What Else I Learned from James D’Wolf’s Letters

Craig Hollander
A grayscale photo of an old portrait of James D'Wolf

James DeWolf (1764-1837). Courtesy of the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, New York Public Library, via Wikimedia Commons.

This companion piece to my JER article—“Corrupt Bargaining: Partisan Politics, the Election of 1824, and the Suppression of the African Slave Trade”—will be about paleography, which, as I define it, is the science of reading old-timey handwriting, often on deteriorating paper. Sure, I toyed with loftier ideas and sexier topics. I even drafted a few paragraphs likening my article to the first Trump impeachment—you remember, the one about quid pro quo? Yeah, it was too long ago. Maybe such a piece would have been topical had I met, like, any deadline for JER during the past couple years (sorry, Kate Tyler Wall!). Even so, I would still be doing you, my avid Panorama reader, a disservice had I not taken this opportunity to recount the most critical methodological lesson that I learned during my (way too many) years of working on this article. And here is that lesson: One’s ability to read old-timey handwriting on deteriorating paper is determined by forces—likely supernatural ones—beyond our earthly control or understanding.

As a historian, I will naturally begin in earnest with some background: The year was 2009. Beyoncé was topping the charts with her song, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” The world was emerging from the Great Recession. And I was emerging from the Johns Hopkins Library, where I had spent the past year studying for my comprehensive exams. Readjusting to the outside world, I quickly succumbed to Beyoncé’s catchy refrain and proposed to my then-girlfriend. Soon after putting a ring on it, I traveled to Rhode Island on a research expedition to follow up on a lead that I had found in the National Archives concerning the reappointment of a customs collector named Barnabas Bates, who, from what I could tell, had gotten into trouble for trying to suppress the illegal slave trade in the town of Bristol during the Monroe administration. I recall thinking that the odds of discovering any information about this 185-year-old controversy would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. To my delight, though, I found a stack of needles—dozens of sources about Bates, most of which were written by his mortal enemy, James D’Wolf.

Scholars of the slave trade are well-acquainted with D’Wolf, who was the patriarch of Rhode Island’s most notorious slave-trading family. Yet, nobody had ever delved into D’Wolf’s quest to remove Bates from office. While photographing his voluminous correspondence, I began to realize their reluctance; to the untrained eye—and back then my eye qualified as untrained—D’Wolf’s penmanship ranged from barely legible to indecipherable. His spelling was also haphazard, to say the least. A wave of self-doubt and helplessness washed over me, along with a splash of panic. I had found hundreds of potentially valuable pages, but couldn’t read them. Of course, I knew that some scholars had to take paleography classes to learn the handwriting traits for their languages and time periods. I had also heard of scholars in our own field who, with painstaking precision, had crafted alphabet ciphers to read the unique scripts of their individual subjects. However, I had neither the patience nor the inclination to create a Rosetta Stone for understanding D’Wolf’s glyphs. Instead, I tried bribing my way out of my jam, offering a steak dinner to any of my graduate school friends who would help me decipher the letters. Nobody accepted my offer, which—considering that my friends both prized and needed free protein—reflected how difficult the letters were to read. Feeling discouraged, I wondered whether I would ever be able to achieve my lifelong dream of getting paid to peruse the mail of dead people.

At this point, I would like to say that I soldiered on—that I diligently put in months of hard work studying paleography so that I could finally read D’Wolf’s correspondence and bring forth the article in the JER that you have undoubtedly read and hopefully enjoyed. Alas, we historians are supposed to tell the truth about the past, such as we understand it. And the truth is this: I set aside the letters for months. Then, very late one night, while I was visiting my fiancée in NYC, I took a break from binge-watching HBO’s Oz, turned on my computer, and scrolled through my photos of D’Wolf’s letters. To my utter surprise and amazement, I could suddenly read them. I was so surprised and amazed, in fact, that I roused my fiancée from her slumber to deliver the news. (She was both happy for me and annoyed.) The next day, I printed out the photos—there were nearly 300 them—and began writing over D’Wolf’s script in red ink. I then dictated my own mercifully legible words into MS Word using some 2009-era transcription software. Within a few weeks, I had digital copy of D’Wolf’s correspondence, which revealed his obsessive, greedy, paranoid, manipulative, and transactional behavior (hence the Trump comparison).

To this day, the effortlessness and abruptness with which I was able to read D’Wolf’s scrawl remains the strangest experience of my academic career. It was also a transformative one. From that point on, I have been able to read almost any script, regardless of how old-timey. The closest approximation to the experience would be seeing the hidden image in a Magic Eye picture; once you see such an image, it’s difficult to unsee it and you’ll always be able to repeat the technique for other Magic Eye pictures. But I didn’t squint in a peculiar manner to read these letters. I simply looked at them again. Perhaps something just clicked in my sleep-deprived, Oz-addled brain. Or maybe the ghost of Barnabas Bates magically opened my eyes so that I could expose D’Wolf’s machinations to those who would still care—that is, the loyal readership of the JER. I suppose whatever transpired will remain a mystery. I can only say for certain that I learned more from D’Wolf’s letters than the narrative in my article. Somehow, some way, I acquired a skill that I now use constantly for both my professional and personal fulfillment. As D’Wolf once remarked to his brother about their correspondence, “every little particular is very interesting to me.” And since I can now read every primary source about D’Wolf, I have learned quite enough about his conniving and vicious character to hope that is the only sentiment we will ever share.

10 October 2022

About the Author

Craig Hollander is associate professor of history at the College of New Jersey.

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