by: Alysha Page
Diving Into the Archives
After a few weeks of secondary research, the next step was dive into the archival research. I knew from the beginning that there would be a scarcity of archival information when dealing with African American subjects. That reality is not negated when researching African American military personnel from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I went in understanding that if I did find specifics about the soldiers it would be from injury reports, court marshals, census records, deployment information, and similar records. It will be a process of sussing out what research avenues are useful and which should be abandoned. My hope is to least trace the movements of Company L, 24th Infantry before arrival in Skagway, Alaska in May 1899 and after they left Skagway. To do this I started researching through one of the largest record groups of the “U.S. Continental Army from 1817-1947.” I made use of The KLGO Historic Resource Study from 1970 as my primary lead to hunting down some possible useful places to look for information regarding the Company L, 24th Infantry. This portion of historic research is very much like sleuthing, real Indiana Jones meets Sherlock Holmes (minus the misogyny and destruction of artifacts).
The first step to hunting down what could possibly yield useful information was determining what department within the War Department would have information on Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. Even though the writer of the KLGO Historic Resource Study had a clear biased against the Black soldiers of Company L, the footnotes were an invaluable tool in pinpointing record groups. Using one of the citations I decided to search the NARA database for “The Department of the Columbia.” The Department of the Columbia includes territories of Washington, Idaho, and later the district of Alaska following the purchase of Alaska in 1867. I also have found sources from Camp Dyea where Captain Henry Hovey and the soldiers were stationed when they first arrived in Skagway in May of 1899. Also, Camp Skagway where they were stationed the majority of their time in Alaska from 1899- 1902. I later expanded my search to Fort Wrangel, the fort where 46 soldiers along with Lieutenant Isaac Jenks were stationed. That was a very fruitful search. The easy part is over, now the more difficult part of actually finding useful information began.
How I feel going through documents in the National Archives, D.C.
Going through archival material is my favorite part of being a historian. Having the chance to search in the National Archives (NARA) is best part of researching in D.C. Unfortunately, my first two weeks in the archives didn’t yield as much information as I would have hoped, but I did realize that I am at least searching in the right area! I was able to find some mention of Company L and some correspondence of Lieu. Isaac Jenks and Captain Hovey in a record of Monthly Returns from Dyea.
Being Realistic with Research Goals
As hopeful as I am about finding sources that speak directly to the experience of the soldiers of Company L, 24th Infantry at the National Archives, I am very aware of shortcomings of military documentation or Archival material as a whole. As was mentioned in a previous blog the lives of African Americans have been historically undervalued, therefore any documentation accumulated from our existence in the U.S. is deemed lacking intrinsic value. This is why Black families save their own records or created their own museums to preserve our stories. If I do find further correspondence in Record Group 393 it will most likely be from Captain Hovey and Lieut. Jenks. It would be a miracle to find any accounts from soldiers in NARA War Department Records. I do hope, however, to be able to trace soldiers movements through payroll reports, drills, and the like. This will help me better understand which soldiers stayed in Skagway, Alaska for the majority of the Company’s deployment and then later find out where they went after deployment.
Why, you ask? Well, if I can find where they went after they left Skagway I may be able to track down their families who may have saved their loved one’s stories through oral history or material culture (keepsakes, photos, letters, uniforms, etc.). From the records at NARA, it is my desire to get some idea of how soldiers were treated by their white counterparts. To gain a better understanding of the lives of Black military men in a predominately white environment. To further illuminate the two years spent in Skagway during this very little discussed part of American history. The War Department is a jumping off point for what I hope to be a very fruitful next five months in Washington, D.C.