during an epidemic of malarial fever, quinine was distributed to the soldiers through one of the bottom windows.
Such information wasn't always so easily accessible.
The collection of records, known as the Virginia Historical Inventory, is the work of the Virginia Writer's Project, a program funded by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. About 220 writers were paid to search for overlooked history, specifically from the pre-1860s and Civil War era.
The writers produced 19,300 reports, which were stored in the Library of Virginia. About 20 years ago those reports were microfilmed. And in 1997, the Library received a $270,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to move the documents and photographs onto the Web.
The project wasn't easy, says Elizabeth Roderick, director of the Digital Library Program and manager of the team that made the archive possible. "I worked for a year preparing the application to request funds," Roderick recalls.
And that was just the beginning. During the next three years, Roderick's team scanned and double-checked the microfilm. In the process, they discovered new pages. They updated the inventory accordingly, and now more information than ever is available.
But researchers shouldn't rely solely on the records, Roderick cautions. Though the WPA writers produced a vast amount of work, they were not professional researchers. The accuracy and thoroughness of their reports varied depending on their capabilities. So Roderick recommends supplementing research with other authoritative sources.
As for the database, researchers should choose their keywords carefully. Typing in "Richmond," for example, brings up 1,134 hits, and only 20 can be viewed at each visit. So be specific, Roderick says.
There is little information on the decades-old project and the writers who first put the information together. The writers were paid, and their names are known, but no effort has been made to contact them. Roderick hopes that relatives or friends who knew the writers will speak up, so they may know their efforts are still valued.
The cataloged stories can also be revealing. As old as they are, we can see ourselves in them. Take the story of the Richmond Quaker, for example. He helped out a lonely actress by attending her Episcopal church with her. The writer describes the scene by saying, "the congregation's devotion was suspended and their curiosity was